Al Jefferson -- The Next Moses?
December 24, 2004
My sports holiday wish for 2005 is for the Celtics to be relevant again.
And you know what? They just might have a shot at it.
Maybe not right away. Maybe not even this season. Much will depend on the psyche of Paul Pierce and his willingness to stick with the game plan. Without Pierce, this team is going nowhere, so in keeping in the spirit of the season, let's cut the Celtics' resident superstar a little slack. Remember, people, he didn't ask to be the only one left standing from the old regime. The good news for Pierce fans is there's finally a compelling reason for No. 34 to stick around for the next couple of years and see how this pans out.
The reason is Al Jefferson.
How many times have we mused about how it would be different for Pierce if Boston had a legitimate, feared low-post presence to take the pressure off the perimeter game? Big Al isn't there yet, but he's getting there in a hurry.
Forget about the numbers. They do not matter. What's significant here is in almost every game, Jefferson does something on the offensive end that makes you sit up and exclaim, "Did you see that?" Maybe it's the up-and-under post move against Utah last week. Maybe it's the acrobatic spin against the Clippers before that. Maybe it's the intangible ability Jefferson has for being in the right place at the right time.
Defensively, the kid still needs some work. He gets confused on switches, and he's still learning the ever-changing schemes of the NBA, but he's not afraid to challenge players and he knows how to block shots. Remember, Jefferson is but six months removed from Prentiss (Miss.) High School, and he's not even 20 years old yet. He will be inconsistent - that you can count on. But that is a small price to pay for the flashes of brilliance he continues to exhibit.
"If you are a young kid and you can go out and compete, that's unbelievable," said Minnesota Timberwolves general manager Kevin McHale. "Most of the high school kids get out there and get slapped in the face, get knocked down, then have a hell of a time getting back up.
"Look at some of the guys who struggled in their first year. Rashard Lewis, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal. They didn't play at all, and they turned out to be really good. Now look at some of the guys who did play, like Kobe [Bryant] and Kevin [Garnett]. They are elite players.
"Now, I'm not saying Al Jefferson is on that level. I'm saying he's got a chance. Hopefully, he'll realize the reason the other guys became great is because they worked at it. You hate to even compliment these young guys like this, because you are afraid it will go straight to their head."
Jefferson knows better than to strut around HealthPoint like he owns the joint, but he's certainly not afraid to acknowledge his potential. He has, he freely admits, been planning for an NBA career since he was in the ninth grade.
"I figured something like this was possible," he said. "I prepared myself a long time ago on how to deal with [jumping from high school to the pros]. I knew coming into the NBA I might have to sit at first. I knew this wasn't any easy hop."
When you have great hands, which Jefferson has, the transition is a little easier. When you are able to throw around a 6-foot-10-inch, 270-pound frame that isn't even done maturing yet, you tend to have a better chance of becoming memorable. And, when you possess that elusive scoring touch, you will likely find your way on the floor. Jefferson averaged 42.6 points and 18 rebounds per game in his senior season. That includes a particularly successful outing in which he posted a triple-double with 62 points, 21 boards, and 11 blocks.
"I know it's only high school," said McHale, "but I don't care who you are playing. Those numbers are ridiculous."
Celtics coach Doc Rivers has been entrusted with the delicate task of developing Jefferson at the same time he is trying to win games. Young, inexperienced players are a paradox. They definitely can help you, but they may not always be able to help you win. Jefferson fits that bill. Because he's so young, his first season has the potential to be a wild ride, with plenty of bursts to the top, and a fair share of dips to the depths. After one particularly rough outing, a disconsolate Jefferson sat slumped in the locker room. Rivers walked up to him, put a hand on his shoulder, and said, "Al, don't worry. You stunk it up tonight, and you'll stink it up again before it's over."
Jefferson acknowledged the learning curve is incredibly steep.
"The biggest adjustment has been how quick the game is," he admitted. "Coach throws something out there and figures you should get it the first or second time. Sometimes, I don't."
Even so, lack of confidence is not an issue. Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach went away impressed with Jefferson's refusal to back down against No. 1 overall pick Dwight Howard in the McDonald's High School All-America Game, even though Howard outplayed him.
"I'm not afraid of anyone," Jefferson declared. "I remember once when I was a 10th-grader. I was having a good year. I had three or four guys hanging on me every game. Well, this kid comes up to me right before the jump ball and says, 'I've been waiting all year for this. I can't wait to shut you down.' I just looked at the guy. Then I went out and dropped 56 on him."
He hasn't dropped 56 on anybody in the NBA yet, but there's still time. Big Al is setting up shop, and it's about time people in this town sat up and took notice.
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