Baby Moses? Doc Likes What He Sees in Big Al


WALTHAM - The coach already has a nickname for his teenage hoop hunk: Moses. It has nothing to do with tablets and everything to do with talent. In this case, we're not talking about the biblical Moses, but the basketball player who is in the Hall of Fame and who, like the teenager in question, went into pro basketball directly from high school."I keep yelling, 'Moses,' " Doc Rivers said yesterday when asked about rookie Celtics power forward Al Jefferson. "That's who he reminds me of. Obviously, he's not Moses. But he has Moses Malone tendencies: the quick jumper, keeping the ball alive, long arms, great instincts in the paint. And really raw."
   Jefferson is indeed raw. Until this year, his competition consisted largely of overmatched 6-foot-4-inch guys in 3A high school competition in Mississippi. He is a project, but his current employers believe he is ahead of the learning curve.

"He's further along than I thought," said Danny Ainge, the Celtics' executive director of basketball operations. "He's picked up the defensive schemes quicker than I thought. He has an instinct for scoring and rebounding that's hard to teach."

Jefferson, who will turn 20 Jan. 5, has appeared in all three games this season, totaling 29 minutes. He has scored 14 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, and blocked 3 shots while shooting 7 of 11 from the field. Tonight, he'll likely get the call at some point against a bruising Portland front line, most of whom probably are unaware that Jefferson was high on the Trail Blazers' wish list last June but chose not to work out for them.

"I think the fact we had Zach Randolph might have had something to do with it," quipped Blazers general manager John Nash.

"He hurt his shoulder in Seattle right before he was supposed to go to Portland," said Larry Stamps, who was Jefferson's AAU coach for three years and was in charge of arranging Jefferson's predraft workouts. "There were enough witnesses who saw it. Looking back, I wish he had worked out for Portland."

The way Jefferson sees it, everything worked out for the best. Last year at this time, he was said to be on the fence between turning pro or attending the University of Arkansas. But after averaging 42 points and 18 rebounds as a senior at Prentiss High School, and then more than holding his own in the high school all-star games, the decision was, as Stamps put it, "a no-brainer.

"I'm a lawyer," Stamps said. "Where I come from, a college education is very important. It was my way out. But there are a lot of ways out. Al is not the only guy from Prentiss High School who isn't going to college. But he is the only guy getting paid $1 million. He had the option to do what he loved to do and get paid very well for it."

"That was the best decision I ever made in my life," said Jefferson. "I feel this is where I need to be. If I had the chance to do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing."

Ainge first saw Jefferson at the McDonald's High School all-star game last spring in Oklahoma City. Most NBA executives prefer to watch the practices, because the games inevitably evolve into glorified dunk-o-ramas. What Ainge said stuck with him: Jefferson more than held his own against the elite high schoolers and even got the better of Dwight Howard, the consensus top high schooler who went No. 1 overall to the Orlando Magic.

"He instigated and initiated the aggressive style of play," Ainge said.

Prior to that showing, Celtics GM Chris Wallace had twice watched Jefferson play in high school - and had his share of questions about the 6-foot-9-inch, 265-pounder.

"He didn't play against great competition," Wallace said. "And he was so much bigger than everyone else. It was difficult to evaluate him. But he could score."

Yes, he could. "He had that knack," said Ainge. "He had a feel for getting the ball in the basket that you can't teach."

Jefferson zoomed to the top of the Celtics' wish list. Ainge's dream draft had him snaring high school center Robert Swift and Jefferson, "the prototype center and the prototype power forward to build around." But Seattle swooped in on Swift at No. 12, leaving Jefferson there for the Celtics at No. 15.

"I think he was surprised because Boston wasn't one of his better workouts," Stamps said. "It was his first one. We had been traveling all day."

The Celtics saw enough, and they were encouraged with the interview. They got a guy who can score, rebound, and, once he figures it all out, could be their power forward for years to come.

"I kind of knew what to expect," Jefferson said. "But when things started to happen, I said, 'Whoa.' I heard it was fast. It is fast."

And he appears to be picking it up fast. While the veterans love him ("an adopted child," Rivers said) and Gary Payton schools him, Jefferson is on his own in making what for many would be a very difficult transition.

"He's young as far as the world," Rivers said. "He hasn't been that far out of Mississippi. But as for basketball and coming in every day to work and be ready, he has all that stuff."

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