Al Jefferson is rolling on the road from Mississippi to Atlanta, having just wrapped his annual basketball camp in his native state and now preparing to fly out to Salt Lake City for his latest game in the BIG3 league.

His impending return to Utah — where he spent three of his 14 NBA seasons — has made him a bit philosophical. While those years weren’t the most statistically prodigious of his career, they did perhaps have the biggest impact upon him.

“I feel like Utah really saved my career,” Jefferson told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Jefferson, a 6-foot-10, 280-pound center, was drafted by the Celtics out of Prentiss High School in Mississippi. He first became a viable force in his third season in Boston, when he basically doubled his production across the board. Afterward, he was dealt to the Timberwolves. And while he had three of his most statistically significant seasons in Minnesota (20.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks), the organization was widely viewed as a chaotic laughingstock around the league.

So when he was traded to Utah — a locale then not often welcomed by many league veterans — Jefferson was actually relieved and excited.

“Utah, to me, was a new beginning. … Utah was that team that was used to winning,” Jefferson said. “… They kind of taught me the professional way — how a first-class organization does things.”

Of course, things couldn’t possibly go that smoothly.

Jefferson joined the Jazz eager to learn from Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan, and grateful to be part of an organization lauded for its stability. So, naturally, six months later, Sloan suddenly quit, no longer able to tolerate the behind-the-scenes drama he was experiencing with point guard Deron Williams; then Williams was subsequently traded to the Nets for rookie big man Derrick Favors and a draft pick that would become center Enes Kanter.

BIG3 IN SALT LAKE CITY


When • Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where • Vivint Smart Home Arena
Format • The BIG3 basketball league features 12 teams of former NBA players competing in 3-on-3, halfcourt games to 50 points. The league also features a 4-point shot area. The SLC event (Week 6 on the league’s schedule) will feature three matchups: 3’s Company vs. Killer 3s; Ball Hogs vs. Triplets; and Bivouac vs. Aliens. Former Jazz players Joe Johnson, Al Jefferson and DeShawn Stevenson will be among those competing.
Tickets • Prices range from $15 to $375 and can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com.
TV • CBS Sports Network

Jefferson went on to average 18.5 points, 9.5 boards, and 1.6 blocks with the Jazz between the 2010-11 and 2012-13 seasons, before being allowed to leave as an unrestricted free agent — management of the opinion the team had plateaued with he and Paul Millsap as its centerpieces.

Still, Jefferson was able to land a lucrative free-agent deal with the then-Charlotte Bobcats because, he said, his time in Utah had rehabilitated his image.

“I feel like I was headed down that road of being labeled as a good player on a bad team,” he said. “And [the Jazz] gave me a new life.”

He not only had no hard feelings about the team making no attempt to re-sign him, he even agreed with the decision.

“The way I look at the situation in Utah — me and Paul always talk about that, our last year there — I put myself in [then-GM] Kevin O’Connor’s position at that time: Why would you sign back me and Paul Millsap when you have Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, who at that time was young and still on his rookie deal?” Jefferson said. “You’re gonna bring back me and Paul for the type of money that we wanted? It just didn’t make sense on the business side. I understood that.”

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Paul Millsap, left, and Al Jefferson were two of the Jazz's cornerstone pieces early this decade, but both were allowed to walk away as unrestricted free agents following the 2012-13 season.

After three seasons in Charlotte and two more with the Pacers, Jefferson’s time with the NBA was up. While he would’ve welcomed a call from another team, he also acknowledged that “the NBA don’t owe me anything,” and that he’d had “a hell of a career.” So instead, he spent a couple months playing in China, then returned home, his mind made up to retire from basketball. But then longtime friend and NBA vet turned BIG3 vet Jannero Pargo got in his ear about giving Ice Cube’s 3-on-3 league filled with former NBA players a chance.

“He called me up and said, ‘We got Joe Johnson playing,’ and I said, ‘Well, you know, that might not be a bad idea,’” Jefferson said with a laugh. “And you know, this has been a lot of fun, man. … If you got that itch, this is a good way to scratch it.”

So that’s what he’s been doing. Jefferson has averaged 11.0 points and 5.6 rebounds as the co-captain on Johnson’s “Triplets” team that’s gone 4-1 thus far. It certainly didn’t hurt that this year’s schedule has included stops in Charlotte, Indianapolis, and now Salt Lake City (“Wow, they must’ve known I was gonna sign with the BIG3!” Jefferson joked).

Johnson, who has quickly proven one of the best players in the league, said that having Big Al on his BIG3 team has been pretty much perfect.

“Man, Al’s just a super-cool, laid-back kinda guy. He reminds me so much of myself — low-maintenance, easygoing; he comes out every weekend and competes hard,” Johnson said. “He just takes it for what it’s worth, man, and just has fun with it. I enjoy him as a teammate. He’s a great guy.”

Jefferson is excited to re-visit Utah with the BIG3, and to show off the league to a basketball-ravenous fanbase.

“We all grew up playing 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 in the back yard, so it’s kind of back to the basics, kind of a throwback,” he said. “… It’s really intense. I think the fans will really appreciate that guys are out there playing their butts off and really trying to compete and win.”

And once the season is over, what then? After all, the BIG3 lasts but a few months, and this is a man who was recently intent on hanging up the sneakers for good.

Well, it turns out, Jefferson already has plans to roll on down the road again.

“This is the first fall that I have to myself, and something that I always wanted to do and never got a chance to was tailgate. I always wanted to go to a football game and tailgate,” Jefferson said. “… When I got drafted, I never got a chance to do it because during this time of the year I’d be getting ready to play ballgames or whatever. So now, I’m just looking forward to going to football games and going tailgating and getting to experience that.”