Few NBA observers were wowed last summer when veteran big man Al Jefferson, 10 days after hitting the free-agent market, signed with the Charlotte Bobcats. That whole dance that goes on every year when notable players seek new destinations – “I want to win. I want to get a ring” – was conspicuously absent. The Bobcats were a long way from winning, conventional wisdom said, and everyone knew it. Jefferson included.
So when Charlotte guard Kemba Walker, who shares the same agent (Jeff Schwartz), nudged Jefferson in New York with the idea in the days prior to his team-shopping, “Big Al” scoffed.
“At first I thought it was just a joke,” Jefferson told NBA.com in a phone interview Monday. “I was like, ‘Heh. Yeah, right. Whatever,’ ”
Then Schwartz suggested Jefferson make a visit to Charlotte to at least hear the Bobcats out. The rest has been a happy half-season of history for all concerned.
“I met the coaching staff. That was the first impression right there,” Jefferson said of Steve Clifford and his assistants. “That showed me that MJ [team chairman Michael Jordan], Rod [Higgins, Charlotte president of basketball operations] and those guys, they went and got a great coach and staff. That let me know right there they were trying to turn this franchise around.
“Then I looked at the young talent: Jeff Taylor, MKG [Michael Kidd-Gilchrist], Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson. Bis [Bismack Biyombo], a great high-energy big. Brendan Haywood and [Jannero] Pargo, guys who have been around the league and know what it takes to win.
“You add a guy with my talent and the things I’m able to do on offense. And then you look at the East, I really thought that was the best decision for me.”
To the outside world, Jefferson’s decision to leave the Jazz and choose the Bobcats looked like a cash grab. It was pretty nice grab, too: three years, $40.5 million. But for a player entering his 10th NBA season whose teams in Boston, Minnesota and Utah were a combined 160 under .500, with just one playoff appearance (four games) after his rookie year, it seemed like misplaced priorities or a competitive surrender.
Jefferson shrugged off that perception much like he did Walker’s initial suggestion.
“I could care less what the world says about what I was trying to do,” he said. “It wasn’t just about the money. I told Kemba when I first signed, ‘I’m not coming here to lose. I’m not coming here to be the best player on a bad team.’ I was coming here to try to turn this thing around. So far, I feel like everybody’s on the same page.”
No kidding. At 19-27 on the eve of a four-game trip out West that begins at Denver Wednesday, the Bobcats are eight games better than they were at this point a year ago (11-35) and only two victories shy of their 2012-13 season total. If they maintain their current .413 pace the rest of the way, the Bobcats will finish 34-48, an increase of 13 victories.
And based on the East’s mediocrity so far, that would be good enough for a playoff spot. Last season, only Orlando (20-62) finished behind the Bobcats out East.
Individually, Jefferson is averaging 18.9 points and 10.5 rebounds, with nine consecutive games of 20 points or more – most recently, 32 on 15-of-26 shooting against Chicago Saturday – and 19 double-doubles. He missed nine of Charlotte’s first 12 games with a bruised ankle suffered early in the preseason but clearly has caught up and hit his stride. His January numbers: 22.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg and 53.3 percent shooting.
“What we’re seeing now is really the fruits of his labor,” said Clifford, who considers Jefferson a leader and his best player. “Both doing a lot of extra rehab and a lot of extra conditioning, to get his ankle stronger and get into the kind of game shape he needed to be in, in order to do well. Now he’s not just back to where we hoped he could be, but really playing at a level more efficient than we could have hoped for.”
Even on defense, never a Jefferson strength. Clifford is happy with the results overall – defensively the Bobcats rank in the top 10 in points per possession, points in the paint and free throws attempted – and suggests the veteran’s good instincts at that end are being matched more often with greater effort. When he’s on the floor, Charlotte’s defensive rating goes up but its net scoring differential goes down.
Clifford is happy with how Jefferson has fared on defense, which has never been Big Al’s strength. Overall defensively, the Bobcats rank in the top 10 in points per possession, points in the paint and free throws attempted, which suggests the veteran’s good defensive instincts are being matched more often with greater effort. When he’s on the floor, Charlotte’s defensive rating goes up but its net scoring differential goes down.
Jefferson credits the system, along with some extra work with assistant Patrick Ewing. “He feels like my offensive game really don’t need that much work. So he’s trying to get me to be more of a defensive-minded player,” Jefferson said. “Just being more of a helper. I’m the big man. I’m not a shot blocker like some of the great bigs in this league, but I can be over to help a lot earlier, just to get them to see a body and make it more difficult.”
Jefferson has been playing well enough lately that, as the conference coaches make their picks for All-Star reserves, he is worthy of consideration. But he learned a long time ago not to get too hopeful about honor.
“I don’t really get caught up in it no more,” he said. “Because there were some years where I was really disappointed. I remember that one in Phoenix [in 2009], I was so close to buying flights to get my family out there, ‘cuz I knew I had an opportunity that they’d vote me in. But they didn’t. So I made a promise to myself then that I’m not going to worry myself about it.”
Jefferson had 30 double-doubles in his first 50 games with the Timberwolves that season, averaging 23.1 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. No sooner had he learned he wasn’t selected, though, than his season ended with a blown right ACL in a game at New Orleans.
Said Jefferson: “It’s something every player dreams about, just because it’s recognition, having ‘All Star’ behind you name. If they vote me in, I’ll be very thankful and very happy. But if they don’t vote me in, I’ll be OK too.”
He isn’t nearly as casual about the Bobcats’ quest for success. ”
“The Charlotte Bobcats always have been one of the laughingstocks in the league,” Jefferson said. “But where we at right now, two games of tying the victory total from last year, to me, I’m not satisfied with that. The other guys aren’t satisfied with that.”
Sooner rather than later, Jefferson doesn’t want anyone scoffing or smirking at the idea of joining the Bobcats the way he did last summer.