Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Meeks proves fringe players deserve a chance

By John McMullen

Philadelphia, PA - We have reached the quarter pole of the NBA season and the makeup of the league has been clearly defined.

The Eastern Conference is top-heavy with the West showing a little more depth as usual.

Boston, Orlando and Miami are the three heavyweights out East with the surprising New York Knicks joining Atlanta, Chicago and an improved Indiana Pacers club as likely playoff participants. In the West, Southwest rivals San Antonio and Dallas are trying to make sure home court in the postseason isn't the birthright of the two-time defending champion LA Lakers, while Utah, Denver, Oklahoma City and New Orleans are probably a notch below those three teams but very competitive.

That leaves one playoff spot in each conference up for grabs. Currently the Toronto Raptors hold the eight-seed out East with a dismal 8-13 mark, while Phoenix at 11-9 is fending off an injury-riddled Portland club for the final spot in the West. Things are so muddled in the East that anyone could make a run and secure the final slot but teams like Sacramento, Minnesota and the LA Clippers in the West can already start making their reservations for Secaucus and the NBA Draft Lottery.

That's all window dressing, however. Currently there are only six to eight legitimate championship contenders, meaning there are at least 22 clubs that have no chance of capturing the game's ultimate prize with 75 percent of their seasons still to be played. The goals are different for each and every one of those teams on the outside looking in at the Lawrence O'Brien Trophy but for the clubs on the back end of that rather lengthy list, a little tinkering should be in order.

In fact, I've never understood "bad" teams with set rotations. If the players garnering the majority of minutes aren't getting it done, shouldn't the guys who aren't playing at least get a chance to improve things?

That may be simplistic but the end of the bench for a typical NBA team is usually filled with former college stars that haven't gotten a chance at this level. Players that have pre-determined warts -- be it a lack of athleticism, a poor jumper and the inability to defend.

I saw one of those players enjoy a bit of a coming out party last Saturday in Philadelphia when former Kentucky star Jodie Meeks scored 20 of his career- high 26 points in a record-setting first quarter as the 76ers breezed past Larry Brown and the Charlotte Bobcats, 109-91, at Wells Fargo Center.

Meeks, making just his second career start, was 7-for-9 from the floor in the opening frame and 6-of-7 from the 3-point line, matching the floor record of Allen Iverson for points in a quarter.

The second year shooting guard, who was acquired from Milwaukee along with Francisco Elson in exchange for Primoz Brezec, Royal Ivey and a second round pick in a trade deadline deal last season, finished the night hitting 9-of-16 from the field and 7-of-10 from long range. The seven threes tied Kyle Korver's floor record for most long range bombs by a Sixer in a game.

"It felt good," Meeks said of his breakout game. "The team did a good job of finding me open and I just kept letting it fly. After I hit my first one, I hit another one and I just kept making them. It felt good."

The Sixers have been searching for a legitimate two guard for years and thought that solved the problem by selecting Evan Turner with the No. 2 overall pick in June's draft.

A skilled ball-handler, Turner excelled as a facilitator in college at Ohio State whether he was toiling at the point, as a two or at small forward. He flourished when creating for others, and could forge the type of space and separation to get his own shot at virtually any time. With Jrue Holiday on hand in Philadelphia, however, that meant Turner would have to settle in as the team's off-guard and learn to play without the ball in his hands, a totally new skill set for the 22-year-old.

The early results haven't been pretty and Turner has struggled mightily coming off screens and really doesn't seem to understand the concept of spacing that comes naturally to someone who has played the position for years -- someone like Meeks.

Meeks is comfortable running through a thicket of screens and raising up for a jumper, opening up the wings for players like Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand. Two games is hardly the type of sample size that will define Meeks as a player but his insertion into the lineup has ignited the Sixers offense, forcing defenses to scramble in search of the pure shooter while opening up driving lanes for the team's slashers.

"Guys are unselfish and are looking for him when he is hot," Brand said of Meeks. "We have seen it numerous times at practice, hitting shot after shot from long range. I am glad, he is a young player and I am glad he is stepping up and playing well like he is."

The book on Meeks coming out of Kentucky questioned his size, generously listed at 6-foot-4, length and defensive ability. But, the bread and butter of his game with the Wildcats was his ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter. He was comfortable both coming off screens and shooting from a standstill position, always got the ball off with relative ease and did a nice job of reading what defenses gave him.

As a junior, Meeks final year at Kentucky, he led the SEC in scoring at 23.7 ppg and recorded the nation's top three scoring efforts (54, 46 and 45 points) but slipped to the 41st pick in the 2009 draft.

Meeks has impressed Collins with a tireless work ethic and a willingness to address on his perceived deficiencies.

"Sometimes you become a victim of numbers," Collins recently told the Philadelphia Daily News when talking about Meeks. "One thing about Jodie is that he can play bigger guys. He's powerful and he's quick and he's fast. He's probably my best guy where you can run plays for him coming off screens and he can catch and shoot."

To Collins' credit he showed an open mind by giving the Norcross, Ga. native a chance to redefine himself.

And sometimes that's all a player needs.

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