ORLANDO - He hasn't picked up a football to see if he can still fling it 75 yards, as he could before injuring his right shoulder last February. But Orlando Magic guard Jameer Nelson proclaims himself healed and ready to lead his team back to the Eastern Conference finals.
"My game is good, my health is fine. Mentally I feel strong. I feel like this is going to be a big year for us," said the former Saint Joseph's star, whose Magic opened the season against the Sixers last night. Nelson had seven points and six assists in 21 minutes of Orlando's 120-106 win.
Nelson was in the middle of a very big year last season (16.7 points, 5.4 assists, 50 percent from the floor), having been named to his first All-Star team, when he dislocated his right sholder and tore his labrum in a Feb. 2 game against Dallas. He had surgery a couple of weeks later and was told it was a season-ending procedure. But he was able to rehab and get strong enough to appear in the Finals, where the Magic succumbed to the Lakers in five games. His decision to return drew much scrutiny.
"One thing about the decision to play was, if we won the championship, you look like a genius," he said. "If you lose, you look like the biggest knucklehead. I didn't listen to any of the criticism about returning. If I did, I'd be a knucklehead.
"I was nowhere near 100 percent, I was not myself. I felt like I could help the team, make us a better team. Everyone around me made the decision with me - my agent, my wife, the doctors, the coaches - and we felt like it was the right decision. So we made it and moved forward. Now, I'm 100 percent. I can do everything I could do before the injury, other than throw a football 75 yards. I could do that before, but I haven't tried it since the injury."
Smart move. During the preseason, in which the Magic won all eight of their games, Nelson played so well that his coach sees no evidence of the injury.
"He's looked very good, especially the last few games," Stan Van Gundy said. "I think he got the rust off a little bit. He's attacking the way he did. He's shooting the ball extremely well. I think he's the same guy he was this time last year."
Which doesn't bode well for opponents.
"Jameer is a big key for them," said Sixers coach Eddie Jordan. "He controls their pick-and-rolls, he controls their halfcourt set. He runs the break well. He's a terrific leader. I found that out when he brought his team up to Philadelphia [during the offseason] to work out at Haverford College and I went over there to spy. His intangibles mean probably a little bit more than his actual stats. He is a true leader and he gets his team in the right frame of mind."
Bringing his teammates to Philly for a week has become an offseason tradition for Nelson. It's not all work, there is some fun, and a lot of bonding.
"It's important for me to be around home," Nelson said. "When my teammates come up, it's a good feeling. During the day we work out, at night we'll do different things. We went bowling, played paint ball, went to a Phillies game. I got to take batting practice with the Phillies. I hit a home run to left-centerfield."
No one will ever question Nelson's athleticism. And he certainly won't be throwing a football anytime soon to show it off.