LAS VEGAS -- As if it weren't trying enough for a raw, highly touted, 19-year-old prospect to make the NBA leap, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had the added challenge of beginning his career under impossible conditions.
There are those first-year players who could have created more buzz out of Charlotte's situation last year -- those who could have capitalized on the offensive void by racking up shot attempts and benefited from the complete lack of surrounding talent by putting up big numbers. But Kidd-Gilchrist had neither the ball skills nor the inclination to play such a dominant role, while the Bobcats lacked the sense of order necessary to make better use of his talents. He is an incredible athlete with a natural feel for off-ball movement, but last season Kidd-Gilchrist was often lost in a jumbled mess, with his instincts as his only means of navigating broken plays and perpetually crowded driving lanes.
Young shooters can still spot up, rookie big men can still work off of their size and developing ball-handlers have opportunities to push through their growing pains off the bounce. Kidd-Gilchrist had no such outlet. He stood to offer the most value on a team with a well-spaced offense and competent team defense, both of which were well beyond Charlotte's capabilities a year ago. Those were difficult circumstances, but things should get easier for Kidd-Gilchrist as a function of his acclimation to the NBA scene.
"I wasn't comfortable yet," Kidd-Gilchrist said of his difficulties in navigating the offense as a first-year player. "I'm going to do a lot more this year because I'm a lot more comfortable. I'm not a rookie anymore."
That underlying comfort level is a necessary foundation for Kidd-Gilchrist's development, as he'll only improve on his weaknesses when he creates some security in what he does well. As a rookie, a few of those strengths were immediately evident. His defense was stout for a first-year player and proof of what's sure to be a long career of plus-defensive coverage. He rated as one of the best rebounding wings in the league, with a total rebounding percentage that ranked just shy of LeBron James' and Josh Smith's. ("I have a lot of heart," Kidd-Gilchrist said of his uncanny success on the glass.) And while he struggled to shoot outside the basket area, he fared surprisingly well in completing his looks at the rim. Rookies in general tend to struggle in adapting to the length and athleticism of NBA defenders in the paint, but Kidd-Gilchrist converted a perfectly solid 63 percent of his field-goal attempts around the hoop -- including this memorable dunk over Detroit's Greg Monroe.
Of course, that decent return on layups and dunks didn't offset his shooting 28 percent elsewhere on the floor. Kidd-Gilchrist's lack of shooting range hurt, particularly on a team in which he shared time with so many other poor-to-below-average long-range shooters. But there is something to be said about Kidd-Gilchrist's self-awareness, as demonstrated by the fact that he averaged just 3.4 shots away from the basket. It took a good three months before he began shooting jumpers or runners at all, largely because he viewed longer-range attempts as being outside his skill set. That's quickly changing, even if Kidd-Gilchrist's shooting accuracy has yet to come along in accordance with his growing willingness to broaden his offensive game.
"I'm getting better every night," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I feel like I'm doing good on my jump-shot ability. I'm working on it a lot. A lot of it's just confidence in myself. I'm believing in myself [now], for one. But two, it's work.
"I didn't take [any jumpers] early in the season. It was a new system I was in, of course, and I wasn't comfortable yet. Now, I'm working on it. It's all about that confidence."
At worst, Kidd-Gilchrist will be what he was last season: a high-energy, spatially intelligent contributor who put up some decent numbers (12.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per 36 minutes) on a hapless team. But when given just the slightest bit of structural help, he has the potential to better harness his all-around game. That's part of what makes Charlotte's addition of Al Jefferson interesting, even if it doesn't elevate the Bobcats to playoff contender. There are basketball gains to be made in Charlotte without clearing the postseason hurdle, particularly when talented, productive additions will only smooth the developmental path of Kidd-Gilchrist and many others.
This isn't to say that Jefferson is some Rosetta Stone of player development, nor is it meant to imply that he's any kind of savior for the Bobcats in the grand scheme of things. But he brings what amounts to a basic offensive system, as evidenced by the back-to-back top-10 offenses Utah managed in its past two Jefferson-centric seasons. His style (decent shooting efficiency, plodding execution, few free-throw attempts) isn't conducive to the kind of sturdy offense that can withstand postseason scrutiny, but for a team that was so offensively aimless as the Bobcats, Jefferson should be a welcome anchor.
With such an addition, Kidd-Gilchrist -- who can cut opposite Jefferson in the post and take advantage of his ability to draw double teams -- stands to gain much. His target practice from the perimeter should come with less defensive attention than it would otherwise, and his forays to the basket will draw less zealous defensive help as opponents negotiate rotating away from Jefferson instead of Bismack Biyombo or Byron Mullens. These things matter greatly for a prospect who needs to be comfortable to grow.
"I'm excited to play with Al," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I don't really know [how my game will work alongside his] yet, but I'm excited to play with him. I think everybody [in Charlotte] is."
Playing on a team like the 2012-13 Bobcats had to be frustrating in ways that the say-no-wrong Kidd-Gilchrist would never admit, but his discussion of the coming season runs thick with optimism for a reason. The past year was a trial, and picking up Jefferson a relief by comparison, no matter his flaws. Charlotte and Kidd-Gilchrist both will be better for having him, and one could hardly fault either for favoring those ends.
"I just want to win, man," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I just want to win basketball games and I'll be good." Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.