Nets forward Richard Jefferson had the hops to earn one of the four spots in the slam dunk contest, but his heart wasn't in it. He didn't throw the ball down in Atlanta so much as drop it over the rim. "In college he was the same way," says former Arizona teammate Gilbert Arenas, now the Warriors' point guard. "He'd run through the lane wide open, everyone would be waiting to see what he would do, and then he'd just lay the ball in. He's always playing under control."
Style points mean little to Jefferson, who has played a vital role in New Jersey's rise over the last two seasons. The Nets aren't as deep as they were during last year's run to the Finals after the off-season trade of Todd MacCulloch and Keith Van Horn (who was moved to make room for Jefferson in the starting lineup) as well as injuries to Dikembe Mutombo and Rodney Rogers. Yet Jefferson has, in his measured way, risen to the challenge, averaging 15.1 points, shooting 53.3% (second best in the NBA) and defending aggressively. "Every single possession is important for us," says Jefferson, "so I can't take a night off."
Jefferson's ascent has been greatly aided by Jason Kidd, who alternates between cussing him out and patting him on the back. After an early-season slump that culminated in an 0-for-7 shooting night in a loss at Milwaukee, Kidd invited Jefferson to his house for dinner and some soothing advice. "A lot of eyes were on me and how I was going to do after the trade," Jefferson says. "Jason told me, 'Don't worry, it's a long year, and I have all the confidence in the world in you.' "
The 22-year-old Jefferson likewise has confidence in his teammates. He dismisses those who predict that New Jersey will have problems integrating Mutombo into the lineup when he returns in mid-March from surgery on his right wrist. Though the Nets were 10-6 with the 7'2" Mutombo and 24-9 without him at the break, Jefferson points out that they had resolved to pull together in his absence. "Our defense picked up because we knew we didn't have Dikembe back there to block shots anymore," Jefferson says. "If we keep playing that way when he comes back, then his shot blocking and rebounding are going to start our fast break and help our offense even more."
An even bigger issue for the Nets will be resolved this summer, when Kidd becomes a free agent. In Atlanta he acknowledged that he'd be tempted by an opportunity to play with Tim Duncan in San Antonio, but Kidd says that the 6'7" Jefferson is one of his main incentives to stay in New Jersey, predicting that he will be among the league's elite once he moves to his natural position of shooting guard. Ten years from now, Kidd says of Jefferson, "Hell have plenty of All-Star games under his belt and a couple of rings. And if he has a couple of rings, hopefully that means I was with him."
Out of This World
After the U.S.'s disastrous sixth-place finish at the World Championships last summer in Indianapolis, two senior officials involved in the selection process say that USA Basketball will not rely on NBA All-Stars for the 2006 tournament in Japan. "We doubt that we'll be able to convince the best ones to go," says one official. Another high-ranking official believes USAB will draw its team mainly from first-and second-year NBA players with the promise that they will be groomed to play in subsequent Olympics. The absence of the league's finest would not only be a huge setback for FIBA, which wants nothing less than the best players at its showcase tournament, but would also jeopardize the U.S.'s chances of winning the worlds—and with that title an automatic bid to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.