Al Jefferson's Under-the-Radar Defense Deserves More Attention

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Al Jefferson's Under-the-Radar Defense Deserves More Attention
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Al Jefferson's 21.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game along with 50.6 percent shooting, according to NBA.com, shouldn't come as much of a surprise. These numbers are slightly worse than those he posted with the Minnesota Timberwolves after being traded from Boston for Kevin Garnett. It's just that he's quietly dominating in Charlotte, a one-time laughing stock but current Eastern Conference playoff team.

SI's Lee Jenkins' recent profile of Jefferson shed some light on this under-the-radar style that has followed Jefferson his entire career, but this year is somewhat different. Maybe not numerically, which focuses on the offensive end. Jefferson has always been a 20-10 player, and the lack of offensive options in Charlotte only puts the ball in his hands even more. 

But defense: That's always been a major sticking point for potential free-agent and trade suitors. While Jefferson's fully developed post repertoire is one of the best in the league, he's never been quick enough to guard the pick-and-roll or disciplined enough to defend the rim. For every advantage he provided on offense, it quickly evaporated on the other end. 

Here's a scouting report on Jefferson from former ESPN basketball writer John Hollinger (subscription required): 

As for defensive value, we'll get back to you on that. Jefferson blocks shots and is a good rebounder, but primarily he seems concerned with avoiding fouls that might take him off the court. Only seven centers fouled less, and it wasn't because Jefferson was in such exquisite defensive position that he didn't need to gamble. The Jazz gave up 1.9 points per 100 possessions more with him on the court last season, and that was his best mark in the past three years; Synergy also rated him below the league average.

In the short capsule summing up his weaknesses, Hollinger writes that he's a "poor defender with slow reactions. Too slow for 4, but short for a 5."

That was written a year-and-a-half ago, not far removed from today's Jefferson. Yet his defensive play has completely changed since then.

Much of that is due to the Bobcats' new head coach, Steve Clifford, who has molded Charlotte's youth into one of the best young defenses in the league. The scheme focuses on protecting the paint, using scrambling rotations to force extra passes until the offense makes a mistake.

While this puts a lot of pressure on the guards, it does a great job of utilizing Jefferson's lone defensive advantage: his strength. By shrinking the court and allowing the guards to handle the perimeter, Jefferson only has to concern himself with battling bigs down low. 

With athletes such as Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker roaming the three-point line, Charlotte is certainly quick enough to play a scrambling defense. Here's a pick-and-roll involving Jefferson and Charlotte's typical defense, with Jefferson dropping deep into the paint and Luke Ridnour fighting over the top. 

Credit: SportsSouth

The difference between Charlotte and most other teams that use the drop is that they shrink the paint significantly. This can sometimes leave three-point shooters open, but Charlotte's collective team speed somewhat negates this side effect.

Only moments after the Washington Wizards' Andre Miller gets into the paint, Charlotte's Gary Neal sinks into the paint on the weak side. Miller clearly has nowhere to go.

Credit: SportsSouth

Jefferson's only responsibility is to drop and keep his arms and body wide to take up as much space as possible. It's on Neal to shrink and recover once Miller hits the three-point shooter Neal has just abandoned. 

Bradley Beal misses the subsequent three.

The Bobcats can't cut off the three-point line completely and are making a clear choice. The result has been them giving up 22.0 three-point attempts per game, tied for 13th most in the league according to NBA.com. But the real devastation is opponents' 37.7 three-point percentage against Charlotte, the third highest in the league.

Charlotte has chosen this route because it knows long-distance shooting is a high-risk play. On any given night, a team that shoots lots of threes can go completely cold and get blown out. Easy attempts in the restricted area, meanwhile, are less likely to fluctuate and more likely to consistently end in defeat for the defense. 

With Jefferson guarding the paint, that consistency around the rim for opponents is liable to become even more stable. But when the defensive scheme diminishes the room a player has to maneuver in the paint and makes it a battle of strength, Jefferson is almost always the winner. 

Even though the Bobcats' team defensive rating actually drops 1.7 points per 100 possessions with Jefferson on the floor compared to off, this is much better than how he has done historically.

The 102.7 defensive rating with Jefferson on the court would still put the Bobcats tied for 12th in league in defensive rating, according to NBA.com, and only 0.7 points per 100 possessions behind the Bobcats' team rating of 101.8. 

So it's not that Jefferson has all of a sudden become a good defender; it's that Clifford understands his strengths and weaknesses and has developed a scheme to limit his exposure on the perimeter while not leaving him on an island in the paint. 

And it's worth it for what he brings on the other end, as the Bobcats jump from a 98.2 offensive rating without him on the floor to 103.2 with him. 

So where does Jefferson excel exactly? The brutal, punishing, physical aspect of interior play. It's when he's knocking players off their spot, then exploding to grab the board. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Jefferson is only giving up 0.686 points per possession in the post, which puts him in the 87th percentile in the NBA. 

Unlike most players, he can afford to give up deeper post position because he rarely gets backed down. This fits into the Bobcats' system, when rotating perimeter players and aggressive play often allow for easy post entries and positioning as Jefferson recovers to a big. 

That's what happens here against Orlando. Jefferson does his job containing Jameer Nelson in a pick-and-roll with Nikola Vucevic, but his drop is so deep that Vucevic is able to roll him down in the paint.

As Nelson enters the ball into Vucevic, however, Jefferson is able to body up and knock him off his spot. It's subtle, but take a look at how Vucevic literally bounces away from the basket on the catch.

After one dribble to get to his right hook, Vucevic goes nowhere. Jefferson keeps his hand high to contest and forces a miss despite what seems to be good post position. 

With Jefferson this far into his career, it doesn't seem like he will suddenly morph into a great defender. But in limited situations he can be more than serviceable, and it's on the Bobcats coaching staff to bring that out.

Thus far this season, we've seen that happen. His deficiencies have been hidden, his strengths accentuated and a Bobcats team that should be nowhere near the playoffs will put up a decent fight against the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. 

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