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Charlotte Bobcats’ Kemba Walker played key role in recruiting Al Jefferson

When Charlotte Bobcats president of basketball operations Rod Higgins texted his point guard, to tell him the team was signing center Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker replied this way:

“I almost shed a tear when I saw this.”

A low-post scorer like Jefferson can make Walker’s job so much easier. Higgins detailed Tuesday how central Walker was to successfully recruiting Jefferson, who signed a three-year, $40.5 million contract in July.

At Walker’s exit meeting last season with Higgins and general manager Rich Cho, Walker was asked what upcoming free agent might be most helpful. Walker pulled out his phone, called up a list of those players, and said Jefferson was clearly his top choice.

So Higgins reminded Walker that he and Jefferson share an agent, Jeff Schwartz, so it was Walker’s job to start the sales pitch, months before Jefferson officially became a free agent July 1.

Walker went to work, scheduling a meal with Jefferson in New York City to express what a good fit this could be. The Bobcats followed up on that effort by immediately making a pitch at midnight the first day of free-agency. Jefferson flew into Charlotte for a visit, expressed his desire to sign here and the deal was done.

What are the Bobcats getting from the largest free agent signing in franchise history?

“Al addresses so many needs for us,’’ Higgins said, a week out from the start of training camp at UNC Asheville Oct. 1. “Once we decided to amnesty Tyrus Thomas, ownership gave us the green light to find a difference-maker. He is a difference-maker.”

Jefferson will force opposing teams to double team him in the post, which should also create better shot opportunities along the perimeter. New coach Steve Clifford says Jefferson “instantly’’ becomes the Bobcats’ best offensive player.

Higgins said the bonus, in regard to Jefferson, is he should be good for young big men Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo.

“Al is also a mentor. He said he loved working with Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors (on Jefferson’s former team, the Utah Jazz),” Higgins said. “He can be a big plus for Cody and Biz.”

Notes

• Cho said Zeller reminds him of Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge. A highly-athletic 6--11 forward, Aldridge has averaged 18.3 points and 7.8 rebounds over his first six NBA seasons. He’s a two-time all-star.

Cho described Zeller this way:

“He’s a pretty unique player with his size – a legit 7-foot – and he can run as well as any 7-footer out there. He can hit a perimeter shot, 18-20 feet and out beyond the arc. He has a very, very high basketball IQ.”

Higgins added that one of the things that attracted the team to Zeller was his competitive attitude at Indiana.

“One of the things that came out of our intel on Cody was how competitive he was in Indiana’s weight room,’’ Higgins said. “He and (Hoosiers teammate Victor) Oladipo really kept up the competitive fire on that team every day.”

• Both Higgins and Cho said they’re pleased, but not surprised, by how well Jeff Taylor, a second-round pick in 2012, played in the Las Vegas Summer League and at the European basketball championship, in which he led the tournament in scoring over five games, averaging 21.2 points for Sweden.

Clifford has said Taylor was at the practice facility as often as any Bobcat this offseason.

“He really works hard,’’ Cho said. “He’s in here all the time. Right after the season he was in here a lot.”

• Higgins said signing Jefferson and drafting Zeller fourth overall in June doesn’t mean the Bobcats have lost enthusiasm for developing Biyombo, two years removed from his being drafted seventh overall in 2011.

“Biz fits in well with us. He’ll get opportunities to grow,” Higgins said. “Biz still has a tremendous upside.”

•  Asked about Clifford, Higgins said, “He’s a very smart guy, a great competitor. His philosophy is going to stand out right away,”

Higgins mentioned that Clifford recently visited Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, a close friend, to brainstorm for their respective training camps.

• Higgins said this roster’s greatest strength should be depth. Higgins wouldn’t identify a goal, in terms of wins this season, but he said, “I would presume we’ll be much improved.”

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @Rick_Bonnell
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