CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Charlotte Bobcats’ player introductions begins like so many in the NBA: The lights turn off, music blasts over the stereo while the scoreboard lights up with emphatic dunks and blocks. Then, as the music dulls, the PA announcer’s voice begins to boom over the music introducing the first four starters.
That’s when the deviation comes in, though, as the baritone echoes throughout the arena: “And finally, the steal of the second round … 6-foot-7 shooting guard Jeff Taylor!”
The light shines down on Taylor, the only second-round pick in the 2012 NBA Draft to have started 10 or more games — he’s one of only 10 rookies overall to have done so this season — and for a couple seconds he’s the center of attention, a position contrary to his personality and desires. It’s his humility and workman-like attitude that have already endeared him to head coach Mike Dunlap.
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“Oh my gosh, [Taylor] is one of the most quiet people I’ve met in my life,” said Gerald Henderson, one of Taylor’s best friends on the team. “He just keeps to himself, says, ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye,’ gets his extra work in and that’s just who he is. Just a great dude, great teammate.”
In a day and age where athletes’ entitlement and look-at-me personas can be nauseating, Taylor’s as far from that as possible. You won’t see him demanding 15 shots a game, arguing with coaches or popping off on Twitter about opposing players or fans. In fact, you won’t find him tweeting at all.
“I don’t get into all that. I think it’s stupid,” Taylor said. “I don’t think that my life is that interesting that I need to tell people that I’m popping popcorn or just going out to eat or something. I’m kind of low key.”
Taylor instead likes to stay in. He watches movies using his Apple TV and NetFlix. He plays video games. He’s not the going out every night type.
It’s that low-key attitude that sinks into his game on the court, too, where he’s more focused on locking his man down than he is getting 20 points – a quality demanded of him early on from his father, who played professionally in the NBA and overseas.
“[My dad] instilled that defensive pride of really feeling like you should never feel good about letting your man score,” he said.
It’s his attention to perimeter defense that is the first thing mentioned by Dunlap when asked about his development. And although he’s become known for his defense upon entering the league as the first pick of the second round out of Vanderbilt, his coach has seen improvement in his jump shot as well. Taylor averaging 7.4 points per game and shooting 30 percent from deep.
“Well, the arrow’s pointing in the right direction,” Dunlap said of Taylor’s work on the defensive end. “He’s going to be a superior defender in this league over time. … Offensively, he’s not as hesitant [recently] and so his percentage from the 3-point line is improving dramatically. That means he’s getting comfortable.”
Henderson sees a lot of himself as a rookie in Taylor. It’s that rookie grind of figuring out what you can and can’t do on the court at a level where everyone’s faster, the skill is higher, the 3-point line deeper and the schedule more demanding.
Much of that comes not only from more time on the court but from moments like Tuesday’s practice, where he was able to sit on the side and listen as owner Michael Jordan schooled Henderson and fellow rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on post play – an area in which Jordan made a living as a player.
It’s also a comfort level that comes when suddenly you can devote the bulk of your day to basketball. No longer are there the stresses that come with getting your degree from one of the top 20 universities in the country while simultaneously pursuing dreams on the hardwood.
“I love my life the way it is right now, not having to stress about school and can’t sleep at night because you’re worried about what your final grade is going to be,” Taylor said. “Those things suck, but there’s pluses and minuses. Obviously, you miss the togetherness you have in the college scene, and we’re a really close team here in Charlotte, but nothing really compares to the way it is in college with your college teammates.”
5,000 miles from home
That life, though, is a life that could have come much later on … or not at all. Taylor’s father, Jeffery Taylor Sr., was born in Hobbs, N.M., but played in the NBA for two seasons before heading over to Sweden to play. The second oldest of six, Jeff was a high school star in Norrkoping, Sweden, and could have easily worked up through the ranks and played professionally in Europe before trying to make it in the NBA.
But while he played on under-16, 18 and 20 national teams — he still holds onto the dream of one day playing on the Swedish National team — he wanted the opportunity to “see what high school and college life was like.”
So he journeyed 5,000 miles back to the U.S., moving in with his grandmother and starting his junior year of high school.
Although his father spoke English in their house, the only time he spoke English prior to moving to New Mexico was in English class at school. He picked it and the American game up immediately, winning a state championship in the No. 44 jersey just as his father had done before him, averaging 30 points per game as a senior.
“It was great playing at Hobbs, playing with the No. 44 just like my mom and dad did before me,” Taylor said. “I’m proud that I was able to win a state championship there.”
With a 30-point average, a 6-foot-7, 220-pound frame, and a 40-inch vertical to go with the lineage of a former NBA player, one would think a big-time ranking and a McDonald’s All-American game appearance would be forthcoming. But none of that ever came.
He wasn’t extremely well known on the national circuit because he’d never played AAU or been to any of the premier shoe camps to face off against the nation’s best, choosing instead to head back to Sweden for his summers to be with his family.
He had done enough, though, on the high school circuit to get numerous offers, narrowing it down to Vanderbilt and Texas before deciding on moving across the country to Nashville, Tenn., for much the same reason he embraced after being drafted by the Bobcats: The opportunity to prove himself immediately.
“It was a huge void that I walked into,” he said. “I knew if I came in and worked hard and handled my business I would have an opportunity to start and obviously it’s a great academic school, really high standards, and it looks really well on your resume if you ever need a job.”
From day one, it was obvious that job would be basketball, at least for 10-15 years after college. However, Taylor decided to pass up early entry to the NBA as a junior and returned to school. But just like in high school, scouts overlooked him. He fell out of the first round. Charlotte, however, was thrilled. Even though they had already drafted Kidd-Gilchrist, another 6-foot-7, defensive-minded SEC forward, with the second overall pick, the Cats jumped at the chance to grab someone of his talent level and he’s fit in well, even switching from small forward to shooting guard as his skill set has evolved.
“Everybody wants to be first round,” Taylor said. “I definitely thought I was good enough to be first round, but things happen for a reason. I got picked by Charlotte, and I’m starting here so I can’t complain about anything.”
Regardless of the fact that it meant he’d make $445,000 less in his first year than Vanderbilt teammate Festus Ezili, who was picked one selection ahead of him, Taylor was pleased with where he fell. He felt comfortable. The bulk of the late first-round teams come from the glitz-and-glamour, bright lights cities with the massive media markets.
That’s not Taylor. It’s not Charlotte, either.
“This is probably one of the best places I could end up in,” Taylor said.