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Utah Jazz: Richard Jefferson proving he still belongs

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(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz small forward Richard Jefferson (24) drives over Los Angeles Lakers center Jordan Hill (27). The Utah Jazz defeated the LA Lakers 105-103, Friday, December 27, 2013 at Energy Solutions Arena in Salt Lake City.

By Aaron Falk

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Apr 05 2014 01:38PM
Updated Apr 5, 2014 06:52PM

Richard Jefferson couldn’t watch. He’d twice made a run to the NBA Finals with the New Jersey Nets, so with one of his former teams battling for the title that has eluded him, Jefferson stayed away from the television set.

It had been a difficult season for the forward, perhaps the most difficult of his career. He’d ripped his calf in the preseason and the injury was nagging. On top of that, his back had started to seize up badly. And the veteran found himself at the end of the Golden State bench, seeing DNPs for the first time.

But his choice not to watch was about more than that.

"I’m a fan of the sport. I enjoy it. I get it. But I get mad All-Star weekend when I’m with people and they want to watch the All-Star Game," Jefferson said. "And 100 percent I’m jealous. It’s purely out of jealously. I’ve never watched the [NCAA] national championship game because we lost [in 2001 when he was at Arizona] and because I’m pissed off. I don’t want to see that [expletive]. As a competitor, it’s like, I’m going to watch that and say, ‘Ooh. I want that to be me’? Well it’s not. And I’ve been there before, so I know how awesome a feeling it is."

With the Utah Jazz lottery-bound, Jefferson has no plans to watch the playoffs this time around either. But as the 33-year-old returns to Golden State this weekend, buoyed by a season of personal redemption, he remains hopeful he might yet see them again.

Through 76 games this year, Jefferson has shown he still has a place.

He is averaging double figures (10.3 points per game) and shooting 42.5 percent from 3 — the ninth-best percentage in the NBA. He’s the only Jazz man to have played in every game this season. He’s also the only one to have started every contest.

"When I came into this season, the only thing I wanted to do was play 82 games," Jefferson said. "I was shocked when Coach said I was going to start."

From the beginning, Jazz coach Ty Corbin has been impressed by the veteran’s approach to the game and his willingness to take on a new role on a rebuilding team.

"He came into camp in great shape, with an open mind to take advantage of whatever opportunity was there for him, and it’s worked out," Corbin said. "We needed him on the floor to help guide these young guys through. The situations we’ve been through aren’t new to him."

Warriors coach Mark Jackson believed Jefferson could still compete, even if he averaged career lows in minutes (10.3) and points (3.1) last season in Oakland.

"He was playing for us at the start of the season, then he got hurt, and that allowed Draymond Green to get into the rotation and we took off as a basketball team. It had nothing to do with us believing his tank was on empty. There were days that he looked very good when we put him in the ballgames," Jackson said earlier this season. "Certainly, we believed he could play. He was in that Spurs series in the game when it mattered. So that showed that we believed he had something left in the tank."

This time last season, however, Jefferson himself was wondering if the end was near.

But after a summer of rest and work with a biomechanics specialist, Jefferson saw sudden improvement in his back and a return of some of the lift that made him one of the league’s most explosive athletes at one time.

He now believes he has two or three seasons left. He’ll be a free agent this summer for the first time in his career and would love to play for a title contender.

"If I get an opportunity to play for a championship team, I’m going to go hunting for that," Jefferson told Sirius XM’s Off the Dribble show earlier this season. "I have no loyalty. I’m not one of those guys that played for the same team for 15 years like a Reggie Miller who has to decide whether or not he’s going to do that. No. I’m a gun for hire."

It’s a statement Jefferson backs off from some now.

"I probably made a mistake by saying that at that point in time. Because without their help, I wouldn’t be in the position that I am right now," he said Saturday, adding that he "definitely wouldn’t mind staying" in Utah after this season.

But he won’t be watching another Finals unless he’s playing.

"I would love that," he said.

afalk@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribjazz

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