Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Despite my disdain for the first-person POV that dominates NBA writing these days, it’s the only way for me to talk about Jameer Nelson with any sort of individuation. “I” must recount specific memories or encounters “I” had. These would be lost under a third-person objective, or the editorial “we” encompassing other Magic Basketball writers, both of which are a lot more comfortable narrative modes of expression.
It should be noted I was tempted to sing a paean to Nelson in the second-person, but I’ll just stick with my own thoughts to avoid any mockery or judgements in the comments when my tone is exposed as off-key.
Speaking of judgements and mockery, it’s hard for some basketball fan to remember the players that we see on an NBA court have already been whittled down to the very finest, not just in the United States, but the world at large. That’s what makes Jameer Nelson such a fascinating case. He is, for me, the mean for starting point guards in the NBA, which isn’t a bad thing.
While average can often be a pejorative term, in Nelson’s case it always seemed like a good way to understand what actually sets him apart. The 6-foot 193-pound native of Chester, Pennsylvania stayed in school not just for his sophomore season, but his junior and senior seasons as well — this despite being named a unanimous National Freshman of the Year.
And who can forget his undefeated senior season with Delonte West as his running mate in that incredible St. Joe’s backcourt? They combined to go undefeated during the regular season, then dragged St. Joes to the Elite Eight. Both of them went on to productive careers in the NBA (I’ll avoid the quirks in the West narrative for this piece).
If you look at Nelson’s 15.5 career PER, it’s nuzzled up right above the overall average for the league (15.0). Now look at the trajectory of his player efficiency rating — reaching its apogee during the 2008-09 season, his fifth in the league, with a 20.6 PER that later proved to be an outlier in his career — and you’ll notice he’s a good barometer for other players, too.
During that 2008-09 season, Nelson was named, along with teammates Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis, an NBA All-star. Unfortunately, a torn labrum kept him out of the game and limited him to just 42 games on the year. More importantly, it meant Nelson would be out of the playoffs, with Skip to My Rafer Alston running point and Hedo Turkoglu playing a sort of Scottie Pippen-ish role as an abnormally elongated 6-foot-10 facilitator at the top of the key. That is, until Nelson made a hurried recovery to play in the Finals against the Lakers at nowhere near peak form. The Magic lost in five games.
Everyone remembers that Magic season as their best in franchise history, and like Caron Butler in Dallas for the 2011 Finals win, Nelson wasn’t a major part of his team’s penultimate moment, even as it coincided with his finest season as a pro.
After reaching the pinnacle of his profession by making the All-Star team in 2008-09, he regressed to the mean with a 15.5 PER the next year, appearing in 65 games, but also shepherding the Magic all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals during their ensuing postseason run, where they lost in six games to the Celtics. It wasn’t the NBA Finals, but still, he was the starting point guard on a team that almost made the Finals and lost to a Celtics team who would fall one Kendrick Perkins injury in Game 6 short of a second title in three years.
People forget what happened in the first round that year with Nelson, but I watched every Magic-Bobcats game curious to know what coach Larry Brown had done to get a perpetually underwhelming Charlotte team into the real season starting in late April.
If you recall, the Hornets, née Bobcats, started Raymond Felton at point guard, and he was just a couple years younger than Nelson, but had come into the league from North Carolina the year after Nelson had left St. Joe’s.
Nelson destroyed Felton. Just ate him alive, dropping 32 points twice during Orlando’s four-game sweep, while shooting 52.9 percent from beyond the arc in those two games. It was then I realized Raymond Felton wasn’t an NBA starting point guard, and probably never would be — my apologies to the 2012-13 Knicks, but Felton was the weak link in New York, and it’s only tangentially related to his dietary struggles. Nelson owned him in the hyper-actualized setting of the playoffs.
That’s why Jameer Nelson is the mean, medium, and mode of NBA starting point guards.
The only time I met and spoke to Nelson came a few days after getting hired to write about basketball as a full-time career at Dime Magazine. I was drunk off the hire as I headed to Rucker Park for a Shaq event. I got my Shaq quotes, elbowing other writers away during the scrum, and sat back with a friend to watch some hoops and debate where we could get some grub.
That’s when I spotted Nelson a couple rows below me. After years toiling as a freelance writer and all that entailed (chasing down paychecks, never getting credentialed in time, writing usually for free for editors years younger than me), I was a tad overconfident after getting brought into the fold full-time at Dime.
I yelled down at Nelson to see if I could talk to him for a few moments, overtly dropping the name of the periodical I now worked for. He was unimpressed. I was intruding on his free time, and it was obviously not the best place, or time, to chat. This was right after Victor Oladipo had been drafted by the Magic, and ‘Dipo was the first, most tiresome question I asked Nelson. It went downhill from there and I returned to my seat a couple minutes later deflated, and wondering if this was going to be my life from now on.
It wasn’t, but that brief interaction always stuck with me. Here I was, a stranger to Nelson, clamoring towards him during his offseason looking for some juicy quote having to do with Orlando’s newest draftee like I was a hybrid Frank Isola/Adrian Wojnarowski/Bob Woodward. He wasn’t obligated to talk about anything, and I was bringing up a young guard who would probably replace him in the Magic’s rotation at some point in the future.
He wasn’t rude, but he wasn’t shy about his annoyance, either. This, I now realize, is the traditional reaction of a slightly-aggrieved NBA player when you’re pestering them for a quote during their free time. He could have been a lot worse. I’ve dealt with a lot worse. He could have been a lot more accommodating. I’ve dealt with those guys, too.
Instead, he was about par for the course.
Jameer Nelson is an average NBA starting point guard, and that’s why I always loved him a little more than others. He was my measuring stick for everyone else during his run, and he never failed to play right around the mean.
Something we forget, but I’ll reiterate it again, so I don’t come off as an annoyance to those fans of Nelson, who believe he’s better than average. When I say average starting NBA point guard, that means there are only 14 other point guards in the world who are better than him. We can go into semantics about starting-caliber NBA point guards or Nelson’s new role in Dallas, but you catch my drift.
That’s not so bad for a largely unknown kid out of Chester, Pennsylvania.