Once a go-to guy, Jefferson adapts to life as role player in Utah
Al Jefferson led the Timberwolves in scoring and usage rate last season
Now with Utah, he's learned how to aid his team without always getting the ball
Adapting to the triangle was tough, but Jefferson's biggest surprise has been his D
Al Jefferson broke the 30-point barrier for the first time this season on Wednesday, leading the Jazz over the Clippers in Utah. Eclipsing 30 points was a fairly regular occurrence for Jefferson during his two healthy years in Minnesota, covering 2007-08 and 50 games of 2008-09, when he accomplished the feat 18 times and was a 20-point, 10-rebound mainstay for the Timberwolves.
But neither Utah nor Jefferson is complaining about the dip in his scoring (16.7) and rebounding (8.8) averages this season, or the lowest shooting percentage (47.9) of his seven-year career. At 22-11, Utah is off to its best start in four years, in large part because the positional flexibility of the 6-foot-10 Jefferson provided an ideal solution to Utah's simultaneous loss of power forward Carlos Boozer to free agency and center Mehmet Okur to an Achilles injury. For the first two months of the season, the Jazz have elevated Paul Millsap into Boozer's old slot and played Jefferson alongside him in the pivot. Now that Okur is slowly working his way back into the lineup, Jerry Sloan has a solid three-man rotation for his frontcourt.
Jefferson faced a bigger adjustment, downsizing his role from the go-to guy in Minnesota, to just a piece of the puzzle in Utah. But winning has more than soothed any perceived slights to his ego. The Jazz already have seven more victories than the Timberwolves amassed all of last season. Even during the 18 30-point games Jefferson put up for the Wolves in Kevin McHale's tenure, the team's record was only 8-10.
"I had only two points when we beat Miami [in Utah's comeback road win in November] and I was the happiest guy on the team," Jefferson said at a morning shootaround in Minneapolis hours before the first Jazz-Timberwolves matchup since he was traded this summer. "Winning is just a wonderful feeling," he told me on the phone two days earlier. "The difference is that in Utah, the losses stick with you, which is tough. But we also haven't lost two in a row since the first two games of the season."
It's a rather typical tale in the NBA: Top player on a losing team sublimates his ego and alters his game in order to contribute to a winner. But in Jefferson's case, the circumstances have been a little more dramatic.
First of all, no NBA player has lost as many games as he has the past four years. Covering his final season in Boston and his three-year tenure in Minnesota, his teams averaged 61 losses.
Second, Jefferson was first overhyped and then undervalued during his three years in Minnesota. Coming over from Boston at the age of 22, he was handed the enormous responsibility of replacing Kevin Garnett. Although he was just one of five players and two draft picks included by the Celtics in the haul for KG, then-Wolves GM McHale left little doubt that Jefferson was the plum in the deal, giving "Big Al" a five-year, $65 million extension before he had played a minute for Minnesota. At the press conference announcing the new contract, he favorably compared Jefferson to Garnett, saying, "As unique as Kevin was being a perimeter, 3, 4, or whatever, Al is unique in the fact that he is a throwback, low-post guy. ... That was big for us.
"That was what we were looking for and we're really excited."
Two years later, McHale was replaced by general manager David Kahn and coach Kurt Rambis. Not long after he took over, Kahn said he considered Jefferson to be no better than the second-best player on a championship contender; meanwhile, it was clear that Jefferson was a bad fit for the more egalitarian triangle offense Rambis was installing, and the new coach likewise made it obvious that he didn't think Jefferson and the team's only other prized talent, Kevin Love, could function effectively on the court together.
Working within the triangle while enduring the slow recovery from the ACL surgery he had undergone in February of the previous season, Jefferson nevertheless led the Wolves in scoring and usage rate last season. Yet, in what both sides agree was a mutual decision, the Wolves dealt Jefferson within their own division this summer for the bargain basement price of a pair of draft picks (which have multiple conditions attached).
"I want to thank David Kahn from the bottom of my heart," Jefferson said. "He didn't have to do what he did. He took care of me."
There is another compelling aspect to Jefferson's move to Utah. This isn't Gary Payton or Karl Malone trying to grab that elusive ring in the twilight years of their career; this is a player entering his chronological prime being asked to perform a role that is almost antithetical to his strengths and weaknesses. The book on Jefferson is that he is a devastating scorer in the low left block, albeit a bit of a black hole once he gets the ball; the knock against him is that he doesn't pass well out of double teams, and that he has been indifferent and inconsistent on defense.
But it was clear from the time Jefferson came to the Jazz that he was the one who would be making the adjustments. Utah has been running the same offensive sets for decades under Jerry Sloan, and has an elite floor general in point guard Deron Williams to facilitate its execution. While the Jazz appreciated Jefferson low-post acumen, what they really needed was a big man who could foster ball movement, and, most important, defend opposing centers and protect the rim.
"It is a big adjustment, especially for a guy as talented as Al is and knowing the way he is used to playing," Jazz assistant coach Ty Corbin saod. "He is used to the ball coming to him. Here, you will get the ball, but you have to run the system so we can get it to you in your spot. He's been good about trying to understand why we play the way we play. It will take time for him to learn to trust it, so that even in bad times you stick with the system because it will not only make you better but the team better."
Said Jefferson: "The toughest thing for me so far has been learning the offensive system. But the easy thing, the great thing, is not having to worry about any double-teams, not having the focus of being the No. 1 guy. Deron Williams is the focus, and he does a great job of getting myself and everybody else involved.
"To be honest with you, this is the perfect offense for me. It is a pass-first offense and a big man who sets a good pick will get the ball if he's open. It is just wonderful being around great passers who don't mind hitting the open guy. I don't have to work as hard on the offensive end, so I can be more focused on defense."
Indeed, Jefferson's defense has been the big surprise, and the primary reason why his transition to the Jazz has been an immediate success. His Utah teammates -- from Millsap to Williams, and Andrei Kirilenko to C.J. Miles -- cite Jefferson's defense and shot-blocking ability as the aspect of his game they have most appreciated.
"He has actually been a better defender, especially on his man against the bigger guys, than I thought he was before he came here," Corbin said. "He is learning the help-side rotations and where to force guys to go at different times.
"Of course," Corbin added with a sly smile, "another thing that may be different is that we require everybody on the floor to play defense."
Translation: Jefferson is simply trying harder to defend people since he's come to Utah. If true, it is a knock on the caliber of Jefferson's previous effort and the motivational prowess of the Timberwolves brain trust. And by his comments, Jefferson pretty much admits it is true.
"Most definitely I had to step up my defense," he said. "I think I have done a lot better job of it than in the past three or four years, because here I have to play defense. If not, Coach Sloan will sit you down and I don't like to sit down.
"I am going to continue to get better. Being with Utah made me step my game up because the tradition of this team is that it always goes to the playoffs, and is always one of the top teams. I didn't want to drag the Jazz down with my history. I wanted to bring them up; have my height help them by stepping up on the defensive end."
As if to punctuate the point, Jefferson blocked a career-high seven shots on his return to Minnesota while adding 21 second-half points in the comeback win. As Okur slowly but surely works his way back into game shape, Jefferson and the other members of Utah's frontcourt face further adjustments. But now Sloan seems confident that the transition will go relatively smoothly.
"Al had worked hard," Sloan said. "You know there are guys who have been here for a couple of years, and that makes it a little bit easier for him. We run some different stuff and they'll be more comfortable once they've been with each other awhile and can depend on each other. We'll have to wait and see how things go with Al and [Mehmet Okur]. I don't think we can play them together very often, maybe against a couple of teams. Memo has always been pretty acceptable to anything we do. Hopefully Al will be the same way if we shorten his minutes. It will lengthen his career."