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Clippings: The Agua Caliente Clippers showed signs of growth, even if their record didn’t reflect it

Malik Fitts and Jordan Ford spoke about what comes next.

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Agua Caliente Clippers v Greensboro Swarm Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

Jordan Ford was sitting down for his final media availability of the G League season when Ray McCallum walked by and yelled at him, “I know who you are (now), keep holding it down, bro.”

McCallum played the 2021 G League season for the Greensboro Swarm, who beat the Agua Caliente Clippers in the final game of the regular season, but he was a draft pick of the Sacramento Kings in 2013. And that meant that Ford, a high-school kid in Sacramento, grew up watching McCallum and got to see him up close at a pro-am McCallum held in the area.

Eight years later, Ford was living out a dream playing against McCallum in a professional game.

“It’s definitely cool, it’s definitely cool,” Ford said. “At the same time, I know I earned my right to be here and play with these guys, but it is definitely a cool experience to watch people that you’ve seen play in the NBA your whole life and get a chance to go at them, so it’s definitely a cool experience for me.”

Ford’s 2021 season ended short of his ultimate goal of making the NBA, but it was a step in the right direction. After falling short of the playoffs with a 5-10 record, that’s how most of the Clippers looked back on their time in the bubble: as a meaningful path on their overall basketball journey, if not the destination itself.

For Ford, his offensive skills were undeniable heading into the bubble. He finished the season with the team’s second-best offensive rating behind Amir Coffey while averaging 13.9 points and 3.5 assists compared to just 0.9 turnovers per game. Coach Paul Hewitt repeatedly touted Ford’s ability to set up his teammates, space the floor, and maintain possession. As such, the rookie point guard saw the G League season as an opportunity to work on his defense. He wanted to focus on his physicality and getting over screens, and he specifically cited his goal of getting stronger once the season was over.

Santa Cruz Warriors v Agua Caliente Clippers
Jordan Ford averaged 13.9 points and 3.5 assists compared to just 0.9 turnovers per game.
Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

The point guard will be also putting to practice some of the lessons he learned from the Clippers in NBA training camp. He observed the work ethic of the veterans, measured it against his own, and arrived at the belief that he belongs at this level. The vets would also point out his mistakes; Patrick Beverley even pulled Ford aside to run through drills.

“He’s a real nice dude,” Ford said about Beverley. “He’s very intense, but I like that a lot, so I was able to learn a lot from him, and I feed off his intensity as well.”

Ford’s college teammate Malik Fitts came in with more ready-made defensive skills, but his goals for the bubble were still on that end of the floor. That made him a good fit with Hewitt, who constantly talked about his defensive expectations for the team.

“[Hewitt] was really big on me about defense and and you know, whenever you’re going to get an opportunity to play for a team, you got to really guard and that was definitely something that always stuck with me,” Fitts said. “By the end of this, I wanted to be known as a guy that really locked up on defense, and that was the emphasis that I had prior to the season. And I thought it played out pretty well.”

The 6’8 forward showed growth on both sides of the ball to earn more playing time as the season wore on, and he even cracked the starting lineup for the final six games. Hewitt singled out Fitts’ defense against G League Ignite, specifically his effort deflecting lob passes against the run-and-gun youngsters. Fitts’ ability to make plays at the rim on the offensive end also helped the Clippers in that win, and he scored at least 19 points in four of the last five games.

While Fitts and Ford showed growth as scorers, that allowed Amir Coffey to work on his playmaking. His skill as a shooter was on full display at the NBA level, but the L.A. Clippers don’t really allow him to handle the ball. Coffey had to work on that in the bubble, and his assist percentage jumped from 13.2 as a rookie to 21.7 this year, which led the A.C. Clippers.

“Just ball screen reads, watching film,” Coffey said when asked about the growth in his playmaking. “Just making those reads coming off. Emanuel Terry does a great job at rolling, very athletic big, so it’s easy to throw him the ball over the top, we got some good shooters, so spaces the floor out, so it makes it easy on us ball handlers.”

The Clippers had the 14th-best offense out of 18 teams in Orlando, so Coffey is being kind, but those attributes do describe his NBA teammates should Ty Lue expand his role in the second half of the season.

Agua Caliente Clippers v Westchester Knicks
Amir Coffey had a chance to expand his skill set in his seven-game G League stint.
Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

As Coffey heads back to Los Angeles, the fate of his teammates is more up in the air. Fitts plans to work out back at home and prepare to make a 2021-22 roster. Ford, meanwhile, has considered going overseas for a few months before hopefully rejoining the Clippers for Summer League and beyond.

“It’s been a learning process, definitely also a mental process,” Fitts said after the final game. “When you get up to the big leagues, you got to realize that it’s a lot different, and then whenever it’s your opportunity, you got to make the most of it. And that was definitely something that I learned, especially starting off the beginning of the season coming off the bench. Just got to realize like when it’s your opportunity, you got to make the most of it.”

The goal remains to latch onto an NBA roster. After their experience in Orlando of playing next to and against former NBA players — and a current rising star in Coffey — that dream is increasingly within reach.

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