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Where Is Jameer Nelson?


Jameer Nelson sought to attack the paint. He was trying to create for his teammates and found himself under the basket trying to create that space. He wasn’t looking to score, not on this play. But when he popped out on the other side of the baseline wide open, he flipped in a shot. It was a critical juncture for the Magic, giving them the breathing room necessary to defeat the Kings on Sunday.

Nelson’s stat line Sunday was as mediocre and possibly troubling as his stat line for the entire season. Last night, Nelson went 2 for 6 from the floor for five points. He dished out six assists and has improved his passing numbers. But Nelson is, and always has been, a scorer first. He is most effective when he is driving looking to score and pulling up in rhythm for his deadly mid-range jumper.

While it is nice to see Nelson add passing to his game. The Magic are so lacking in offensive creators that a pass-first Jameer Nelson — or, better, a driving-without-intent-to-score — hurts the offense and leads to the stagnation that makes it difficult to watch the Magic sometimes.

Nelson is averaging a career-low 6.8 points per game, shooting a career-worst 36.8 percent from the floor and 23.1 percent from 3-point range. He is also shooting fewer than 2.0 free throw attempts per game for the first time in his career and is shooting a career-low 7.1 field goal attempts per game. Maybe it is a good thing he is shooting less if he is he is not shooting well.

Not to mention, his truly horrendous 7.8 PER.

Plain and simple though, Nelson is not providing the type of offensive punch the Magic need or expected from him.

This becomes worse when you consider his raw assist numbers have not increased that much.

Six assists are a nice number when accompanied with Nelson’s typically strong scoring. He is not the best passer anyway and his 6.0 assists per game last year were a career high. He is back down to 5.4 assists per game so far this year, the same number he posted in 2009 and 2010. Only those years, he was averaging 16.7 and 12.6 points per game, nearly twice as much as he is averaging now.

There is no doubt Nelson has become a better passer and is trying to be the prototypical pass-first point guard. His assists per 36 minutes are at a solid (for him anyways) 6.6 and his assist rate is at 28.4 percent (if that pace keeps up, it will be the first time his assist rate dipped below 30 percent since 2007).

But he is not a passer. Nelson is a scorer. And that is what Orlando needs him to do.

So why is Nelson struggling this year so far?

Has he peaked? Perhaps.

Have injuries taken their toll? There is no doubt Nelson has not performed in the same upward trajectory he seemed to be heading before his torn labrum ended his 2009 season. He has only shown flashes of that play since and has since faced a series of nagging injuries — most lately the neck spasms that knocked him out of a game this year.

One thing is clear, without a more efficient and productive offensive output, Nelson’s defensive shortcomings become harder to ignore. That is even if you believe Nelson is a better defender than people give him credit for. Nelson has to score and be an effective offensive player to make the Magic successful.

Aside from Nelson taking fewer shots and missing a higher percentage of them, he is getting to the rim and into the paint for shots at a much lower rate too. Nelson is taking 2.3 shots per game at the rim according to HoopData, the lowest since HoopData begins recording this information in 2007. Through seven games he has 16 field goal attempts and is making 56.3 percent of his shots at the rim.

The percentage is in line wtih Nelson’s career averages. Nelson is actually taking more of his shots at the rim than he has in year’s past. In fact, more than 30 percent of his shots are coming at the rim so far this year.

So the problem appears to be Nelson’s reluctance to shoot, or his inability to shoot at the same effective rates. His usage rate is a career-low 16.0 percent and his effective field goal percentage is a career-low 39.5 percent. Not to mention, he is turning the ball over at a career-worst 23.5 percent turnover rate.

This is not the Jameer Nelson the Magic expected or need.

It is hard to tell what Nelson can do more of. He can play like he did against Oklahoma City with aggressive drives where he was looking to score, he can be a very valuable player for Orlando. It is his drives and constant ability to attack that made him effective and opened up the mid-range jumper that he is decently well-known for. Or at least was when he was playing at an All-Star level.

One thing is certain, the Magic rely on Nelson to do more than he is doing right now. He is a big part of the offense and can be the different between the Magic being a good team and a great team — just look at his contributions in the 2010 Playoffs when he torched Charlotte and Atlanta. For better or worse, Nelson hold a big piece to Orlando’s success this season.

And, simply, the way he is playing is not cutting it.