Big Al Trying to Wake Up his Hand

August 28, 2005

Big Al Trying to Wake Up his Hand

The story is now the stuff of legend.

Knowing little about New England, Al Jefferson arrived in Boston on a cold spring evening in shorts and a T-shirt for a predraft workout in 2004. He figures he got sick as soon as he stepped off the plane from Mississippi.

    The workout went horribly wrong, with Jefferson sluggish and unimpressive. Celtics coach Doc Rivers didn't want him. But executive director of player personnel Danny Ainge used video clips to persuade Rivers that Jefferson should be their top pick. No one thought Jefferson would contribute much his rookie year.

Well, what a difference a year makes.

According to Jefferson, he has been traveling "all over the world" in an effort to improve his game. While his geography may be off (at last check, Massachusetts, Florida, Nevada, and California have not seceded), Jefferson has been a busy man this summer, flying from camp to camp with additional stops at the Celtics' Waltham training facility. Jefferson also plans to visit Robert Parish in Florida and learn from the Hall of Famer.

"I'm working on my game," said Jefferson from his offseason home in Hattiesburg, Miss., where he was spending a rare week off. "I'm not worried about any sophomore flop or whatever people are talking about. If you think you're going to flop, you're going to flop.

   "Last year, people thought I wasn't even going to play. So I proved them wrong. It's the idea of proving them wrong again. I understand the game a lot better, and everything should be a lot easier for me."

No sooner had the playoffs finished than Rivers took aside Jefferson and laid out a summer plan. Jefferson said he has been "working on everything" and "taking it day by day." He usually spends 2 1/2 hours shooting each night. Face-up jump shots. Jumpers from the elbow. And one more thing.

"I'm trying to get my left hand alive," said Jefferson. "It was dead all last year, so I'm trying to wake it up."

Jefferson hopes a summer spent working out with few breaks will also improve his conditioning. He averaged 14.8 minutes per game last season, but with Antoine Walker in Miami, that number will likely double. The main reason Ainge did not make an offer to Walker was an eagerness to find Jefferson more playing time.

Jefferson will likely start at power forward. He has prepared for that and feels no pressure from an expanded, high-profile role. He is also ready to take more of a leadership role if necessary.

"If I do get the opportunity, I will be ready," said Jefferson. "Who wouldn't want that opportunity?

   "Everybody always asks me if I feel pressure; no, I don't feel any pressure. If you take care of your game, your game will take care of you. Just like last year, I told them if I get a chance to play, I can play this game. If I get the minutes, I can prove it.

   "I'm taking care of my game, so my game always backs me up. That's why I never feel any pressure."

With Walker gone, Jefferson acknowledged, he lost a mentor. Now, he looks more than ever to Rivers for advice.

"I put my trust in Coach," said Jefferson. "One thing about Coach, he'll always keep it straight with you.

   "You need a guy like that on your side. You don't need somebody who is going to just tell you what you want to hear. You need somebody who's going to be honest with you and keep it real with you.

   "That's one thing I love about Coach. I think Doc trusts my game. I think he knows how good I can be. He used to tell me that I need to know how good I can be. I think it's just hitting me, realizing how good I can be in this league."

And that could be very good. Consider this: Jefferson views his rookie season (6.7 points, 4.4 rebounds per game) as "average." A lot of rookies would like such an average season, with an invite to the All-Star rookie-sophomore game, and a rookie top-15 ranking in points, rebounds, and field goal percentage (.528).

"I knew from the go, if I could just learn the system, learn the flow of the game, and just understand the game, I could play," said Jefferson. "I still don't really know the game like I should.

"If I keep working hard and just keep working on my game, I know I can be a superstar in this league."

Paying for extras

For those counting at home, the Celtics have 18 players under guaranteed contracts for the 2005-06 season, including the soon-to-be-signed Dan Dickau and certain-to-be-waived-or-traded Qyntel Woods . With the Celtics' mid-level exception already allotted, the odds are against Ainge adding to that number.

But 18 should be enough for the kind of competitive training camp Ainge and Rivers envision.

When the season rolls around, the Celtics will have to cut three players with guarantees. Regardless of who makes the cut, the team will not suffer severe financial repercussions.

The cash considerations received from Miami in the Walker trade ($3 million) have given the Celtics extra money to play with. Theoretically, the cash was designed to cover the contracts of Woods and Curtis Borchardt (about $2.65 million combined), but Boston can use it to cover any contracts. Essentially, Ainge and Rivers have free looks at some intriguing players.

"We don't care what number we're at," said Ainge. "We may be at 18 when it's all said and done. Somebody's going to make the team and somebody's not. Obviously, you can only have 15 contracts Opening Day, so we'll see who's still standing and who wins the jobs."

There will be cuts at point guard. By acquiring Dickau, the Celtics will have five players vying for time as floor general. In all likelihood, they will keep three. Dickau (three years with four teams, including 46 career starts) brings the most experience, then comes Marcus Banks (two years), Delonte West (one), Orien Greene (rookie, No. 53 pick), and Will Bynum (undrafted free agent). West and Dickau are safe bets to be on the team.

Banks, who is slated to make $1.4 million, remains an interesting case. He was traded to the Lakers, then brought back last summer. And his name has appeared occasionally in trade rumors since the end of last season. With the Celtics holding a team option for the 2006-07 season, they must figure out whether Banks can find a role here.

In search of a team

Have owner. Need team.

With all the legal disputes behind him, Boston businessman Steve Belkin is now a man in search of an NBA franchise. The conflict in Atlanta ended with Belkin selling his share in Atlanta Spirit LLC, the ownership umbrella for the Hawks and the NHL's Thrashers. Steadfast in his objection to a sign-and-trade for Joe Johnson that cost the Hawks a pair of first-round draft picks and Boris Diaw and committed them to a five-year, $70 million maximum contract, Belkin walked away rather than approve the deal in his capacity as the team's NBA governor.

But it was clear in the statement made by commissioner David Stern that Belkin will be back in the NBA ownership ranks sooner rather than later. Stern hoped Belkin would consider returning as an owner "in the near future." Court documents described how NBA ownership has been a long and passionate pursuit for Belkin, certainly not one he will give up.

"I'm looking forward to buying another NBA team and being the controlling owner and governor," wrote Belkin in an e-mail last week. "I have learned a great deal about running a team from my experience in Atlanta. My preference is to buy a team reasonably close to Boston."

When asked if he would join an existing ownership group like the Celtics', Belkin said, "I would only join a group as the managing partner."

Publicly, no team is on the market. Any expansion franchise would likely end up in the West (Las Vegas has been campaigning), which probably would be farther from Boston than Belkin perfers.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, the Hawks completed the Johnson deal and are optimistic about a team filled with young talent. Owner Bruce Levenson is philosophical about all the attention the Hawks received as the owners battled.

"At this time of year in Atlanta, people are getting ready for football; the Atlanta Hawks are not getting a lot of attention," said Levenson. "In the end, I think that's good for us. There's a buzz about the team. People are at least interested in how things are going to turn out. It's better than there not being any interest at all."

Positive steps

The NBA and the Players Association posted the guidelines of the new drug policy Friday. The highlights are more testing for veterans, stiffer penalties for performance-enhancing drugs, and a longer list of prohibited substances. All players will be randomly tested four times each season. Previously, veterans were tested only during training camp, while rookies were subject to three tests per year. The first offense for a steroid or other performance-enhancing drug carries a 10-game suspension and requires the player to enter a treatment program. A second positive test results in a 25-game suspension and requires the player to reenter the treatment program. A third offense means a one-year suspension. And a fourth leads to the player "being dismissed and disqualified from the NBA." . . . For those who struggled to find their seats before 7 p.m. home games started, relief is on the way. All home games at the TD Banknorth Garden will start at 7:30 to accommodate the Celtics' radio and TV partners. According to Celtics executive vice president of sales and marketing Rich Gotham , the time change will allow for more pregame programming. Not coincidentally, new Celtics radio partner WRKO (680 AM) airs the popular Howie Carr show from 3-7 p.m. on weekdays. A 7 p.m. tipoff would leave no time for a pregame show . . . The Celtics will not return to the University of Vermont for training camp this year. In an effort to build team chemistry, Rivers took the team to Burlington for the first week of his first preseason. While the Celtics enjoyed their experience on the shores of Lake Champlain, Ainge and Rivers want to hold more practice when possible at the Garden so players can increase their familiarity with the home court. For years, team president Red Auerbach has been suggesting the team practice more on the real parquet . . . The Dickau deal between Boston and New Orleans remains in place, but late August vacations have slowed the pace of the transaction. Ainge noted that the deal will be completed in the near future.

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