Jefferson relishes opportunity with Jazz
Six seasons mostly filled with frustration and defeat. Three hundred and twenty-nine losses. Three major injuries before the age of 25.
Al Jefferson has endured it all.
But after spending the first part of his career putting up eye-catching numbers in a barren no-man's land, the only major piece the Utah Jazz added during a period of subtraction has found a home.
A city that he appreciates and enjoys. A team that has welcomed him with open arms, loaded with like-minded players who have all long been one step removed from the promised land. A committed, no-give coaching staff that wants to build on his strengths and refine his weaknesses. And a legion of fans who once seemed to fear and hate him but now offer love and support before "Big Al" has even played his first game in a Jazz uniform.
Six years into a still-promising career, the 6-foot-10, 265-pound Jefferson is on his third team and his third new start. But everything feels different this time. Promise and hope have replaced defeat and despair. And with training camp for the 2010-11 season just two days away, the 25-year-old Jefferson has never been more excited.
"It's just a great opportunity for me," he said. "I feel like I'm an essential piece to this puzzle here. And I think, with everything I bring to the table, it can really help this team get to the next level.
"It can also help me show the world the type of player that I can be. So it's just a blessing. I'm really excited that they traded for me because they didn't have to do it. They believed in me. They believed that I can be the guy that they need."
Jefferson also believes.
After spending three years with Boston and three more with Minnesota, the native of Monticello, Miss., had grown accustomed to balancing personal prestige with group failure. Take away a 45-win campaign with the Celtics during his rookie year, and Jefferson has never played on a team that has recorded more than 33 victories. During the past five seasons, the 15th overall pick of the 2004 NBA Draft has been a part of 58.4 average losses while playing for lottery-bound teams that have worn a rebuilding sign around their necks from the opening tip.
Asked to sum it up, Jefferson says: "Rough years."
But the next Jazz big man following in the steps of Karl Malone and Carlos Boozer believes that everything is about to change.
First, there was the reception that Jefferson received from Utah's devoted fan base after he joined the team July 13 as part of an unexpected trade with Minnesota.
Then there was a call from Jazz All-Star point guard Deron Williams. One during which the proud, but sometimes reserved, Williams cut through the normal grandstanding hyperbole and went straight for the heart. Williams told Jefferson that he was also going to an All-Star. It was everything and the only thing Big Al wanted to hear.
"When he said that to me, I believed him," Jefferson said. "He wasn't just talking. He wasn't just saying it because it sounded good. He really means that. And I'm not going to do nothing to mess that up."
During the past 2 1/2 months, Jefferson hasn't.
He has adapted to the Jazz's strict weight-training program, reworking a young body that he hopes still has 10 to 12 years' worth of NBA life left.
He has been active in the community, doing everything from handing out school supplies to children in need to throwing out the first pitch at a Salt Lake Bees Triple-A baseball game.
But most importantly, Jefferson has embraced the one thing that Utah wants out of its lone big-name offseason addition the thing that could one day give the Jazz two unstoppable Batmans, rather than just another one-two punch.
He's put in the work.
Pickup games with Williams, power forward Paul Millsap and guards C.J. Miles and Ronnie Price, among others, have formed a strong foundation that should pay instant dividends during camp.
"We're happy to have him. He's a great addition, and we're going to be a much better ball club with him," Price said. "We're just excited to get into training camp to start molding together. There's a lot of expectations, of course. But I think everything's going to work out for the best."
Jefferson echoed Price's words. During the workouts, bonds have been formed and egos have been challenged and overcome. And Jefferson hasn't just worked out he has enjoyed it.
"I don't do the nightlife no more. I'm not going to be the type of guy who's going to go out and club all the time," Jefferson said. "I'm focused. And I'm here to work, and I'm here to win."
While winning has long been Jefferson's problem in the NBA, his talent has never been a question.
Jefferson is one of the only remaining true low-post players left in the game. His unique combination of size, speed and strength create constant mismatches. And attributes that scouts drool over quick footwork; the ability to drive and finish with both hands; a soft touch; a wide array of deceptive inside moves; basketball intelligence are embedded in Jefferson's brain.
But that doesn't mean Big Al is perfect. Despite posting career averages of 15.3 points and 8.7 rebounds while shooting 50.3 percent from the field, Jefferson has displayed weaknesses during his first six years. Topping the list: defensive liabilities such as a lack of lateral movement and an inability to guard the pick and roll and questions about whether the straight-out-of-high-school player always maximizes his potential.
Jefferson acknowledged the defensive questions. But while some players would shrink from the challenge, he is eagerly anticipating it. He understands that defense is a mind game. And after five consecutive years of stunted growth and excuses, he is ready for his next evolution.
"I know defense is one of the biggest keys here for winning a championship," Jefferson said. "So when you've got guys like my teammates who know how to win and know what it takes to win, I'm not going to be the sore toe sticking out on the defensive end. I'm going to do what it takes.
"Defense has always been something I have to improve on. And one thing I know about coach [Jerry] Sloan: He motivates you. He'll make you run through a wall for [him]. â¦ He's the type of guy that, if I'm not doing what I'm supposed to be doing, he's going to let me know. And that's what I need. And that's what's going to make me that great defensive player."
That is exactly what Jazz General Manager Kevin O'Connor wants to hear.
O'Connor acknowledged that Utah has long eyed Jefferson, tracking his progress and respecting his consistent production.
But just as Jefferson is looking forward to an upcoming season filled with the promise of change, O'Connor said that the center must be willing to listen and adapt to what his new team needs.
Where scouts were detailed in their assessment of what Jefferson must refine his ability to play without the ball and excel in the Jazz's pick-and-roll-based offense; the time that it takes for him to post up and score on an opponent O'Connor was straightforward and specific.
"We want him to turn his statistics into helping us win," O'Connor said.
To Jefferson, the request is not a problem.
Williams is already Batman. He just wants to be Robin. And after a career filled with big but empty numbers and mid-April exits, Big Al is dreaming in navy blue, gold and green.
"I'm still young, man," Jefferson said. "With this opportunity I got with the Jazz, that's one of the reasons I was happy that I didn't get traded to Dallas. I got traded here. Because we're all young here. We're all around the same age, and we can grow old together.
"The thing is, I think I can really take my game up to a whole other level. Because nobody is going to remember a guy who averaged 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] on a team that's only winning 14 games a year. But you will remember a guy who averaged 16 and 12 on a team that's making the playoffs every year. I just think I've only scratched the surface."
Check The Salt Lake Tribune's Jazz Notes blog at sltrib.com/Blogs/jazznotes for a transcript of an exclusive interview with Utah center Al Jefferson.
'Big Al' aims to make a bigger splash
Who • Al Jefferson
What • Utah Jazz center
Age • 25
Number • 25
Vitals • 6-foot-10, 265 pounds
Stats • 15.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 50.3 percent shooting
Year • 6
Teams • Boston, Minnesota, Utah
Draft • No. 15 overall selection out of Prentiss (Miss.) High School in the 2004 NBA Draft
Jefferson on his career and the Jazz • "I think I can really take my game up to a whole other level. Because nobody is going to remember a guy who averaged 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] on a team that's only winning 14 games a year. But you will remember a guy who averaged 16 and 12 on a team that's making the playoffs every year. I just think I've only scratched the surface."
Jefferson on his relationship with Deron Williams • "He's Batman. He's the captain. He's the guy, you know. And I'm Robin. So I'm willing to do whatever. I'm not worried about jelling with him. I'm going to adjust to him. Whatever he needs me to do is going to be done. Because the first thing he said to me when I talked to him is, 'I'm going to make you an All-Star.' And when he said that to me, I believed him. He wasn't just talking. He wasn't just saying it because it sounded good. He really means that. And I'm not going to do nothing to mess that up."
NBA scouts' take
Strengths • Footwork, balance, power, soft touch, shot fake, basketball intelligence, low-post moves, inside-outside game, finish with both hands
Weaknesses • Pick-and-roll defense, passing, lateral movement, defensive focus and intensity, maximizing potential, holds ball too long