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Bobcats 1 win away from matching last year's total

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Bobcats 1 win away from matching last year's total

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Michael Jordan's Bobcats are the NBA's most surprising team so far this season.

Charlotte (6-4) has won five of its past six games and is one win away from matching last year's win total.

The turnaround is impressive considering the Bobcats finished last season 7-59 and with the worst winning percentage (.106) in league history. They lost their final 23 games of the season.

But under the direction of defensive-oriented coach Mike Dunlap, they've been competitive and have developed a knack for closing games. Charlotte is 5-0 in contests decided by four points or less - and without much NBA experience on the roster.

That's doesn't bother Dunlap.

``The most important part is to sell your system and what you're doing with a purpose,'' Dunlap said. ``There's nothing like wins to help that out.''

If players had any doubt about Dunlap's style, the six wins have helped eliminated that.

What Dunlap has been preaching is defense, which meant a summer full of intense workouts, some of those lasting as long as four hours.

He knew the Bobcats wouldn't be the most talented and or the most experienced team in the NBA - not even close, in fact - so he wanted to be better conditioned than anyone out there and use his team's young, fresh legs to his advantage.

``I think our defense is getting better and I'm selling that first and foremost,'' Dunlap said. ``We have a ways to go with it. It's far from where it needs to be but it's getting there and we have the numbers to prove that.''

Charlotte is allowing 98.8 points per game, but they rank in the top ten in the league in steals (86) and blocked shots (76). They're forced 14.6 turnovers per game.

``Coach Dunlap, it all starts with him,'' said second-year point guard Kemba Walker. ``He's a real tough guy, really intense. We all feed off him.''

On Wednesday night the Bobcats led Toronto 98-97 with 28 seconds left.

The Raptors had four shots on their final possession, but the Bobcats blocked two of those and withstood a furious final few seconds to win the game.

If Dunlap needed to emphasize a point about defense winning games this was it.

``I think it just shows what kind of toughness we have from the point guard all the way up to the center,'' said rookie guard Jeffery Taylor. ``We have a lot of tough guys who know how to win games.''

The Bobcats are still extremely young, particularly with guard Gerald Henderson out with a foot injury.

Right now their starting five consists of two rookies in Taylor and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 2 overall pick who has had an immediate impact averaging 11.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Forward Byron Mullens, who sat for two years in Oklahoma City before being acquired last year in a trade, is essentially in his second season like Walker.

The only starter with significant experience is center Brendan Haywood, who was claimed off waivers from Dallas.

But the Bobcats are getting quality play off the bench from offseason acquisitions Ramon Sessions and Ben Gordon, two scorers brought in to give the team some needed experience down the stretch in tight games.

Both have provided a huge boost with Sessions averaging 16.3 points per game and Gordon 13 points per game, second and third best on the team.

``It's an interesting group because we are young and I think there's an exuberance and a little bit of being excited about the game of basketball, and I think the veterans have picked up on that,'' Dunlap said. ``It's been a joy to coach them and I think we're learning as we play each game. That exuberance is an intangible.''

That exuberance is evident in Walker, who has developed into the team's leader and flourished working alongside Sessions in practice and down the stretch in tight games.

Walker is averaging 18.8 points and 5.5 assists per game.

Despite being 6-foot, Walker is fearless driving to the basket and has improved in his ability to finish.

``He's our quarterback,'' Dunlap said. ``We're developing him. He's setting the culture for us. There's a lot on his plate, but he can handle it. When he was coming out of college a year ago I thought he was the best player in America.''

Just how long the Bobcats are able to keep things up remains to be seen.

The Bobcats have some quality wins against Dallas, Milwaukee and Minnesota, but have yet to play the league's elite teams like Miami, Oklahoma City and the New York Knicks.

That may be when the true test comes.

When it does, Dunlap hopes the foundation for success has been established and the Bobcats will be confident enough to compete with the best.

``We're trying to build a winning culture here, and every win helps,'' Dunlap said.

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Drafting a first round QB outside of the top two picks has largely backfired

Drafting a first round QB outside of the top two picks has largely backfired

Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes are two quarterbacks who were taken in the middle of the 2017 NFL Draft's first round, and they serve as two recent examples that you don't have to have a pick at the top of that round to land a star passer.

Problem is, they're basically the only recent examples, too.

In the past decade, teams who've tried to find their franchise signal-caller in the first round outside of either the first or second pick have failed time and time again. Since 2009, those prized QBs have mostly been selected No. 1 or No. 2 overall or mined beyond the first round. 

The following list, compiled by Redskins Talk co-host Mitch Tischler, shows how many mediocre to straight-up bad options franchises have found using picks 3-32:

  • Mark Sanchez — 2009 pick No. 5 — 37-36 career record
  • Josh Freeman — 2009 pick No. 17 — 25-36 career record
  • Tim Tebow — 2010 pick No. 25 — 8-6 career record
  • Jake Locker — 2011 pick No. 8 — 9-14 career record
  • Blaine Gabbert — 2011 pick No. 10 — 13-35 career record
  • Christian Ponder — 2011 pick No. 12 — 14-21-1 career record
  • Ryan Tannehill — 2012 pick No. 8 —42-46 career record
  • Brandon Weeden — 2012 pick No. 22 — 6-19 career record
  • EJ Manuel — 2013 pick No. 16 — 6-12 career record
  • Blake Bortles — 2014 pick No. 3 — 24-49 career record
  • Johnny Manziel — 2014 pick No. 22 — 2-6 career record
  • Paxton Lynch — 2016 pick No. 26 — 1-3 career record
  • Patrick Mahomes — 2017 pick No. 10 — 13-4 career record
  • Deshaun Watson — 2017 pick No. 12 — 14-8 career record
  • Sam Darnold — 2018 pick No. 3 — 4-9 career record
  • Josh Allen — 2018 pick No. 7 — 5-6 career record
  • Josh Rosen — 2018 pick No. 10 — 3-10 career record
  • Lamar Jackson — 2018 pick No. 32 — 6-1 career record
     

That list is one the Redskins — who own the 15th pick in the 2019 draft and who are beginning to be linked heavily to Kyler Murray — should pay close attention to.

The 2018 class is too young to judge, and as mentioned earlier, the 2017 class is providing quality returns. But none of the other names on that list have turned into anything useful, not to mention anything resembling special.

Of course, if you go back farther into the past, you'll find that QBs like Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers were snagged during the meat of the first round, so it's not impossible. However, the last 10 years have shown it can be very difficult to nail a pick in that range.

The logic feels simple: The truly elite talents, such as Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, are snatched up immediately. The QBs who are found in the mid- to late rounds, meanwhile, are given more time to develop and/or find themselves on rosters that have been built up more.

Those non-elite first-rounders, on the other hand, are generally caught in between: not skilled enough to help turn around a team singlehandedly but, because they're high investments, they're forced into those tough situations and end up floundering.

There's no doubt that the 'Skins need a new hope under center. Where they should commit to that hope, though, is something that must be considered.  

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Dozier and Long a match made in launch angle heaven

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USA Today Sports

Dozier and Long a match made in launch angle heaven

Brian Dozier came to a realization following his rookie season in 2012. Why not hit the ball more often in the air and accentuate a strength? Instead of drilling to fix a weakness -- like opposite-field hitting or even ground ball rate -- choose to club away, in the air, to the pull side, as often as possible.

No en vogue terminology explained Dozier’s pursuit of six years ago. Omnipotent terms like “launch angle” remained shrouded and in development. Dozier didn’t need a phrase. He just needed to do what worked more often.

The idea took with career-altering results. Dozier hit 18 home runs, then 23, then 28, then 42. Pull-side fly balls turned him into an All-Star and commodity at second base. His new one-year deal with the Nationals brings him a hitting coach who is elated by the idea of hitting up and over.

Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long is the effervescent patriarch of launch angle. “We want to hit it over the shift,” Long will tell anyone willing to listen. Do damage, hit bombs, whatever slang term is preferred. Just hit the ball in the air. On the ground equals outs. In the air produces runs.

Melding a second baseman in search of a reboot after a down year with a hitting coach who is going to trumpet a cause the infielder already backed could be a powerful formula.

“When I changed my approach at the end of 2012 going into 2013, there was no launch angle, any of that stuff, but looking back at it now that’s kind of exactly what it was,” Dozier said Tuesday on a conference call. “We just didn’t have a name for it. “[It’s] recognizing your strength and doing everything you can to be really good at your strength rather than try to tweak weaknesses and stuff. And one of those strengths for me is hitting the ball in the air to left field, left-center field. Once I kind of got that part of it, I really enjoyed doing that. It’s going to be a fun year with a hitting coach that kind of sees the same thing, whether your strength is hitting the ball in the air or hitting the ball the other way, I believe in really honing into your strength and really running with that. Some guys’ strengths aren’t hitting the ball in the air, which is fine.”

The numbers coinciding with Dozier’s rise from eighth-round pick to among the league leaders in homers from 2014-2017 are stark. His fly ball rate increased year after year until peaking in 2016 at 47.7 percent, the same season he hit 42 home runs. His 120 OPS-plus in that span showed what kind of work he performed in Minnesota’s cool and spacious Target Field.

However, 2018 brought a significant recession when an April bone bruise in his left knee hindered him throughout the season. Tuesday, Dozier explained the importance of load bearing and stability from his front leg in order to execute his upward swing. Instead of landing on the front of his foot, the knee bruise pushed him back to his heel, opening his hips early. Grizzly results followed: 21 homers, a .215 average, sub-.700 OPS.

Dozier said Tuesday his knee is healed. Finally receiving a break from baseball following the World Series allowed him to recover. That’s also when he had to decide his future. Dozier wasn’t sure how the market would react to his down season following years of being one of the heaviest second base bats in baseball. He said he received multiple offers -- some providing more years and money than the Nationals’ one-year, $9 million deal he settled on -- before selecting Washington. Conversations with his ex-Minnesota teammate Kurt Suzuki, in his second stint with the Nationals, and former Washington outfielder Josh Willingham, who played with Dozier in Minnesota, too, helped sway his decision.

“It just seemed like a really good fit,” Dozier said.

That is applicable to this coming partnership between Dozier and Long. In the air, often and to the pull side. It’s a subtle pairing that could help Dozier return to the 30-home run mark, and the Nationals to receive inexpensive bop from an infield spot.

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