Former Jazzman Jefferson helps revive Bobcats
Published: December 30, 2013 12:01PM
Updated: December 30, 2013 07:03PM
Charlotte Bobcats' Al Jefferson poses for a photo during the NBA basketball team's media day in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Sept. 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Few players in Jazz history have produced more consistently than center Al Jefferson.

No player has done it during a more tumultuous three-year stretch.

Jefferson returns to Utah on Monday night when his new team, Charlotte, visits EnergySolutions Arena.

As part of the Jazz’s roster restructuring last summer, Jefferson was allowed to walk away as a free agent. He ended up signing a three-year, $40.5 million deal with the Bobcats.

Jefferson left Utah without hard feelings.

“They just let me know July 1 they were going to go in a different direction,” he said last week, after the Jazz’s 88-85 win in Charlotte. “They told me they were going to help me any way they possibly [could] with a sign-and-trade. I respected them.”

Jefferson knew the Jazz’s battle plan: let go of expensive veterans, create financial flexibility and give young players like Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter a chance to prove themselves.

“It really didn’t make sense to bring me back,” Jefferson said. “You’ve got to let them guys develop and get that experience. I would have loved to come back. But once they told me that, Charlotte was the next team that showed me a lot of interest. They wanted me to be a part of their family.”

Jefferson came to the Jazz on July 13, 2010, via a trade with Minnesota.

In the four previous seasons, Utah averaged 52 wins and reached the second round of the playoffs three times, including a trip to the 2007 Western Conference finals.

After the 2009-10 season, however, Carlos Boozer left for Chicago via a sign-and-trade.

The Jazz needed a low-post scorer to team with All-Star point guard Deron Williams and stretch shooter Mehmet Okur, so they acquired Jefferson.

The plan seemed to be working.

The Jazz started 27-13 but, on Feb. 10, 2011, head coach Jerry Sloan and longtime assistant Phil Johnson abruptly resigned. Two weeks later, Williams was traded to the Nets.

Although Jefferson didn’t miss a game and averaged 18.6 points and 9.7 rebounds, the Jazz lost 21 of their final 29 games and failed to reach the playoffs.

Utah’s run as a 50-win contender ended.

The Jazz squeaked into the playoffs during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, but they missed the postseason last year.

Along the way, however, Jefferson joined Paul Millsap as the Jazz’s foundation. In his three seasons, he played in 221 of a possible 230 games while averaging 18.5 points and 9.5 rebounds.

“I always tell everybody Utah really did change me as a person — on and off the court,” Jefferson said. “It really taught me how to be a professional.”

His best memory?

In the next-to-last game of 2011-12, the Jazz clinched an improbable playoff berth with a 100-88 victory over Phoenix.

“I didn’t have a big night,” Jefferson said. “ … [But] that’s the game that always stands out to me.”

This season, Jefferson, who will be 29 on Jan. 4, has helped Charlotte gain long-missing credibility. The Bobcats are 13-17 and look like a playoff team in the weak Eastern Conference.

On Saturday night, Jefferson finished with 24 points and 23 rebounds in a 118-116 overtime loss at Atlanta.

“We have a premier low-post scorer, which not many teams have,” coach Steve Clifford told the Charlotte Observer before the season.

“... Basketball is a game that starts at the top of your roster. Whoever has the best single player on the floor has a decided advantage. He immediately becomes our best offensive player, with the ability to attract a second defender and make the play to get another player a good shot.”

The Tribune’s Aaron Falk contributed to this story.

Jazz vs. Charlotte

P At EnergySolutions Arena

Tip-off • 7 p.m.

TV • Root Sports

Radio • 1280-AM, 1600-AM, 97.5-FM

Records • Jazz, 9-24; Bobcats, 14-17

Season series • Jazz, 1-0

Last meeting • Jazz, 88-85 (Dec. 21)

About the Jazz • They are 5-5 in their last 10 games. ... They play nine of their next 13 games at home. ... They come off a 98-90 loss to the Clippers in L.A. ... G/F Gordon Hayward averages a team-high 16.4 points. ... In the last two games, Enes Kanter has scored 25 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in 46 minutes. ... PG Trey Burke scored 20 points in their win at Charlotte last week.

About the Bobcats • They have lost three of their last four. ... They are 2-7 against Western Conference opponents. ... They come off a 118-116 overtime loss at Atlanta. ... They rank 28th in the league in scoring (92.9). ... G Kemba Walker is their top scorer. He averages 18.6 points per game. ... They are coached by ex-Laker assistant Steve Clifford.