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Free Reggie Jordan

Saunders says: "If Reggie Jordan had a [reliable] jump shot, he'd be Michael Jordan, just about"
David Kern

On April 3 against the Sacramento Kings, Timberwolves guard Reggie Jordan provided a jolt of gusto typical of his three-year tenure with the team. Inserted into the game two minutes into the second quarter with the listless Wolves down by three, Jordan attached himself out on the perimeter to Kings super-sub scorer Vernon Maxwell like a second skin. When a Sacramento shot went up, Jordan whirled inside to vie for the rebound, scrambled back up court on offense, crashed the boards to contest for the offensive rebound, then bounded back the other way to blanket Maxwell. This happened over and over again, for seven minutes. By the time Jordan returned to his customary seat on the bench, Maxwell had missed the only two shots he had taken, while Jordan had corralled five rebounds and supplied two assists to catalyze an 18-10 Wolves spurt that proved to be the key to the club's eventual victory.

Two nights later against the Dallas Mavericks, it's déjà vu. The underachieving Wolves are down by two when Jordan enters the game with less than a minute to go in the first quarter. Over the next 12 minutes, neither of Dallas's premier outside shooters, Michael Finley or Hubert Davis, scores a point when Jordan is guarding them. Meanwhile Reggie gets four rebounds and two assists, and he even chips in seven points before leaving the game just before halftime with Minnesota enjoying a ten-point lead that eventually results in another Wolves win.

Yet over the first 41 games of a Wolves season marred by injuries and disrupted by a constant turnover in personnel, Jordan has logged just 284 minutes. After Stephon Marbury was traded and shooting guards Anthony Peeler and Malik Sealy got hurt, the Timberwolves went out and acquired Dennis Scott and James "Hollywood" Robinson rather than give Jordan, who knows Minnesota's system and always gives 100 percent, appreciably more playing time.

"Hey, I love Reggie Jordan," coach Flip Saunders says when asked why Jordan hasn't seen more action. "You've got to love him because of what he can do defensively, and that he provides unbelievable energy. If Reggie Jordan had a [reliable] jump shot, he'd be Michael Jordan, just about.

"But because of his shooting, Reggie's a situational player," Saunders continues. "He has to play in the backcourt with someone who can shoot from the perimeter, like Terrell [Brandon] or AP [Anthony Peeler]. Otherwise teams go and trap Kevin [Garnett] or Joe [Smith] down low, and our spacing isn't good enough to stretch the [opponents'] defense. You say with the injuries we've had that Reggie should be playing more, but in fact the injuries have hurt him, because the people who have gone down, like Brandon and Peeler, are the ones he is most effective playing with."

There's plenty of evidence to support Saunders, the best--and also the most forthright--coach in Wolves history. Jordan is shooting an abominable 28 percent from the field, 56 percent from the free-throw line. Meanwhile, with Robinson and especially Scott bombing away effectively with long-range jumpers, Minnesota has kept opposing defenses honest by converting more than one-third of their three-point shots over the past 15 games.

But Scott and Robinson bring their own share of negative baggage. Scott's defense has always been indifferent, and the move from small forward to shooting guard further exposes his lack of defensive quickness. Having suffered the ignominy of being released by the Clippers (the league's worst team), Robinson's defensive intensity has improved some since his last stint with Minnesota--he was a Timberwolf during the entire 1996-97 season--but it doesn't come close to the pressure cooker Jordan creates every minute he's on the court. Notably, the Wolves' opponents are likewise converting about a third of their three-pointers since Scott and Robinson joined the club.

Both members of the duo also have some flaws on offense. Scott doesn't create his own shot off the dribble well and must rely on crisp ball movement to produce points. "Hollywood" lives up to his nickname with his flashy, hero-oriented performances. (Jordan's nickname, by contrast, is "Driller," inspired when he was in the minor-league CBA by his unrelenting work ethic during practices.) Robinson is enamored of the dramatic play, at times to the detriment of his team, as when he streaked to the basket and blew an improbable lay-up in the final minute of a recent close loss to Houston.

In a choose-your-poison situation, Saunders obviously feels the Wolves can endure the lapses of Scott and Robinson better than Jordan's offensive deficiencies. Though that's his prerogative, the fact remains he's not giving Jordan a fair shake. The day after the Houston game, the coach said of Jordan, "We played him in the first half hoping he could give us something, and we didn't make a big push."

In fact, Jordan played fewer than two minutes, during which time he managed two assists and boosted the team's lead by a point. Among the situations Saunders says best fit Jordan's game is the opportunity to match him up against a smaller point guard in the low post. Vancouver's point guards are six-foot-one rookie Mike Bibby and nondescript six-foot backup Dujuan Wheat; the six-four Jordan played a whopping 56 seconds against them last Friday night as Saunders preferred to let Hollywood be the one to abuse Wheat down the stretch of a putrid , closer-than-it-should-have-been victory that cried out for Jordan's high-voltage zest.

For anyone who knows Jordan, it is doubly difficult not to root for him. In order to keep his tenuous NBA dreams alive after having never played organized ball in high school and going undrafted by the pros following a solid but unspectacular college career at New Mexico State, the 31-year-old "Driller" has always had to bust his butt and hold his tongue. In an environment where every missed jump shot reinforces a negative reputation, with precious few minutes to redeem himself (let alone find his shooting rhythm), he concedes he has lost a little confidence and has thought about prodding Saunders about his limited role. But he quickly catches himself. "Flip is the coach, and I'm sure he's doing what he thinks will help us," he says. "I'm just happy to do whatever it takes to help us win."

Last year, playing alongside Peeler or Terry Porter in a role that provided relatively steady minutes, Jordan shot better than 50 percent during his last 26 games and helped the Wolves go 12-4 in their final 16 contests. Both Brandon and Peeler should finally be healthy by early next month, about the time the Wolves will go on the road to face a higher-seeded team in a tough first-round playoff matchup. When that happens Minnesota would be better served with a confident Driller leaping off the bench to stymie three-point specialists such as Houston's Sam Mack or San Antonio's Mario Elie.

Because the bruising playoffs are no time for Hollywood.


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