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Congratulations, Jameer

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A Daily Babble Production

Amnesia is getting the best of me this morning, so since I can't recall if I've clarified my general thoughts on the All-Star Game in this space, a refresher in a nutshell: It's an exhibition game that means nothing, so I treat it as such.  The fan voting often prevents the game from featuring the league's best players in favor of its most popular, and that's fine by me.  Fans get the short end of the stick all the time in pro sports, so having some power isn't the worst thing in the world. 

As one might imagine, having members of the green be involved isn't of much consequence from my perspective.  It's a nice tribute to one's popularity with the fans to be selected as a starter, and it is of course an honor to be recognized by the coaches around the league as a reserve.  But as someone not even sure if he will watch the game and sure only that he will not be concerned by its outcome even if he does, the idea of the Celtics resting at home to have some extra wind for the games that count sounds just fine.

I write the above not out of any belief that you've waiting on the edge of your seats to read of my personal lack of concern with the All-Star game but instead as a disclaimer.  I have not spent the last 72 hours getting myself into the perhaps-appropriate tizzy about the omissions of Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen from the Eastern Conference squad, particularly with regard to the presence of Orlando guard Jameer Nelson.

I also haven't spent any time thinking out who should be on the roster, so I'm hardly qualified to debate that.  But this much seems evident: With only 12 roster spots, there are almost inevitably going to be more qualified or close-to-it players than there will be spots to go around.

What isn't in doubt about Jameer Nelson is that he is in that discussion, as he has had an impressive campaign to date.  It's good to see his efforts get recognized.

The Magic have won 35 of their first 45 games this season, which puts them in a neck-and-neck race with the Cavaliers and Celtics for the best record in the Eastern Conference.  All three of those teams are far and away better than the rest of the competition the three divisions on that side of the country have to offer.  At this point in the schedule a season ago, the Magic were 27-18.  Respectable, but that's a far cry from this year's pace.  Nelson's improved play has been one of the primary reasons the team is off to the start it is.

A year ago, this was a player in danger of losing his job.  He didn't assert himself in the offense, didn't force opponents to be wary of him as a scoring threat and often found himself off the floor or deferring to Hedo Turkoglu as point forward in late-game situations.  The Magic exited the playoffs in five games in the second round despite the opposing Pistons losing point guard Chauncey Billups to injury in the middle of the series.  Rookie Rodney Stuckey took over, and Nelson couldn't outplay him by enough of a margin to make Detroit pay.

It has been a completely different story this season.  Nelson has played more confident basketball from the start this season, and he has made the offense his.  While he has continued to attack the basket hard, it has been the improvement in Nelson's jump shooting that has really made a difference in opening the floor for his teammates.  A season ago, he put up an effective field goal mark of 48 percent on his jump shots, largely thanks to his 41.6 percent three-point shooting.  He was miserable from mid-range, hitting just 57 of 154 shots from intermediate distances, a lowly 37 percent.  This season, Nelson has already taken 138 shots from mid-range, and he has hit 75 of them (54.3 percent).  Add to that the fact that Nelson is shooting a career-best 45.4 percent from three, and it is no surprise that his eFG on jump shots has risen to 57.8 percent this season. 

Nelson is scoring 17 points per game, tied for second among Eastern Conference point guards and easily a career high.  His 61.4 percent true shooting mark is second only to Jose Calderon among Eastern point guards.  He is taking the most field-goal attempts of his career and having a tremendously efficient season.  That's also helped by the fact that Nelson has been a killer at the foul line, knocking down 88 percent of his attempts. 

Nelson's increased ability to knock down shots from the perimeter has forced teams to step out and guard him and has opened the floor for his teammates, while also taking some of the scoring burden off of Hedo Turkoglu and Dwight Howard.  Turkoglu still plays an important role as an alternate ball-handler, which is part of the reason Nelson dishes out just 5.4 assists per game, which still isn't terrible by any means. 

Nelson also continues to play tough defense, and he has done his part for the league's third-ranked defensive unit.  Opposing point guards are posting just a 44 percent effective field goal mark against the Magic with Nelson on the floor.  A year ago, this team had a difference of less than a point per 100 possessions between having Nelson on the court and off it.  This season, the Magic are 9.7 points per 100 possessions better offensively and 1.4 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Nelson on the floor, a net of 11.1 points per 100 possessions.  Like Rajon Rondo (who is plus-9 in this department, by the way) for the Celtics, Nelson has become that difference-maker who can really take the Magic to another level when he is on his game.  Far more often than not this season, he has been on his game.

Like Rondo and several other players in the East, Jameer Nelson has put together the best work of his career in 2008-09, and he has made a big difference in his team's success.  While there are plenty of candidates meriting discussion for the Eastern Conference's two wild card spots, there is no complaint here about Nelson making the trip to Phoenix.  He is enjoying an excellent season in which his importance goes beyond the numbers as opponents can no longer approach the Magic believing the point guard position is a liability due little attention.  Good on Jameer for earning himself the recognition from coaches around the league.