After playing second fiddle to Dwight Howard ever since the two arrived on the Orlando Magic roster as rookies in 2004, Jameer Nelson is finally starring in the lead role for the Orlando Magic—for better or worse.
Just this past offseason, Jameer Nelson re-signed with the Magic for a three-year deal. It was a surprising move, considering the Magic were looking to trade Dwight Howard and move into a rebuilding phase. Why commit to a 30-year-old point guard who has been in decline for the past three seasons?
The answer is simple: leadership.
Ever since Nelson broke onto the mainstream basketball scene as a senior at St. Joseph’s, people have raved about his leadership abilities and his heart.
Nelson was the leader of an underdog St. Joseph’s team in the 2003-2004 season that went 27-0 in the regular season and finished 30-2 and advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight. It was the best season in school history. Nelson won the Wooden and Naismith awards. A Sports Illustrated article by Michael Bamberger called him, “the best player in the nation.”
In Orlando, he started on the bench and earned his playing time and made All-Star Steve Francis expendable. He’s worked hard on the court and plays good defense.
He had his best season in 2008-2009, averaging 16.7 points per game, 5.4 assists per game, 1.2 steals per game and shooting 50.3 percent from the floor while earning his one and only All-Star selection. And while the Magic made it all the way to the NBA Finals that season, Nelson got hurt and missed the second half of the season and the majority of the playoffs.
He hasn’t been the same player since then. His past three seasons have been three of the four worst shooting seasons of his eight-year career. He had his lowest points per game average in five years. With the Magic still fielding a competitive team with Dwight Howard, there was much rumor and speculation that an upgrade needed to be made at point guard.
This year, the Magic have low expectations, much like his St. Joseph’s team did. And while he doesn’t have Dwight Howard to execute the pick-and-roll with him and toss alley-oops to, he also didn’t have him at St. Joseph’s either.
The Magic won’t be expecting Nelson to guide the Magic as far as he did St. Joseph's. But they do want him to bridge the gap between that Magic team that made the finals and the next Magic team they hope will do the same.
His backup is the young and unproven Ish Smith, so it’s likely Nelson will get a lot of minutes; really making this his show to run.
Nelson is there to provide a veteran presence to a young team. He is there to be a steady, consistent performer on a team without much direction currently. He is there to show the new guys what you can achieve with heart and hustle and how to act like a professional.
Gone are the wishy-washy, indecisive and immature (remember all those silly technical fouls?) ways of Howard. Nelson’s high-character attitude will be counted on to mentor the younger players and help them through what could be a frustrating season.
Does Jameer Nelson being the team’s best player mean that they’ll win a lot of games? Probably not.
But they won’t ever quit, and that will be an important attitude moving forward.