San Antonio • When he started his NBA career in 2001, Richard Jefferson earned his paycheck with his athleticism — running the floor, slashing to the hoop, and dunking on anyone he could.
More than a decade later, the 33-year-old forward has had to change a few things.
“I used to be able to jump a lot higher and run a lot faster,” Jefferson said Wednesday as he prepared to face his former team.
His journey has a player has taken him more and more behind the 3-point line. Nearly halfway through the season, Jefferson leads the Jazz in 3-point percentage (43.1) while taking the second-most shots from distance on the team (137). It’s an evolution in his game that started in San Antonio.
Before he was traded to the Spurs in 2009, Jefferson had never shot 40 percent from beyond the arc.
But in Gregg Popovich’s system, his role as a small forward had to change.
Assistant coach Chip Engelland “worked really hard with him because his release was a little bit slow in certain situations,” Popovich said. “It sounds simplistic, but being ready to catch it, being prepared to catch it and shot, is almost as important as shooting the shot.”
After a down shooting year in 2009-10, Jefferson has found himself north of 40 percent in three of the last four seasons.
“I wouldn’t be shooting it at the percentage that I’m shooting it at if it wasn’t for them,” he said.
Performances like Alec Burks’ career-high 34-point night against Denver will earn the third-year guard more minutes, just maybe not right away.
“He’s a guy as we go forward we’ll look to grow those minutes into a 34-plus minute guy for us,” Jazz coach Ty Corbin said.
But at 27.4 minutes a night, Burks is playing the role the coaching staff envisioned for him to start the year. And Corbin believes there is risk in playing too much too soon.
“Absolutely,” he said. “People think you just throw guys out there and let them play. But you’ve got to learn how to play and play efficiently and play to win.
“That’s what we try to do with our guys — not just have them on the floor, but have them have effective minutes while they’re on the floor.”