LAS VEGAS -- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist played in front of arguably the most rabid fanbase in the country when he was in college at Kentucky. His final game there took place on an elevated stage with 75,000 people watching in the New Orleans Superdome.
And yet, as he prepared for his first professional game in front of a couple thousand clearly tired fans at the Thomas and Mack Center, he was nervous, at least according to his head coach.
"Michael was all nerves before the game started," Mike Dunlap said. "But he settled down. He played at Kentucky in front of 24,000 fans, and what's the value of that?"
Kidd-Gilchrist himself wasn't made available to the media to back up Dunlap's claim, but I think it's safe to say all nerves evaporated pretty quickly. On his first defensive possession, he crouched into his typical defensive stance 75 feet from the basket and shouted at nobody in particular. He wasn't taunting his opponent, the Sacramento Kings, nor was he shouting instructions to his teammate behind him. He was just shouting for the hell of it. From there, the rest was easy.
For the next two hours, Kidd-Gilchrist opened everyone's eyes, showing any remaining skeptics that the clichés about his energy before the 2012 NBA Draft were far more than clichés. The final numbers -- 18 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four steals -- were impressive enough, but Kidd-Gilchrist's breakout was about far more than that. It may not actually be possible to will a team to a 34-point Summer League blowout, but if it were, Kidd-Gilchrist's performance would be a perfect example.
"He sets the tone for everyone else," Dunlap said. "He's a locker room guy. He doesn't use a lot of words, but he has an impact with his voice and he backs it up with an energy."
Indeed, Kidd-Gilchrist's performance was all about putting a cliché into action. How did he will his team? There were so many ways, but two especially stand out.
This was always Kidd-Gilchrist's calling card in college, but it was safe to wonder whether the presence of Anthony Davis made it easier for him to go all out. One game of summer league, though, was enough to erase that concern. Kidd-Gilchrist was everywhere on the Bobcats' press, picked up four steals from being opportunistic, guarded Thomas Robinson for most of the game and was always in the proper help position.
All that is impressive, but Kidd-Gilchrist's defensive intensity, at least for this Bobcats squad, is more important once you consider the larger context. Since he arrived as the Bobcats' coach, Dunlap has preached effort, theorizing that so many games in the league are won simply by the team that works hardest. As part of that effort, Dunlap installed a full-court press, instructing his team to do anything they could to pick up the tempo. Making that work requires athletes, intelligent defenders and well-conditioned players. Without those things, Dunlap's team would just give up 120 points every night.
That makes Kidd-Gilchrist's presence so pivotal. His athleticism is unquestioned; his defensive intelligence is advanced beyond his years, and while he had to be taken out every few minutes to get quick breaks, he never stops moving when he's on the court. At times, he centered the press, picking up the ball-handler and sliding his feet to stay with him. At times, he lurked in the back, cutting off easy passes and forcing the ones that he could gobble up for steals. But through it all, he was physically and mentally engaged in the sort of way that you can only be when you have a mindset of playing hard.
In other words, Kidd-Gilchrist played hard, smart and in multiple spots defensively. When he does that, the rest of the team follows suit.
Straight line drives
Kidd-Gilchrist's jumper is a work in progress, but he still found a way to get to the basket at will against the Kings. How? While you'd think that teams would back off him and limit his space to drive, Kidd-Gilchrist counteracts that by working so hard to counteract the space he does get.
There are two kinds of drivers in the NBA: the ones who create space, and the ones who use space. Most players are adept at doing the former. They use fancy dribbling moves to get defenders off-balanced, but once they get that space, they don't really use it effectively. Maybe they settle for bad jumpers. Maybe they think they've created more space than they have and they barrel into a help defender for an offensive foul. Maybe they fail to seize the space that they've gained, almost as if they spend a split second too long impressed or surprised with their own ability to create an opening.
None of that describes Kidd-Gilchrist's game. His drives to the basket in this game weren't as a result of fancy dribbling moves. He just came at defenders, using his quickness to step around them. Nothing fancy, just all-out attack mode. Rather than trying to make an impressive move, Kidd-Gilchrist maps out his path to the basket and immediately processes the most efficient use of his dribble and steps to get there.
"He just plays basketball, taking what the defense gives him," Kemba Walker said. That's a cliché, but it's true. Once the opening is there, Kidd-Gilchrist just seizes it.
Doing this every time is tiring, because it requires all-out aggression that many players don't possess. Kidd-Gilchrist, though, has that aggression and isn't afraid to use it. While it won't be quite as easy in the NBA as it was in this game, he'll manufacture points simply because he won't ever pass on an opportunity to take advantage of space.
It was just one game, but already, Kidd-Gilchrist showed why he's the centerpiece of the Bobcats' rebuilding effort. For Charlotte to succeed in its goal of playing harder than its opponent every night, it needs its best player to play harder than his opponent every night. More importantly, it needs its best player to play harder with a purpose than his opponent every night. Kidd-Gilchrist proved he could do that, all while impacting so many areas of the game.
"We need him to guard the best players, get baskets for us and just be really intense for us," Walker said. "I know it's a lot for a rookie, but he's the No. 2 pick, so he better be ready."
So far, so good.