Is Al Jefferson Having the Best NBA Season That No One Is Talking About?

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Is Al Jefferson Having the Best NBA Season That No One Is Talking About?
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Watching Al Jefferson methodically maneuver his 6'10", 289-pound frame on the low block is like getting a free NBA history lesson.

Players like him are no longer supposed to exist.

He's a bruiser in a league that has outlawed bullying, a wide body in a paint where suddenly slimmer is better.

Jefferson breaks all of today's rules by following those upheld by past generations. He's a 20-point, 10-rebound reminder that size still matters in this pace-and-space game.

"I think the reason I have been around so long playing at a higher level — and the reason I can be around for a while longer — is because I have a unique game," the big man said, per the Associated Press, via BostonHerald.com. "I have a game that a lot of people don't have anymore."

His methods aren't the only things that make him unique.

 

By the Numbers

There weren't supposed to be any mysteries left in Jefferson's game.

After nine NBA seasons, the book on "Big Al" was written, edited, mass-produced and since moved to the bargain bin.

He would battle his way to about 18 points per night on nearly 50 percent shooting with a soft jump hook, a quick drop-step, a lethal up-and-under or "the league’s most unfair two-handed pump fake," as Grantland's Zach Lowe put it.

Stylistically, there haven't been many wrinkles this season. He's still the proverbial unstoppable force on the left block whose definition of spreading the floor means knocking down a 10-footer with semi-regularity.

Shot chart via NBA.com.

The Charlotte Bobcats couldn't be any worse equipped to take advantage of his talents. They sit 21st in three-point shooting (35.2 percent), and no one can top Kemba Walker's 5.5 assists. They don't have the shooters to buy him any breathing room, nor the table-setters to find him when he creates his own space.

Jefferson should be busting. He isn't. In fact, he hasn't stopped booming since shaking off an early ankle injury.

His first 28 games with the Bobcats were solidly unspectacular: 16.6 points on 45.2 percent shooting, 10.0 rebounds in 32.7 minutes a night. Over his last 23, though, he's been unbelievable: 26.1 points on 53.9 percent shooting, 11.1 rebounds in 35.6 minutes per game.

Put it all together and the 29-year-old is having his best scoring (20.9) and rebounding (10.5) season since 2008-09.

He's also holding a stat sheet that could hold its ground next to almost anyone around the league.

He is one of only five players averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds and has the second-highest field-goal percentage of that group (49.7).

His 22.3 player efficiency rating slots him at No. 16 in the category, via Basketball-Reference.com. He's one of nine players with a usage percentage above 29 (29.2 to be precise) and owns the lowest turnover percentage of those nine (7.0). That number might not seem too impressive until you remember how much attention he attracts and how little of it Charlotte's "shooters" can pull away from him.

J Pat Carter/Associated Press

The Bobcats have the 25th-ranked offense (99.3 points per 100 possessions), but Jefferson has been getting his video-game numbers regardless.

"Not to toot my own horn, but I’m a handful when I’m healthy," he said earlier this season, via DeAntae Prince of Sporting News.

He's not just a handful, he's apparently a miracle worker based on what he's done so far.

 

Winning in Charlotte

Despite his sizzling stat sheet, there's still only one number hoop heads attach to Jefferson on those rare moments when the back-to-the-basket baller crosses their mind: 40.5.

That would be the $40.5 million that the Bobcats committed to Jefferson last summer. That might be the going rate for the Brooklyn Nets' 13th man, but in Charlotte, that type of change came with a key to the city and a decade of frustrations to erase.

It also raised eyebrows all across the basketball world.

"This is too great a number to pay for Al Jefferson," Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo Sports wrote. "And it makes no sense for a Bobcat team that should be building its future around 22-year-olds, and not those bound to hit their 30s over the course of a contract."

Well, the Bobcats weren't thinking of the future. Given their draft history—Raymond Felton at No. 5 (2005), Sean May at No. 13 (2005), Adam Morrison at No. 3 (2006), D.J. Augustin at No. 9 (2008)—they couldn't afford to.

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

With a two-year win total (28 from 2011-13) that couldn't buy a postseason ticket, strategies had to change.

Jefferson was the one selected to help accelerate the rebuild, and the big man has been pressing on the pedal—and silencing those critics—ever since:

Jefferson is not a perfect player, but first-year Bobcats coach Steve Clifford and assistant Patrick Ewing have found ways to work with him. Widely viewed as a sieve before his arrival in Charlotte, Jefferson is suddenly anchoring the seventh-most efficient defense (101.6 points allowed per 100 possessions).

That hasn't happened by accident.

Jefferson said Ewing was in his ear from day one about the importance of getting defensive, via Sam Amick of USA Today:

Patrick, he told me the first day I met him that he knew I was a great offensive player, but that I've got to be motivated to become a better defensive player because that's the way we're going to win. When you've got a Hall of Famer telling you that, there's no excuse. You've got to do it. When he can believe in you, it makes it that much easier to believe in yourself. It's been amazing to have him around.

All of this is foreign territory, both for Jefferson and the Bobcats.

Jefferson has played for a bottom-10 defense in five of the last six seasons. Charlotte ranked dead last in defensive efficiency in 2011-12 and again in 2012-13.

The Bobcats (27-33) are sitting in the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. Charlotte has made one playoff appearance in the organization's 10-season existence (a first-round exit in 2010). Jefferson has made two playoff trips (2012 with Utah, 2005 with Boston) but never won a series.

Those playoff droughts could be on their last legs. Jefferson went to a place where everyone said he wouldn't win, turning its fortune on an end of the floor everyone said he couldn't play.

It's a fascinating story, yet the basketball world couldn't care less.

 

Why Aren't We Talking About Him?

That's an excellent question, with an unfortunate number of answers.

The market size certainly doesn't help. When we barely notice Michael Jordan in Charlotte, Jefferson might need a 100-point outing before we give him a look.

The franchise is an even bigger impediment. With a .189 winning percentage to show for the past two seasons, we equate the Bobcats with two things: losing and, potentially, contraction.

That's not exactly a great recipe to build Jefferson's brand. Neither is a mechanical, ground-bound post game in a league so defined by high-flying superstars.

"I've never been the type of player kids want to go see at the park," Jefferson said, per the Associated Press. "I've never been that above-the-rim type of player like LeBron (James) and Blake Griffin."

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

When's the last time the highlight reels stopped to appreciate his wildly effective pump fake? How many restricted-area hook shots are getting squeezed into top-10 playlists?

Jefferson is good at what he does, great even. Casual fans just aren't all that interested in what that stuff is.

It's a bigger disservice to those fans than it is to him.

He deserves to be embraced for his work on the stat sheet and his boost to the Bobcats in the standings alone.

But why stop there? Why not cherish a man dropped in from a past generation? Why not celebrate a skill set that we might not see again?

Stop in on the big man for his box scores. I bet you'll stick around for the modern classic.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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