Al Jefferson is all grown up

Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

Once a young buck looking to make his way in the NBA, Al Jefferson is now a mentor for two young big men who are gunning to replace him in Salt Lake. But that's all just fine to Big Al.

BOSTON -- Al Jefferson is having a shooting contest with the rest of the Utah big men after the morning walkthrough, which is unusual because Jefferson isn't the kind of guy you think about when you think about big men and shooting. In a world of stretch fours and 7-footers who shoot like guards, Jefferson is the last of the throwbacks -- the get it on the block, turn, pump fake and go breed of big men who used to dominate this game and now are as rare as, well, people like Al Jefferson.

Earlier this week, Jefferson drained a 3-pointer at the end of Utah's game against Toronto that not only sent the contest into overtime, it also doubled his career tally from the behind the arc from one to two. The Jazz went on to win in triple overtime and it was the kind of improbable early-season win that could mean something, or could mean nothing at all, which is basically where Utah finds itself again this young season.

The Jazz are 4-5. They are pretty good on offense, mediocre or worse on defense and have a roster filled with young talent and middle-aged vets that is going somewhere, although no one really knows where at this point. Their biggest asset right now is their size. In addition to Jefferson and Paul Millsap, they have young, athletic freaks like Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, whom Jefferson refers to constantly as "Big Turkey."

If they have a signature player, it's probably Jefferson, although stat heads have been in love with Millsap's game for years. Although there is much to love about Jefferson's old-school offensive game the advanced metrics haven't been quite as kind, especially on the defensive end, but he's put in work on the other end of the court.

Both of them are free agents at the end of the season, which is Utah's second-biggest asset. As it stands the Jazz have only $26 million committed for next season and that includes players like Favors, Kanter, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks who are all on their rookie contracts.

All of that brings us back to the shooting contest. Jefferson tells us that Jeremy Evans actually won and with a laugh he says that he let him win to build up his confidence, which is a nice little way to sum up Big Al.

"He's been tremendous," his coach Ty Corbin says. "Great team guy. Good leader with this group of guys."

It's suggested that not all veterans would be so accommodating, especially with a couple of players who may wind up taking his job. Corbin agrees. "Great mentor for the young guys," Corbin says. "Especially with Enes and Derrick."

Jefferson loves to teach his young pups new tricks, like his patented pump fakes.

"I work with Big Turkey and Favors all the time on it," he says. "Yeeeahh. They athletic now, but one day you're legs are going to leave you so you got to bring out your little tricks. Why not have it now when you're athletic? Derrick Favors and Big Turkey do a great job with it, especially Turk. I could teach him a move tonight and he'll pick it up like that."

Jefferson's voice calls to mind the Stax rhythm section: steady, low and slow with enough country-fried syncopation to draw you in and a dash of hot buttered warmth to make you feel welcome. He'll conclude our interview by asking me how I've been despite the fact that we've never met before. He takes obvious pride in that kind of human interaction, just as he does with teaching his young charges the tricks of his trade.

"I would never tell (Kanter) this, he does it better than me. He makes it look better than I do." Jefferson laughs --- heh-heh-heh. "I'm glad those guys are learning something from me."

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Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

Al Jefferson came to the NBA from Prentiss, Mississippi, a town so small he jokes it could fit inside TD Garden. He arrived with the Celtics at the same time Danny Ainge was dismantling a good, but hardly great team, and had to grow up quickly under a demanding coach in Doc Rivers.

"One thing about D-O-C man, he's going to be the same guy every time you see him," Jefferson says. "He believes in tough love."

For a while he wasn't sure what to make of his coach, but then Rivers told him that the day he stopped getting on him was the day he had to worry.

"It reminded me of my grandmother," Jefferson says. "She believed in the same thing, that tough love. That was one thing about Doc even to this day now. He always treats me the same even though I haven't played for him in the last five years."

They were all young back then. Big Al, Perk, Delonte, TA, Leon Powe, Bassy Telfair. It was sink or swim and mostly they sunk, losing 18 in a row at one point without Paul Pierce to help carry them. But Jefferson emerged in his third season, averaging 16 points and 11 rebounds.

"We had to grow up fast," he says. "We was young but we were the guys that were counted on to go out and do the job. We got paid to do a job and he expected us to go out and do it. It taught me a lot in my younger days, you know what I'm saying? I thank him for that."

Jefferson may have learned a little too well. He was good enough to be the key piece in the Kevin Garnett trade, but that was many lifetimes ago now. "I've been past that point, brother," he says about coming back to the Garden. "It's a game that we need to win."

Still, he has love for Boston and the organization that raised him. "This was my first home," he says. "This is the team that gave me a chance. Much respect to Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers for that. They're the ones that pulled me out of Prentiss, Mississippi. I'll always love them for that."

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Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

Jefferson was the first building block of a rebuilding project in Minnesota and he piled up huge numbers on a team that was going nowhere fast. He signed a big extension -- five years and $65 million -- but once it was determined that he and Kevin Love didn't really fit together on the court he was off to Utah, just in time for the Wolves to emerge from their post-KG hibernation.

Those first years in Utah were hard. Jerry Sloan left, Deron Williams was traded and the rebuilding cycle continued again. But Jefferson helped push the Jazz into the playoffs and seven years after making the postseason as a rookie he was finally back, if only long enough for a four-game sweep against the Spurs.

"He hit that one little stretch, you can see he's fought through that," Rivers says. "Making that playoff run, and he was a big part of it last year, has re-stoked him and it's good."

It's a quirk of NBA life that Jefferson keeps getting moved the minute things start to click and it may happen again after this season. There are many players in this league who would be resentful about those kinds of circumstances, but not Big Al.

"I'm looking at last year as the beginning of a new era for me," Jefferson says. "I'm not really surprised the way things we went because the situations I was in. At the end of the day it's a blessing to be in the NBA and that's the way I look at it."

Now Jefferson is the teacher.

"I let ‘em know," Jefferson says. "One of my bigs said they was tired. I was like, tired? You're 20 years old, ain't no way in the world you should be tired, yannowhatImean? That's exactly what Doc would have said. I try to teach them that. At the end of the day no matter how old you are, they drafted you for a reason to come out and do a job and you got to do it, night in and night out. Regardless of how tired you are, regardless if you don't feel like it. It's something you got to do. I think they responded well to it."

He pauses and lets out a slow sigh. "I'm going to be 28 in a couple of months."

That's not old, I tell him.

"I know," he says laughing. "But nine years in. So I'm not old but it's old compared to going against a 20-year-old and 21-year-old like Derrick Favors and Big Turkey here. Them guys are young. Ath-letic. They keep me young. They make me better."

Time's up. The bus is leaving and Jefferson slowly walks off the court with ice bags around both knees. He's a veteran in his prime with a decade's worth of tricks to teach and the cycle continues.

"It just happens quick," Rivers says. "The league is quick. It moves quick."

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