Jameer Nelson has seen more ups and downs in his six-year tenure with the Orlando Magic than just about any other player in franchise history. Prior to this season, he had been lauded for the spark he provided off the bench during the first two seasons of his career backing up Steve Francis; derided for looking absurdly overmatched in his first season as a starter in 2006/07; celebrated for the killer pick-and-roll play and shot-making that earned him an All-Star berth in 2008/09; jeered for his ill-fated return to the court during the NBA Finals after shoulder surgery. There should be no question that a heathy Nelson would have given Orlando a much better chance in last season's Finals, especially considering the numbers he hung on them in the regular-season. So clearly, after a summer of rest and reflection, Nelson entered this season facing high expectations.
|Points Per Game||Assists Per Game||Turovers Per Game|
|Points Per 36||Assists Per 36||Turnovers Per 36|
|PER||Assist Rate||Turnover Rate|
All statistics in this table from Nelson's player page at basketball-reference. Career-best statistics highlighted in gold.
The problem? Some of those expectations were unrealistic, especially with regard to shooting efficiency. One of the factors that made Nelson the league's most efficient pick-and-roll ballhandler during his All-Star campaign was his otherworldly conversion rate on long two-pointers. In the Magic's pick-and-roll offense, it's important for ballhandlers to be able to punish opponents who go under the screen by draining that pull-up jumper from around 18 to 20 feet. Nelson attempted 3.6 of those long twos per game at a league-best 52% clip in 2009, which clearly wasn't sustainable; he regressed to 39% this year, which is just below positional average. So when a shoot-first point guard loses his touch on one of the most vital shots in his team's offense, he's going to suffer. Combine that with the reduced effectiveness of his three-point stroke, and Nelson dropped from finishing third among point guards in True Shooting to 22nd.
Now, based solely on that information, you might conclude that Nelson was a disaster. He wasn't. Because he's a volume shooter, Nelson's earned a reputation as a poor passer, which isn't entirely fair. His assist and turnover rate stats are in line with positional average, for instance. Another mitigating factor is the fact that a November knee injury robbed him of time to mesh with new backcourt-mate Vince Carter. Those two figured it out, and after the All-Star break, he scored nearly a point every 2 minutes while shooting 39.4% from three-point range and posting a Pure Point Rating of 6.5. And, um, did you watch him in the playoffs? In case you missed it, Eddy broke it down here. The numbers are gaudy, and do more than enough to show that Nelson's the right fit for this team. I'm with Eddy when he says "there’s no reason why Nelson can’t be an All-Star next year." His talent isn't an issue. Talent around him isn't an issue. Coaching isn't an issue.
And his play style isn't an issue. Again, he gets heat for being a shoot-first point guard, but consider Orlando's system. It's a pick-and-roll-heavy attack, and needs a point guard who can shoot off the catch, shoot off the dribble, get to the rim for his own shot, get to the rim to set up a teammate, and who has range out to about 25 feet. There are not many point guards in the NBA who can do all that, and the ones who can--guys like Chris Paul and Deron Williams, for example--are franchise-level talents making franchise-level money. Which is why I always make this point about Nelson: not counting players on rookie contracts, which point guard at Nelson's salary or cheaper is a better fit for coach Stan Van Gundy's offense? Take your time on that one. Also, consider that he's the team co-captain, a responsibility he takes quite seriously.
Going forward, I expect Nelson's jump shots to fall at a higher rate next year, but certainly not nearly at the rate they did during 2008/09. He had the right idea, most of the time, this year. When you take the shot you're supposed to take, and it doesn't go in, there's not much you can do. With that said, he flat-out needs to hit the outside shot more consistently, and make more frequent trips to the foul line. Had he done those things more often this season, Orlando might still be playing.