Because his hearing was never the problem, the comments about his poor defense registered loud and clear, as did the diplomatic non-answer answers through the years whenever a coach or teammate was asked about the topic and didn’t want to trash Al Jefferson. He got it.
So when Jefferson joined the Bobcats this season, coach Steve Clifford quickly made the point that Jefferson’s defense wasn’t really as bad as people made it seem. There was a back-handed compliment in there somewhere, but there was also a match strike that led to the veteran center being newly motivated on that side of the ball and becoming a key component of the team that is fifth in the league in shooting defense and sixth in points allowed per 100 possessions.
“It means a lot,” Jefferson said of Clifford’s comments, words of praise that have continued long past the start of the season. “It motivates me. It motivates me to continue to get better on defense. I never heard my name and ‘great defense’ in anything. People always criticized me about my defense. I really don’t care what people think, but just to finally hear somebody giving me a compliment.”
Clifford gave him that compliment, but also a challenge. Tapping into pride, the new coach talked to Jefferson about his reputation. He put the image of a talented post scorer who gives a lot of the points back in the other end in front of Jefferson.
“He didn’t want to be the weak link defensively,” Clifford said. “And I think as he’s come in, despite the fact that he’s not healthy, he’s really done a good job.”
The bruised right ankle that cost Jefferson nine games in November remains a problem, reducing his lift, but he is at 17 points and 10.1 rebounds while 34th in defensive impact, a measurement mostly of big men on blocks, steals and protecting the rim.
“I think he’s played a lot better defensively than anybody ever gave him credit for in the past,” Clifford said. “Whatever the knock on him, I guess, when he was younger was that he didn’t pass the ball out of the post, which he does very efficiently now. And the knock on him when we got him was that he wouldn’t defend. His defense has been good. It’s been solid. What people don’t know is, he’s not near a 100 percent. His ankle is what it is. I don’t think for the rest of this year he’s going to have the lift or the explosiveness he had last year and yet he goes out every night, doesn’t say anything. He competes hard.”
The Bobcats, at 15-21 on pace for the playoffs, are trying to recover from a decline in defensive intensity. Clifford has wanted to see better focus, but Charlotte should also benefit from the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who fractured his left hand Dec. 3, as soon as Tuesday against the Knicks.