That Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson doesn’t mind coming off the bench at this stage in his career is a nice, little story.
But Jefferson, a 12-year veteran two seasons removed from third-team All-NBA, went a step further Monday after a 108-103 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves: Jefferson said it might be in the best interest of him and the Hornets if coach Steve Clifford continues the status quo.
Jefferson is back from missing six weeks for knee surgery. The Hornets co-captain was terrific off the bench in this one, scoring 20 points for the first time since November.
He’s given this some thought, and 25 minutes off the bench sounds rather appealing.
“I’ve been telling people all week I kind of like coming off the bench,” Jefferson said. “You kind of see how the game is going and you get to play against the backup center most of the time. You kind of know what you need to do or what you shouldn’t do, and I kind of like it.
“Cody (Zeller) starts the game off well. He’s a great defensive center, and we have enough scoring in there among the starters.
“If coach wants me back in the starting lineup, I’d be fine with that. But off the bench, I’m fine with that right now, getting myself in better shape.”
Maybe it’s something Jefferson saw: Minnesota rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns manhandled Zeller, finishing with 28 points and 14 rebounds. Towns can do that to a lot of centers; he outplayed Jefferson as well in the first meeting of these teams in November in Minneapolis.
Jefferson gushed with praise for Towns at shootaround Monday morning, saying he has the body of a center but the skill set of a small forward. Towns can beat you from all over the court, and that’s exactly what he did to Zeller, who finished with as many fouls (six, for a disqualification) as points.
Basically Zeller had to give up his body to keep Towns from chasing 50 points Monday. The Hornets won their fourth consecutive game on three elements: Point guard Kemba Walker’s continued excellence (34 points and 6-of-9 shooting from 3-point range), Minnesota’s depth problem (just nine points from nonstarters) and Jefferson laying it on Minnesota’s bench, making 9 of 14 shots from the field.
Big Al looks like Big Al again. It’s obvious from the spring in his jumps and the quickness of his spin moves that his right knee is now pain-free. But that doesn’t mean he’s all the way back.
As Clifford says, Jefferson was out for so long this might as well be the preseason as far as conditioning.
“I was kind of glad he took me out in the fourth quarter,” Jefferson said of the huffing and puffing he did before exiting the game with 5½ minutes left and the Hornets up nine.
So perhaps in the same way Jefferson’s injury allowed Zeller to shine, Zeller’s viability as a starter has opened a new path for Jefferson’s career.
“I ain’t mad at it,” Jefferson said.
No reason to be.