Player Report: Al Jefferson

Player Report: Al Jefferson
Dec 19, 2006, 01:52 pm
written by Robert Barber

He scored a career-high 29 points against New Jersey on December 9, then nearly beat it by scoring 28 points against Denver on December 15. In all five wins on the Celtics recent streak Jefferson has started at center, due to injuries to Kendrick Perkins, Michael Olowakandi, and Theo Ratliff. Some Celtics observers believe that the center position may be a more natural fit for "Big Al" than the power forward slot that he was drafted to fill. Other factors that have contributed to Jefferson's recent success include more playing time, improved defense and rebounding, to go along with his natural offensive skills in the post, a lower playing weight, the trust of teammates, and a tougher, focused attitude than he exhibited during his first two years with the Celtics.

The switch of Jefferson from power forward to center was made out of necessity, and no one knows whether or not it will be permanent. Currently the Celtics are committed to developing fourth-year high school pick Kendrick Perkins at center. Both Jefferson and Perkins are 6'10"; yet while Perkins lacks Jefferson's offensive skills and quickness, he is stronger, weighs more, and has demonstrated more willingness than Jefferson to mix it up in traffic. Celtics observers have thought that this toughness makes Perkins more suitable than Jefferson to the center position in the NBA, especially over the course of a long season. However, Jefferson's recent performance may make the Celtics rethink their position. Jefferson has shown that he score against good defenders in the middle, including Marcus Camby of Denver and Emeka Okafor of the Charlotte. On December 16 Okafor was able to block a number of Jefferson's shots, but did not intimidate Jefferson or take him out of his game. When Jefferson's scoring has been missing during his current hot streak, he has still been able to rebound. Against New York on December 11 he scored only 14 points, but finished with 12 rebounds, and against Philadelphia on December 13 he scored only 6 points, but finished with 13 rebounds. Although Jefferson has been playing better at the defensive end of the floor, he did have trouble containing the oversize Eddie Curry during the Knicks game. Curry finished with 30 points and 12 rebounds. This may lead the Celtics to platoon Jefferson with Perkins in the future, no matter who starts at forward and who at center. The idea would be to have Perkins body up on bigger opponents.

How long Jefferson stays at the five spot for the Celtics will be determined not only by his size, but by the health of the remaining Celtics bigs. Kendrick Perkins is currently sidelined with plantar fasciitis, but should return soon to the active roster. Theo Ratliff is suffering from a back injury and may be done for the season. Michael Olowakandi is suffering from an abdominal tear, and figures to be out for at least a few more weeks. Neither Ratliff nor Olowakondi fit into the Celtics' long range plans at center. Jefferson will be the center for the Celtics until at least one of the Celtics' injured bigs heals.

Jefferson's playing time will likely suffer when Kendrick Perkins gets back from injury, although he should have more playing time than he had before Perkins' injury. Jefferson averaged 14.8 and 18.0 mpg during his first two seasons with the Celtics, and this year was averaging 23.1 mpg, before the current five game winning streak. During the five game winning streak, however, Jefferson has averaged 36.0 mpg. This has raised his average for the year to 27.1 mpg.

With Jefferson's increased playing time has come increased production. This is due not only to the minutes themselves, but also to Jefferson's view of himself as a key part of the team. The Celtics are one of the youngest teams in the league, and many players' roles are not well defined. At the center position, Jefferson has clearly found a role that he enjoys filling. His body language and demeanor during games indicates that he is responding well to the increased responsibility of holding down the fort at center, even if it is only temporarily.

Jefferson has repeatedly stated that he views defense as the key to the both his and the Celtics' recent success. Jefferson is playing more aggressively on defense than ever before in the past. Early in the game against New Jersey on December 9, Celtics Coach Doc Rivers benched Jefferson. Jefferson came back from the benching with more fire than he had he had shown during his tenure with the Celtics. Jefferson may never be a great defender at the center position, because of his size, but his quickness allows him to get back on defense quickly. He is rarely beaten down the floor. Jefferson still has a lot to learn about team defense, but he is no longer being outhustled.

Jefferson's offensive skills in the post are extraordinary. He has a large variety of up fakes and spin moves, all designed to get him to the rim. He can lean under similar-sized or larger defenders, even very quick defenders with long arms, like Emaka Okafor, and get the ball up on the glass without having it blocked. He has a hook shot from about eight feet in, which he puts up in the air almost instantaneously, and which he can hit while moving away from a defender. Recently he has revived a shot from his high school arsenal, a jump shot which he releases about ten feet away from the rim. To get this jump shot off Jefferson squares up to the basket, fakes towards the rim, and if the defender takes a step back, shoots over the defender. If the defender stays too close, then Jefferson makes a move for the rim. All of Jefferson's shots are exceedingly soft, with a nearly perfect arc. His release is exceedingly quick. At times, this release has looked uncomfortably like Antoine Walker's style of releasing a shot before he is at the height of his leap; however, recently Jefferson's shots have been perfectly timed, and this quick release has helped him get the ball to the rim before shot blockers can react.

Jefferson's lower playing weight has also helped his recent productive streak. After suffering through an ankle injury for a good part of last season, Jefferson lost a good deal of weight in the offseason, generally estimated to be twenty to thirty pounds, with the idea of alleviating pressure on his ankle. Then he suffered through a bout of appendicitis early this season, causing him to lose even more weight. While some Celtics observers are concerned about his durability in the box over the course of an NBA season at his current playing weight, Jefferson is playing with more energy and verve than he has demonstrated to this point in his career. After getting one shot blocked by Okafor in the Charlotte game on December 16, Jefferson responded by juking Okafor on the post and leaning underneath him for a quick layup off the glass from the left side of the rim. It is a move that a heavier, slower player would not have been able to make. In general, Jefferson's offensive game is characterized by that type of quickness. Jefferson is also exceedingly quick up and down the floor at his new playing weight. The fact that he lost the off-season weight in the first place, prior to his appendicitis, speaks well of his commitment to conditioning and success in the NBA game.

Jefferson's teammates clearly believe in the new "Big Al". The best evidence is that he is receiving the ball in the post more than he ever has before in the past, even at key moments in the game. Before this recent emergence of Jefferson, the Celtics go-to tactic when they needed a make was to have Paul Pierce drive the lane and try to pick up contact. Against Charlotte on December 11, at just such a key moment in the fourth quarter, Paul Pierce drove to the rim from the right side of the hoop and quickly found himself double-teamed, with one of the defenders being Emeka Okafor. Two weeks ago, the play would have been finished by Pierce trying to get to the rim through both players and settling for two foul shots. This time though, Pierce dished the ball off to an open "Big Al" for an easy jam. The play symbolizes how the Celtics players feel about Jefferson now. He is not so much a developmental player any more, as a veteran that the team can count on.

Last year Jefferson sat out a good part of the season with an ankle injury, and there were rumors that teammates privately questioned his toughness. When Jefferson did play, he looked tentative and uncertain. This year though, Jefferson's toughness can no longer be questioned. Since he has played at center for the Celtics, his attitude can only be described as tough and focused. All of his gestures on the court indicate to his teammates and the opposition that he has come to play. Against Denver on December 15, he worked hard to make a shot go in the post, and then thumped his chest hard with his right hand, to the cheers of an appreciative crowd. He clamps down on rebounds with authority, slapping the ball and surrounding it with his body. He glares intensely on the court at both his teammates and the opposition. The kind of fire that Celtics fans longed to see in "Big Al's" game is there now. Jefferson is no longer the kid with more skills but less desire and grit than Kendrick Perkins.

The most important next step in Jefferson's development will be learning how to deal with the double teams that will surely follow him around the NBA from this point on in his career. If he is able to pass to shooters and cutters successfully, and add high assist totals to his points and rebounding, then he will be more than Danny Ainge could have hoped for with the 15th pick in the 2004 draft.

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