Cory Jefferson hunched over at his locker looking at his cell phone early Wednesday evening. His Brooklyn Nets were coming off a win, preparing to play the Boston Celtics in just a couple of hours, but his heart still felt heavy.
"We're really struggling with that," Jefferson, a Baylor alum, said of the No. 3-seeded Bears' upset loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament over the weekend.
Apparently, even for the guys no longer on the team, it takes more than a few days for those gashes to heal.
Jefferson speaks about his time at Baylor about as highly as you'd expect any recent graduate to discuss his collegiate experience. But playing for coach Scott Drew also created a stigma for the Nets rookie big man, one that he's trying to shed as he rounds out his first NBA season.
Baylor kids have built up a stereotype—unfair or not—of being superior athletes without actually much skill or basketball smarts. The Bears' collapse just a weekend ago against 14th-seeded Georgia State (the Panthers were down, 56-44, with under three minutes to go and closed the game on a coach-collapsing, buzzer-beater-infested 13-0 run to win by one) didn't help one bit.
Take a quick scroll down Baylor's NBA roster. See Perry Jones III, the Quincys Acy and Miller, Ekpe Udoh and even Pierre Jackson. They all have it physically. Something is just missing.
Jefferson is in somewhat of a different category from those players, each of whom were major contributors as soon as they stepped on campus. He didn't see floor time until his junior season. He even talks about his team's 2012 Elite Eight run, which occurred during season two at Baylor, as more of a viewer than a participant.
"I didn't even go in," Jefferson joked about the team's loss to eventual champion Kentucky in the regional final.
Still, Jefferson is trying to shed that all-athlete, little-skill label, as all players do. And he's actually starting to show some promise offensively.
He's sinking 36 percent of his shots from 16 feet out to the three-point line, below league average, but a step up from what we saw in college. Shooting is imperative for the 6'9" power forward, a 4-man because he doesn't yet possess the girth to bang down low with many centers.
"I'm not getting as many post touches here as I did back at Baylor," Jefferson explained. "More of my shots have come from the elbows or the corners, around 15-foot range."
Considering he's already 24 years old, we might never see Jefferson become a wide-shouldered, down-low presence. That means his game has to become as stretchy as his body. He knows what type of NBA player he needs to turn into, too.
"I'm still able to move around and get my shots with the pick-and-rolls, [finding] space away from my defender," he said. "I need to get my shot off a little better, a little quicker, but I've adapted to that more."
Self-awareness is the first step to improvement. You can't get better if you don't actually know what traits you need to boost. Understanding that an asparagus-thin, but explosive, forward needs to become a pick-and-roll player is the inauguration to Jefferson's development.
The good news: He appears more capable than he did early in the year—and not just as a shooter. He's learning how to read defenses and pass better. He's rotating quicker on the defensive end. And let's remember, Jefferson was once an impact shot-blocker at the collegiate level.
Let's also remember, though, that even if the 24-year-old is an older-than-usual rookie, he's still just that: a rookie, a first-year learner. Sometimes, improvement can come mentally more than physically.
"I'm still a little nervous going out there," divulged Jefferson, who says the nerves started to calm down around when the calendar turned to January. "It's definitely not as big as it was at the beginning."
Jefferson isn't the first Nets rookie to be this candid about his on-court attitude. Markel Brown, another Big 12 product, copped to such just a couple weeks ago. But the more he plays, the more he's finding his sweet spot, which could end up being a bigger help for the Nets than the average fan realizes.
What have we been saying about the Nets all season (and by "we," I mean "everyone who has spoken a word about the Nets this year")? There's almost no athleticism on the roster.
And the more Jefferson justifies his play, the more the Nets can add some spark to a front line—which got a little more spry with the acquisition of Thaddeus Young—that still has Brook Lopez's lumbering body as the centerpiece.
The Nets traded for Jefferson on the same evening the rookie was the final selection in June's 2014 NBA draft. In football, they call the last pick Mr. Irrelevant. In basketball, owning the final name called on draft night has a legacy of its own. Isaiah Thomas concluded the 2011 draft. Manu Ginobili just missed out on bragging rights, going second-to-last in 1999.
Jefferson certainly isn't going to hit the heights of I.T. and Manu, but he can provide a mobile body for an immobile team moving forward.
He won't receive heavy playing time this year. We're 70 games into the season, and he's averaging only 11.0 minutes a night with loads of DNPs. It's clearly not going to happen, but he does have time to develop for next year, and he appears to be doing so.
Occasionally playing with the ball is becoming more natural. Rebounding is progressing. Moving defensively is turning more intuitive.
On a team that doesn't have much roster flexibility, Jefferson allows for something that's rare in Brooklyn: further development of the current group, even if said "development" doesn't have that high of a ceiling. After all, he was a second-round pick for a reason.
"Decent upside" is a descriptor you won't find much while talking about the Nets roster. For mostly everyone there, the upside has already arrived. But Jefferson is one of the few young ones. Youth, alone, gives him value in Brooklyn, and if he can continue to develop, Mr. Irrelevant will suddenly become a far more ironic moniker than most people realized back in June.
Follow Fred Katz on Twitter at @FredKatz.