Charlotte, N.C. • To the list of people who never thought Al Jefferson could play a lick of defense add Big Al himself.
So when, just a few weeks after the defensive-minded Steve Clifford was hired as the Bobcats new head coach, Jefferson became Charlotte’s big summer signing, more than a few eyebrows were raised.
But a third of the way through the season, Jefferson is at the center of one of the NBA’s top defensive clubs, and Clifford said it’s not difficult to understand how he’s been able to defy doubters.
“Because he’s a good defender,” the coach said of Jefferson. “If you want to watch the film … he’s got very good instincts and that’s where it starts. His pick-and-roll defense has been good. His team defense has been excellent.”
With Jefferson sidelined by an ankle injury, Charlotte was a top-six defense. With Jefferson logging major minutes, the Bobcats, who allow 98 points per 100 possessions, currently sit at No. 4.
“I never thought my name would be a part of that, being an anchor of one of the best defensive teams in the league,” he said. “That really makes me feel good, but it’s a team effort.”
Jefferson credited his coach for helping him believe he was more than just a scorer. “I always criticized my own defense,” he said. “He said I’m really not a bad defensive player. It just motivated me.”
In his first nine NBA seasons, Jefferson’s defensive rating (the number of points opponents score per 100 possessions when a player is on the floor) had never been better than 102.9. Last season, his final year in Utah, Jefferson’s defensive rating was 107.6.
This year, he’s improved that number by a full 10 points.
“I’m just tired of doubting myself on the defensive end,” Jefferson said. “It’s all on me with the effort and being a better defensive player. Coach do make it easy for me to play defense to my strengths and my ability but 80 percent, 85 percent, is still effort.”
Even during his worst performance of the Jazz’s current road trip, when he scored just two points on 1-of-shooting in Atlanta, Utah point guard Trey Burke took care of the ball, turning it over just once. His 3.87 assist-to-turnover ratio is best among the league’s rookies.
“Obviously everyone loves to score but [assists and turnovers] are the stats I really value,” he said.