It was during a summer basketball league game in Phoenix many years ago that Richard Jefferson's mother, Mikanese Licata, read him her version of the riot act. Jefferson had just screwed up a play and, in keeping with his Christian upbringing, screamed, Fudge! "I wasn't allowed to cuss, so I was always looking for alternatives," said Jefferson last week. "Sometimes it was freaky and sometimes it was fudge?
But Licata thought she heard something else and let him have it. "Richard!" she yelled in the nearly deserted gymnasium. "What did you say?"
Jefferson looked sheepishly into the stands. Mom, I said fudge," he replied. "Fudge. That's all."
Now the starting small forward for the New Jersey Nets, the 23-year-old Jefferson has added other f words to his repertoire—as well as a jump shot, a flair for running the offense and a pivotal role in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The least heralded of the Nets' Big Three, Jefferson splits the difference between the no-nonsense, straight-ahead disposition of point guard Jason Kidd and the in-your-face contrariety of power forward Kenyon Martin. Yes, on occasion the 6'7" Jefferson irritates opponents with his cockiness (not to mention his absurd athleticism), but he also plays Nice Net, the one who smooths over altercations and banters with opponents, the one who was added to the 2004 U.S. Olympic team because his considerable citizenship skills match his considerable basketball skills. "I always remember what my parents taught me," says Jefferson, smiling.
He remembers his hoop lessons, too, particularly those taught by Kidd. During a potentially disastrous stretch from mid-March to early April, when Kidd and Martin were sidelined by injuries for a nine-game stretch—Martin made one appearance in that span, coming off the bench for 12 minutes on March 31—Jefferson carried the Nets. He averaged 24.4 points (while shooting 52.7% from the floor), 75 rebounds and, most tellingly, 6.4 assists as New Jersey went 4-5. "I had spent 2� years soaking up basketball knowledge from Jason," says Jefferson. "I could feel him out there with me."
The full measure of Jefferson's all-around talents will be needed in the Nets' conference semifinal against the Detroit Pistons, who took Game 1 on Monday night 78-56 at the Palace of Auburn Hills, snapping a 14-game New Jersey winning streak in Eastern playoff games that dated back to last season. Jefferson struggled mightily, scoring only eight points on 1-of-12 shooting, while his counterpart on the Pistons, Tayshaun Prince (15 points, 10 rebounds, five assists), seized the upper hand in their matchup, one of three that will define what is likely to be a grueling series. Neither of the teams' hard-boiled floor leaders, Kidd or Chauncey Billups, shoots well from the perimeter unless the game happens to be on the line, while up front, hair-trigger antagonists Martin and Rasheed Wallace shoot from the hip at all times. And if those two confrontations are standoffs, the duel of small forwards will go a long way toward determining whether the Nets reach the NBA Finals for the third straight year.
Though he was outplayed in Game 1, Jefferson dominated his four regular-season meetings with Prince (page 48). "I know Tayshaun's game, and he knows mine," says Jefferson, who faced Prince in their AAU days and during college. "The first thing I have to be concerned with is that he's a long six-nine. He stays in front of me and doesn't take many chances, but he knows he has the Wallaces [Ben and Rasheed] to help him if he does. On offense he's an unconventional player with unusual moves, though I've seen most of them. He's not the guy you want to come off your bench, because he doesn't have that energy and speed to change the game. But he's a classic starter because he'll find a way to get you 15 and eight. He is versatile and steady."
Those two adjectives also describe Jefferson, who has surpassed New Jersey's expectations in all categories, particularly his scoring, which has gone from 9.4 points per game in 2001-02 to 15.5 last season to a team-high 18.5 this season. Much of that growth can be attributed to the salubrious influence of Kidd. At first Jefferson was too often the wild colt, looking for a way to show off the gifts that enabled him to high-jump 6'10" as a senior at Moon Valley High in Phoenix and that made him the 13th pick in the '01 draft after three seasons at Arizona. But he learned that with Kidd at the point, he could succeed in more clearly defined ways: Get out on the break, so Jason can find you; make sharp cuts in the set offense, so Jason can find you; carve out good post position, so.... You get the idea.
Jefferson's ability at close range was a given; his jumper was not, but it has become increasingly reliable, thanks to his dedication to a flexible shooting regimen. Sometimes he picks five spots on the floor, sometimes seven. Sometimes he tells himself he has to make 10 shots before he moves, sometimes 15. Sometimes it takes him 20 minutes, sometimes 30. He took 132 threes this season (52 more than in his first two seasons combined) and made a serviceable 36.4%. "I think you make little jumps in basketball, then all of a sudden you make a big one," he says, "and I made one of those big ones coming into this season. It wasn't what I did last summer that made me a better shooter but what I've done every summer and what I do every single day before and after every single practice."
For coach Lawrence Frank the revelation about Jefferson came during an otherwise forgettable March 5 game at Golden State, which New Jersey won 78-74. Martin was in the lineup, but the Nets couldn't get on track "Almost out of desperation we put Richard out front, let him run pick-and-rolls and kind of engineer our offense," says Frank, a Nets assistant who took over when his boss, Byron Scott, was fired on Jan. 26. "And he was real good at it. I can't say I was shocked, because I know his skill level and the passion he has for the game. But it was nice to know we had that weapon."