The term “optional September workout,” in NBA-speak, essentially means the following:
If you’re playing on an unguaranteed contract, you better be there every session. If your contract is guaranteed, show up whenever you feel the urge.
That’s not how it’s worked with the Charlotte Bobcats this month. Thursday morning 15 or so players were in the practice gym doing 3-on-3 drills with the new coaching staff.
Center Al Jefferson, the most significant off-season acquisition, says he’s never seen anything like this in nine previous NBA seasons.
“A lot of veterans might choose not to, but they’re here. We’re getting together and getting to know one another,” Jefferson said.
“I told Kemba (Walker) when I first signed that I’m not coming here to lose. I’m coming here to turn things around,” Jefferson added. “I think (the seriousness of purpose) started with me. If I’m here in September, everyone should be. If Ben Gordon is here, same thing. If Brendan Haywood, a guy who already won a championship (with the Dallas Mavericks) is here, everybody should be here. That’s the way we look at it.”
New coach Steve Clifford was taken aback by how strong attendance has been during these voluntary get-togethers. Much of that was Walker’s doing; as this team’s starting point guard and one of the captains last season, Walker became the driving force in encouraging teammates to be in Charlotte all of September.
“Basketball is all about chemistry. I asked (Clifford) to put together a schedule and I’d do my best to get guys to show up. There wasn’t the slightest hesitation; they’re down with it about coming,” Walker said.
“We have a whole new coaching staff and it’s important we get in sync with those guys. This month will help a whole lot at training camp.”
Camp opens Tuesday at UNC Asheville, and Walker says the basics of Clifford’s system have already been installed in these voluntary workouts. Walker said the team’s spacing has already improved from last season, and the players have a feel for how Clifford and his assistants operate.
“He’s a great guy, but he’ll tell you when you’re messing up, and that’s what we need,” said Walker, adding that assistants Patrick Ewing and Mark Price – former NBA All-Stars – have offered immediate impact.
“It’s great to have Patrick around because he knows so much. He’s been through so much,” Walker said. “And Mark has been through it all, too. He was a great point guard and I can learn a lot from him. I already have.”
Walker said the enthusiasm started with the front-office moves: Drafting Cody Zeller, signing Jefferson and re-signing Gerald Henderson and Josh McRoberts. Walker herding teammates back to Charlotte early was a natural response.
But more importantly, Walker said, he’s tired of the pattern the past two seasons. He won a New York State championship in high school and the national championship at Connecticut. But his first two NBA season were a combined 28-120 record.
“We’re trying to change the culture around here,” Walker said. “I’ve been losing for two years now. I’m sick of it. I’ve been winning my entire career and I want to get that feeling back.”