Clippers' Jordan center of attention

On the court, like all great shot-blockers, his timing is impeccable.

In traffic, in the post, in the open court, at its highest point or its lowest point. If you don't come correctly, Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan will block your shot.

Off the court, like all who carry around a few regrets, his timing has been horrible.

He graduated from high school the second year after the NBA's new age-limit rule went into effect, precluding him from entering the 2007 draft, where he potentially would have been a lottery pick.

He signed with Texas A&M just a few months before Billy Gillispie bolted to coach at Kentucky, and then clearly didn't fit in with new coach Mark Turgeon and played limited minutes in just 20 of the Aggies' games.

He entered the 2008 NBA draft in one of the deepest, most talented draft classes ever, helping fuel his fall into the second round and costing him millions of dollars.

And now, after a breakout third season, he'll hit free agency on the eve of what figures to be a titanic labor battle between the NBA owners and players' association that could reshape the NBA's collective bargaining agreement and dramatically alter player compensation.

Jordan laughed when his career was summed up in that way.

Then again, what else could he do, cry?

"It's cool," he said, as teammate and best friend Blake Griffin listened intently from a nearby locker. "I'm really trying not to think about [free agency], even though I kind of have to because it's coming up."

Griffin had already fielded his usual extended round of questioning from reporters after the Clippers' loss to the Dallas Mavericks last week. He easily could've slipped out unmolested while Jordan was occupying the last of the reporters in the locker room.

But he, like the Clippers, has a vested interest in hearing Jordan's thoughts about his upcoming free agency.

Taking the new CBA and work-stoppage threat out of the equation, one prominent NBA agent pegged Jordan's value on the open market to be around $9 million to $11 million dollars a season and predicted he'd sign a contract similar to the five-year, $60 million extension that Bulls center Joakim Noah signed in 2010 or even the four-year, $58 million extension Lakers center Andrew Bynum signed in 2009.

Teammate Chris Kaman just came right out and said it:

"I think he's going to do pretty well this summer when the free-agent market comes up," Kaman said. "I can see a lot of teams wanting to give him some money and trying to use him as a force for them defensively."

Although Jordan is still raw offensively, he's made enough of an evolution at the defensive end to make a big impression.

"Any team that needs a center will be interested," a front office source said. "New York, Houston, Miami, Boston, Cleveland. The question is who has the money to bid it up? New York."

After playing sparingly as a rookie and just a bit more in 2010, Jordan has become one of the most intriguing young centers in the league. He's 12th in the NBA in blocked shots, averaging 1.8 blocks in just 25.7 minutes a game.

Even more importantly, he's begun to demonstrate maturity and poise when faced with adversity.

"You see it more on the court," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "But I think DeAndre has made more of a growth in terms of handling adversity than anything else. That's the reason he's grown as a player.

"Sometimes he still lets things bother him too long. If he misses a layup or a dunk or doesn't get the ball. But it's not affecting the other parts of his game as much.

"I'm pleased, but I think there's a lot more there too."

In other words, his potential is still waiting to be fully realized. Which is exactly why so many teams will likely be interested in his services once the NBA resolves its labor dispute.

The only good news for Clippers fans is that the team will have the opportunity to match any offer sheet he signs with another team, because Jordan is a restricted free agent.

"I can assure you that keeping DJ as part of our core is a major priority and one we will address at the first opportunity," Clippers general manager Neil Olshey said. "Having two starting-caliber centers [Jordan and Kaman] is an incredible luxury and one that we don't take for granted."

Retaining Jordan takes on an extra level of importance because of his friendship with Griffin, who will be eligible for free agency after the 2013 season.

Olshey has already publicly said the organization is committed to keeping Griffin at all costs. But that was never really the question.

Jordan might be the first of the Clippers' talented young players to hit the open market, but Eric Gordon will follow the next year, and Griffin the year after that.

How the organization handles Jordan's free agency will provide a telling clue as to how it will handle Gordon and Griffin, too.

For now, Olshey is treating it as a good problem to have, and so far his actions have backed up his words.

In Feburary, he smartly traded the Clippers' first-round pick this year -- and its $2 million to $3 million salary-cap hold -- in the Baron Davis trade.

The inference is easy to make: Why pay an unproven rookie that extra $2 million to $3 million when you might need it to retain Jordan, who would've been a college senior this year had he not left Texas A&M after just one season.

Olshey was one of the driving forces toward the Clippers' selection of Jordan with the 38th pick in 2008. Though Jordan didn't work out for the Clippers before the draft, Olshey had seen him at Sonny Vaccaro's ABCD camp after his junior and senior years of high school.

When he fell to the Clippers in the second round, the team wasted little time in drafting him.

"Even though he struggled during his only year at Texas A&M and didn't work out for us, the time I spent with him at ABCD camp convinced me he was a special talent with the potential to be a starting center in the NBA," said Olshey, who was assistant general manager at the time.

While there was considerable pre-draft buzz that Jordan might take a precipitous fall on draft day, word of that concern never reached Jordan.

He attended the draft in New York and watched uncomfortably as he fell out of the first round, where rookie contracts are guaranteed.

"I'd thought mid-first round," Jordan said. "That's what my agent told me. So I just sat there with Mario Chalmers and Joey Dorsey, watching."

Griffin couldn't help but overhear.

"I bet that was a fun room to be in," he said.

"Uh-huh," Jordan said, nodding with a serious look on his face.

"I never doubted myself, though. Not once. I knew I wasn't going to stop playing. I wasn't going to stop trying to get better."

And just how long did he hang on to that disappointment?

"I still do," he said. "I just carry it around with me. Got a little chip on my shoulder. That's not bad, right? "

No, it's not.

It just might end up costing the Clippers a lot of money.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.