Like Clippers of yore, DeAndre Jordan was moody, uninspired—a basket case even. Like Clippers of today, he is something new entirely: a shot-swatting, glass-cleaning demon, the NBA's most-improved player
PERHAPS YOU remember the 2012--13 version of Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. He detonated incoming layups on defense. He ripped rebounds out of the ether. He did that nasty thing to Brandon Knight. Indeed, if you were to measure basketball success based solely on holy-crap-did-you-just-see-that moments, the 6'11" Jordan was world MVP last season. Or at least tied for world MVP with teammate and good friend Blake Griffin.
Of course, basketball is about more than dunks and blocks and inhabiting Lob City. The kind of basketball that wins games is about boring things like rotating on defense and boxing out and setting good picks and keeping your head in the game. It's about making free throws and staying positive and trying hard all the time. And last season's version of DeAndre Jordan wasn't always good at these things. In fact, he was often quite bad at them.
As a result, by the end of most games DeAndre was firmly affixed to the bench. He played in only 30 fourth quarters all season. Sometimes it was because he'd be intentionally fouled—a viable strategy since he shot 38.6% from the line. Other times it was because he was a liability in the half-court offense, or he had stopped rotating on defense. Sometimes it was simply because coach Vinny Del Negro didn't trust him.
This led to an unfortunate scenario in which Jordan sat at one end of the bench, grumbling, while 15 feet away Del Negro scowled. On occasion, says someone close to the team, the coach would instruct an assistant to go talk to Jordan: "Tell him to go grab a f------ rebound." Upon delivering that message, the assistant received one from Jordan to Del Negro: "Go grab your own f------ rebound."
And so it went until, by the time Los Angeles fell to the Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs, Jordan had become a part-timer, playing only 17 minutes in the decisive Game 6. He was an enigma, equally capable of blocking seven shots in a game or disappearing entirely. Entering 2013--14, Jordan had never averaged more than 11 boards per 36 minutes, good for most centers but disappointing for one with his gifts. Considering that great rebounders need two qualities—instincts and desire—it was unclear which one Jordan lacked, if not both.
At 24 and in the midst of a four-year, $43 million contract, Jordan seemed to be joining the long line of lanky big men who were better athletes than players, such as Stromile Swift and Tyrus Thomas. Or maybe he was following in the footsteps of Andrew Bynum and Bison Dele, who played the sport without ever truly loving it.
But then something crazy happened. Jordan became good. Like, really good. At week's end he was leading the NBA in rebounds (13.9 per game) and field goal shooting (66.3%), and was fourth in blocks (2.4), while playing 35.7 minutes. He is a candidate for the Most Improved Player award and the All--Defensive Team, and may well be the key to L.A.'s postseason hopes.
All of which raises the question: What the hell got into DeAndre Jordan?
THE ANSWER begins with a gravel-voiced coach.
After the Clippers acquired Doc Rivers from Boston for a first-round pick last June, one of the first things he did was call Jordan. The NBA had just struck down a trade of Jordan for Celtics star Kevin Garnett because it appeared to be connected to the deal for Rivers. Jordan had reacted as anyone would: He felt unwanted.
Before calling, the coach did his research. He spoke to L.A. assistants Howard Eisley and Dave Severns. He called up Del Negro, an old friend. And he talked to outgoing Clippers because "the guys who are leaving always tell you the truth." What Rivers heard was that Jordan was a great guy with lots of potential, but he got sidetracked and was too high-strung. This last part didn't bother Rivers. "Energy and emotion are a talent and a skill," Rivers says. "You can stoke a fire. It's hard to start one."
Upon reaching Jordan in Houston, Rivers said that he had no intention of trading him—that, along with Griffin and point guard Chris Paul, he was part of L.A.'s Big Three. He recalled a postgame conversation Jordan had with a Boston player a few years earlier. "Man, I could play defense for you guys," Jordan said. This had piqued Rivers's interest, and he told Jordan this was his calling: "You can be the best defender in the NBA."
Jordan listened. Big Three? Best defender? He was unaccustomed to hearing such sentiments from a coach.
Rivers had another message for Jordan, though: He needed to change. In watching tape from 2012--13, Rivers had glimpsed a montage of anguished reactions when the big man didn't get the ball on the block, or when he didn't get a call from a ref, or when he bricked another free throw. Rivers even showed Jordan the Celtics' scouting report: You can read DeAndre's emotions on his face. You can tell he's upset when he's not getting the ball.
"Let's be honest," Rivers told Jordan. "If you want to be a star, defense is your way to do it. And you can never allow something on offense to take away from your job." He told Jordan he needed him to be the captain of the Clippers' D. This meant Rivers would be harder on Jordan if someone scored or if the defense broke down. Finally, the coach broke the news that Del Negro was right: Jordan shouldn't be featured on offense. "I may never call a play for you all season," Rivers said. "If you want it, you gotta go get it."
This was a gamble by Rivers. It's one thing to spray sunshine over a sensitive, emotional young man. It's another to tell him truths he might not want to hear.
BASKETBALL ALWAYS came easy for Jordan. It was everything that came with the game that could be tricky.
His parents, Hyland and Kimberly, met at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, where both played basketball. They had four sons, of whom DeAndre is the oldest, then separated when the boys were young. DeAndre lived with his mother and his grandparents in Houston's Third Ward. He says that he has only recently become relatively close with Hyland and that while growing up he relied on strong female figures: his mom, his grandmother Cora (whose face is tattooed on his abdomen) and his first-grade teacher, Mrs. Love.
His brothers comprised his inner circle. All four were blessed with their parents' combination of athleticism and size. (Hyland is 6'4", Kimberly 6'2".) The 6'5" Brett is a redshirt freshman tight end at Colorado State, 6'5" Cory is a pitcher in the Rays' system, and Avery, who is 6'7", will play football and basketball at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, this fall. For years the four boys shared a room in their grandparents' house, with DeAndre and Cory crammed into one bunk bed, and Brett and Avery the other. The Jordan boys spent their evenings playing two-on-two in the driveway until it got dark, then watching WWE wrestling, later acting out the moves in tag-team bedroom matches, a hobby that worked out fine until Brett pulled a Superfly Snuka off the top bunk bed and landed so hard on Avery that he broke his arm.
In everything, DeAndre led the way, if sometimes in a meandering direction. Six feet tall by seventh grade, he dunked for the first time a year later, a feat so exciting that he says he "almost blacked out from yelling." During his senior year at Christian Life Center Academy outside Houston, Rivals rated him the second-best center prospect in the nation, despite his receiving little developmental training. Friends and family worried that his AAU coach, Byron Smith, was using DeAndre as a means to an end; indeed, when Jordan arrived at College Station, so did Smith, as an assistant coach. (Smith says it was a group decision, made with Jordan and two other recruits.)
A Draft Express scouting report praised Jordan's "Huge upside" and "Freakish athleticism" but also noted "High bust potential?" and cited "Maturity" as a weakness. This had long been an issue with Jordan, who vacillated between confidence and consternation during games. "One of the big things for him was that if he didn't have a dunk, he'd be frustrated until he got one," says Cory. "You could see he wasn't having fun. Then once the first dunk was out of the way, he'd kind of exhale." His mother worried about her son's turbulence, telling him he couldn't stress out about the refs or anything else. "He was a mild-mannered boy otherwise," Kimberly says. "Maybe the basketball brought it out."
As a freshman, Jordan averaged 7.9 points and 6.0 rebounds in 21.1 minutes but was plagued by many of the same issues. The Aggies faced UCLA in the second round of the NCAA tournament, matching Jordan against Bruins star Kevin Love. The game was a debacle. While Love sank H-O-R-S-E shots, Jordan wilted. After the buzzer, teammate Bryan Davis tore at Jordan's jersey and berated him for pouting instead of joining the postgame huddle. A&M coach Mark Turgeon refused even to talk about his supposed star.
Jordan signed with an agent, Joel Bell, and declared for the 2008 draft, believing he'd be picked by the middle of the first round. On the day of the draft, Bell told him he was slipping. "I was like, The day of the draft?" says Jordan. "How could that be? I didn't kill anyone last night."
The Clippers took Jordan with the 35th pick; in one year, he'd gone from a millionaire-to-be to a second-round flier. Over the next three seasons he again displayed flashes of promise—enough to justify L.A.'s matching a 2011 offer sheet from the Warriors—followed by bewildering nonchalance. "He used to run from my workouts," says John Lucas, who heads a training program in Houston and has since become close to Jordan. "I could never get him in the gym."
At the same time Lucas, like most, was fond of Jordan. "One of my favorite people," Lucas says. "DeAndre just has a good feel for life." Jordan is funny, self-deprecating and goofy. He once made a series of hidden camera video shorts in which he wanders Venice Beach with an electronic flatulence machine in his pocket, catching reactions as he emits stunningly long, loud emissions.
So inscrutable was Jordan that when Dan Woike of The Orange County Register told then Clippers forward Kenyon Martin that he was trying to figure out Jordan and asked him to help, Martin simply said, "Good luck with that," and walked away. Jordan admitted he felt embarrassed at the free throw line and sometimes focused on just trying to hit the rim. At the same time, he believed he should be an offensive focal point while playing heavy minutes.
In 2011--12, Jordan turned to Chauncey Billups, the veteran Clippers guard, who Jordan says became "like my psychologist." Says Billups, "I saw greatness in him, but he needed leadership. Not just a pat on the back but to keep it real." Billups lifted Jordan up but also called him out. He had the team's video coordinator put together a 10-minute edit of former Pistons center Ben Wallace fighting for rebounds. "He's 6'9", and look what he's doing," Billups would say. "You're 7 feet!" He recognized that the young center was competitive and quick-tempered. "Sometimes when he blows, it's tough to reel him back in," says Billups. "It might take five or six plays." Billups realized he could only do so much.
Then last summer Billups left for Detroit in free agency, leaving Jordan adrift. That's when Doc Rivers arrived.
JORDAN LOVED Rivers from the start. Loved that he was up front with him, that he held everyone on the team accountable, addressing Paul the same way he did a bench player. Sure, Rivers challenged him, but Jordan welcomed it. "For him to talk to me man-to-man, that was really important," says Jordan. "When someone believes in you that much, it's hard not to just go out there and play for them."
On the first day of training camp, Jordan surprised the media by announcing that he was going to be the captain of the defense, while Rivers continued his highly public DeAndre Jordan Is Awesome campaign—even comparing him to Bill Russell (and doing so without laughing). The Clippers played along, putting Jordan on the cover of the media guide alongside Paul and Griffin. He was also tapped to address the fans before the season opener.
Phase two of Rivers's plan, after boosting Jordan's confidence, was managing his psyche. Addressing the players during training camp, Rivers announced that he wanted to minimize their "emotional hijacks." Every time you get mad at yourself or the ref or a teammate, you hijack not just yourself but the whole team, Rivers explained. Because now your teammates are wasting time trying to calm you down. This was aimed at Jordan, but he wasn't the only culprit. "This team is the king of it," says Rivers.
Jordan got the bulk of Rivers's attention, though. He whispered in Jordan's ear during timeouts, talked to him after practice. Over and over he repeated one message: Get past mad. Get past mad.
Jordan embraced it. When he did make a mistake, he tried to remember that the play was over. It was hard at first. He got angry in preseason. He freaked out about his free throws. Change is never easy, after all.
IT IS a February afternoon, and Jordan is sitting courtside at the Clippers' practice facility. In person, his length is almost unnerving. When he gesticulates, one feels an urge to duck, lest he accidentally whap you in the head. Nearby, the unlikely trio of Hedo Turkoglu, Sasha Vujacic and Antawn Jamison compete in a three-point contest that would have been far more exciting in 2005. Occasionally Jordan shouts out encouragement.
In discussing his renaissance, Jordan talks with the fervor of the converted. About how he goes after every single rebound. About how he focuses on defense "first, second and third." About how he has matured. And he cannot say enough good things about his coach. "He's been everything for me this year," Jordan says. "I owe the guy the world."
From all appearances, he is taking the game more seriously. He spent time with Lucas last summer, working out in Houston. He watched tapes of Knicks center Tyson Chandler to learn how to tap out offensive boards. He's even been working on his free throws with assistant coach Armond Hill and now shoots them from in front of his head, to control them better. It's led to a marginal improvement, to 45.7%. He's also shooting more of them. When teams go to Hack-a-DJ, Rivers does what Del Negro didn't: He leaves his big man in the game.
Big picture, Jordan's game remains very much a work in progress. His offensive repertoire consists of follow dunks, alley-oop dunks and, every once in a while, missed dunks, though he's been working on adding jump hooks. (While his scoring average at week's end had risen from 8.8 to 10.3, he's actually averaging fewer points per 36 minutes.) Rivers has been true to his word: He says he has yet to call a play for Jordan.
Defensively, Jordan stays down on shot fakes, contains perimeter players off the dribble, holds his position and contests shots. Advanced stats reflect well on him. Through Sunday he was third in the NBA in rebound rate (21.7) and sixth in block rate (5.1), while the Clippers were sixth in opponents' field goal percentage.
Jordan's improvement on the boards is not due to any new technique. He just needed to be present, in the moment, and trying. "I agree with Jimmy [O'Brien]," says Rivers, referring to the former Celtics coach, who once commissioned a study to try to determine why center Mark Blount was such a horrendous rebounder. "If you're not a good rebounder, you're not going to become one. But DJ's always been a great rebounder. He just didn't have the focus." Jordan agrees. "I think it was just mentality for me, man," he says.
In a brutally competitive conference the Clippers will be a wild card in the playoffs, fourth in the West at week's end. While the team is stocked with scorers, Jordan is their only legitimate big man and the key to their defense. He has the potential to affect the game like few NBA centers, and Rivers knows this. That's why he talks him up so much—during a recent discussion he dropped yet another Bill Russell reference—and why he invests so much in him. "And right now," says Rivers, "I think he's ready." Indeed, to watch a Clippers game today is to see a new and improved version of DeAndre Jordan, one who is as effective as he is enjoyable to watch. "I couldn't be happier for him," says Del Negro, who attributes Jordan's success to "a continuing maturation process."
The skeptic might say this is a honeymoon for Jordan and Rivers, the first bloom of affection between a young, unappreciated big man and his wise coach. But the believers will tell you that Jordan has just needed a sense of purpose. This is a man who grew up with a distant father, who says there wasn't a single coach who inspired and understood him. This is a man who, as his mom says, "is just a big kid at heart," who still watches SpongeBob.
Maybe he just needed a male figure in his basketball life who believed in him, whom he could trust. Maybe he was just waiting to hear the words Rivers now says, talking about Jordan before a recent practice: I love him.
For Rob Mahoney's breakdown of Blake Griffin's high-flying act in Los Angeles and why he is having such a dominant season for the Clippers go to SI.com/nba