We spoke to David Walker, write over at SB Nation's Rufus on Fire, about tonight's game in Charlotte against the Bobcats.
Here's what he had to say:
Al Jefferson has been playing really well as of late, what would this be attributed to more than anything?
I think more than anything, and not to get too technical but, he's a beast. When the Bobcats signed Jefferson last summer there were those that didn't like it because he would make them too good (HAHAHAHAHAAA) and those that thought he would bring in about 18 and 12, be pretty horrible on defense and a black hole on offense.
There weren't many who thought he would go on the tear he has, score more than 20 in 32 games (so far), look pretty unstoppable most nights, AND at least contribute to one of the better defenses in the league. And the fact that he and Josh McRoberts have been basically holding down the front court on that much improved defense is a tribute to what head coach Steve Clifford and staff have been able to do in Charlotte.
The turnaround they've made with this team's defense is nothing short of miraculous. It's the identity of this team and the biggest reason the Bobcats are making a charge for a playoff spot. But back to Jefferson, once he recovered from that early season injury and the team got used to playing together they really haven't looked back. Kemba Walker and Jefferson have developed a nice two-man game, and McRoberts is probably the team's second best creator and he's helped give Jefferson room to operate.
The addition of shooters like Gary Neal, but also Anthony Tolliver and Chris Douglas-Roberts have also helped when they play with Jefferson. He's just worked very hard all year and been incredibly consistent since right before the All-Star break. A lot of Bobcats fans are still pointing to that as a slight, being left off the squad, but really his run started maybe a week or two too late to gain a lot of traction. Still, Jefferson has been worth every penny.
Speaking of former Wolves, granted it's a small sample size, what differences are you seeing between Ramon Sessions and Luke Ridnour?
Sessions did a lot for this team but I think Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour combine to replace what the Bobcats were getting from him, and an upgrade in shooting with Neal. Sessions was great at attacking the rim and getting to the foul line, his outside shooting wasn't as big of a threat and the Bobcats have needed outside shooting all season.
So the trade was a good especially considering the fact they could also bring Ridnour into the fold. Point guard is such a difficult position, so I think it is going to take Ridnour a week or two more to really get into a groove but he's been fine so far. Manning that second unit now just means not taking any huge risks and hitting an open shot or two when it's there.
Losing Sessions meant losing that backup point guard, so adding the shooting from Neal and the talent at one with Ridnour was a good gamble for Charlotte. I don't think they're asking Ridnour to do nearly as much as they asked of Sessions and that's probably wise, and a good thing they don't have to.
Of the Bobcats' young core (Kemba, Jefferson, Henderson, MKG), is there a piece that you expect to see gone sooner rather than later? With that, what type of move would you expect to see?
Well, Henderson tested the open market last summer and didn't have many suitors. The Bobcats got a pretty great deal in retaining him for just six million dollars a year. I think Kemba is their guy at the point and Jefferson has certainly cemented his status for as long as he wants, and his deal has a third year player option.
MKG has been the target for so many Bobcat fans and observers, some going as far as to call him a bust which seems wrong to me. The Bobcats are a markedly better defensive team with MKG on the floor, and Clifford has gone out of his way to recognize his contributions in that capacity. He seems like a Clifford guy, especially with the team structured as it is so I don't think they will be giving up on him.
Still, everyone would like to see him improve the shooting and I know that will be the main focus for off season workouts. Back to Henderson, he hasn't been as consistent with the jumper as you would probably like your starting shooting guard to be. So that seems to be position of most fluidity. Not to mention the surprisingly effective play of Douglas-Roberts. Who knows what's real in the swarm of trade deadline rumors, but salary wise the Bobcats don't have any more horrible guys on the books and they seem to like their young core.
I haven't seen much of Cody Zeller this year, and his numbers are fairly underwhelming. What's the opinion on him thus far?
Before the All-Star break it was pretty bleak, and honestly just looking at the stats it's probably not much better to the naked eye. But to the fully clothed eye Zeller has been a completely different player for Charlotte. His assertiveness, confidence and aggression are much more apparent and he's still hustling for loose balls and rebounds. The biggest challenge for Zeller from day one has been holding his ground.
Clifford spoke to the fact that his core strength had to improve and he had to get physically capable of playing more than 16 minutes a night. His stats are up across the board including upping his offensive rating from 95.5 pre All-Star to 103.3 post. His per game averages are still not going to blow you away, but he's becoming an actual contributing NBA player.
High praise for the fourth overall pick? Hardly, but having watched him from day one the sudden improvement in just appearance on the court and how he is playing has been astounding. Chris Barnewall had a great piece on our site about his improvement this week that deep dives into Zeller's jump.
The Cats are the 7 seed in the East with a pretty comfortable lead over 8th place Atlanta. Simply put, how does it feel?
With that, how does Charlotte's schedule look in the last few weeks?
Of the last 17 games for the Bobcats nine of them are at home, and only six are against teams over .500. so the home stretch is pretty favorable for Charlotte. Of the games against winning teams, Houston and Portland are both at home and the only Western teams they face the rest of the way. Charlotte plays Brooklyn, Washington, and Atlanta twice still so those games will be huge for playoffs and potential seeding.
The regular season finale is against the Bulls, because of course it is, but you can't ask for a much more favorable way to end the season. Throw in games against Philadelphia, Boston, Orlando, Cleveland and Milwaukee and for a team the NBA blessed with the most back-to-backs in the league again, I'm sure this upcoming schedule is a welcome sight. I think it's going to be tough to catch the Nets, because that team is playing very well right now, but this week's game against Washington has to make Charlotte feel as if it can make some moves if that play continues.