The Associated Press
---- — CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Rod Higgins believes the Charlotte Bobcats are a team on the rise.
The team president of basketball operations wasn't about to predict how many wins the Bobcats will have in their final season before changing their name to the Hornets, but he expects they'll be "much improved" over last season.
That won't take much.
The Bobcats finished 21-61 last season - the second-worst record in the NBA.
But that was last year. Higgins and general manager Rich Cho were bubbling with optimism Tuesday talking about the addition of free agent center Al Jefferson and the development of rookie draft pick Cody Zeller during the summer.
They also feel they finally have the right coaching staff in place led by Steve Clifford, a longtime NBA assistant who is getting his first crack as a head coach.
Higgins said it would be unfair to make any predictions given the new pieces the team has added and the fact they haven't played a game together yet.
"Who knows what can happen with this team?" Higgins said with a hint of optimism. "I'm sure the coach and his staff and the players, by the way we're working right now, they are going to have a high optimism with our team. So we'll see how it plays out."
Much of the excitement surrounds the addition of Jefferson, who gives the Bobcats a legitimate low post threat and a player Higgins calls a "difference maker."
"He's a guy who can post up - something we couldn't do very well last season - and draw a double team and pass out of that double team," Higgins said.
That should free up more outside shots for the Bobcats, who struggled from 3-point range last season.
The 7-foot Zeller, the fourth overall pick in the NBA draft, is coming off a strong performance in the NBA Summer League.
He's shown he can knock down long jumpers - something he wasn't asked to do much with the Indiana Hoosiers - and the Bobcats plan to use him as a "stretch four" role this season.
Cho said Zeller reminds him of Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge, citing size and ability to run the floor as well as his high basketball IQ.
"Cody can play inside and outside and I think he's a hard matchup for a lot of guys," Cho said.
Along with Jefferson and Zeller, point guard Kemba Walker, recently re-signed Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are expected to round out Charlotte's starting five.
How those five - and a more experienced bench - mesh when the team arrives at training camp next Tuesday in Asheville, N.C., remains to be seen.
That's up to Clifford, a former Orlando Magic assistant whom the Bobcats feel will better relate to young players than previous coach Mike Dunlap, who was fired after just one season.
"Sometimes the beauty is the uncertainty," Higgins said. "We have obviously had some trying years but now making the changes we've talked about and the uncertainty of not knowing who we are, I would presume we are going to be much improved."