Is Al Jefferson’s skill set obsolete in today’s NBA?
That is the question the Charlotte Hornets – and Jefferson – must answer as they both try to regain the playoff form of two seasons ago.
Jefferson, 30, is now the oldest Hornet. “Ugh, don’t remind me,” he says.
He also remains the team’s best player, at least according to head coach Steve Clifford. The Hornets will pay the player known as “Big Al” $13.5 million in this, the final year of his three-year contract. Jefferson says he has lost 25 pounds over the summer in an effort to save his knees and become more agile.
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“I ain’t that young buck I used to be,” Jefferson says.
Jefferson is as old school as a one-room red schoolhouse on a windswept prairie. He is a 6-foot-10, back-to-the-basket post player in an NBA where three-point shooters are the preferred coin of the realm.
I ask him about critics who call him a dinosaur.
Jefferson chuckles. “I know the game has changed a lot since my rookie year,” he says. “But at the end of the day, I don’t know of any team that will turn away a post guy who can get you 20 and 10.”
In two years at Charlotte, Jefferson has averaged 17.1 points and 9.7 rebounds and has been the only Hornet that other teams always have to think about double-teaming when he touches the ball. But he also can be a defensive liability and has been hurt a fair amount, missing 26 regular-season games over his two years in Charlotte.
Jefferson has shot 50 percent on field goals in his 11-year career. His 48.1 percent last season for Charlotte was a career low.
Thus, the weight loss. Jefferson says he did it by cutting out fried foods and sugar and working out as many as three times a day. He says he has been inspired by San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, who has kept himself in such remarkable shape that he’s about to begin his 19th NBA season at age 39.
“Everybody knows how to lose weight,” Jefferson says. “You know what you’ve got to do. It’s just hard to do it.”
The Hornets plan to play far more “four-out, one-in” on offense this season, with Jefferson on the block surrounded by four players who can all make three-pointers.
“I’ve been licking my chops,” he says. “I can’t wait for it to play out. I know the floor will be more open than it has ever been, maybe ever in my career.”
It is a contract year for Jefferson, but he says he doesn’t worry about that. “This is my 12th year,” Jefferson says. “I’ve had a whole lot of contract years.”
What he does worry about is staying healthy, playing in all 82 games and running more fluidly up and down the court. He should at least be able to run better given that, as Jefferson says: “I feel like somebody took a 25-pound man off my back.”
Let’s set aside the theoretical question of what a 25-pound man would look like. The larger point is this: Jefferson is determined there is still a place for him as a valued starter in the NBA, both this season and for many to come. Still, he sometimes can’t believe what he’s watching when he sees how other teams succeed.
“Look at the NBA Finals,” Jefferson says. “There were times there wasn’t a guy over about 6-foot-6 in the game. There were small forwards playing center. But if guys like me can do what we do, we will still be around. I’m sure not about to change my game. I’m not going to shoot threes.”
That’s a good thing, because in his career Jefferson has gone 8-of-62 from the three-point line. He has instead made many millions of dollars posting up on the left block, getting the ball, unleashing 14 ball fakes and scoring.
He thinks that is still a relevant skill, and I would agree.
But Jefferson will have to stay on court all season – showing that his body has been rejuvenated because of the weight loss and will not break down on him again – to actually prove it.