(Photo from SLAM Magazine)
The NBA has seen an evolution over the last 15 years or so. Gone are the days where low post big men dominated the game. Gone are the days where you must have a low post force to win in the NBA. The traditional low post big man is an endangered species in the National Basketball Association and Al Jefferson is carrying the torch for the old school big man.
Al Jefferson signed a lucrative 3 year/ 41 million dollar deal that would make him a Charlotte Bobcat/Hornet for the next 3 seasons. Before he was in the Queen City he was part of rebuilding projects in Minnesota and Boston. He went largely unnoticed to most of the basketball world through his first 7 seasons in the NBA despite putting up very solid numbers. In his 8th season he led the Utah Jazz to the playoffs before ultimately being swept by the San Antonio Spurs in 4 games. Jefferson was called "Pathetic" by the likes of Stephen A Smith for saying that his team had no shot versus the Spurs while the team was down 3-0.
Al has been very overlooked no matter where he has played throughout the course of his career. Many would attribute that to him playing in small markets or playing for fringe playoff teams at best. He is 29 years old and back in September at Bobcats media day Big Al said "I'm entering the prime of my career". Now, Al Jefferson came into the league out of high school back in 2004 so it seems like he's been around forever but 29 is still a young age. Al Jefferson still has a lot of basketball left in him and contrary to popular belief, signing with Charlotte might have been the best thing Al ever did.
The Bobcats over the last few years have been the league’s punching bag, especially after the horrible 7-59 campaign that took place 2 years ago. The revolving door that was the Bobcats head coaching position has never allowed Charlotte to be successful for a long period of time. Things are looking up these days for the Bobcats, and Al Jefferson is a huge reason why. At 22-28 the Bobcats sit in the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference. Now while that might not be an impressive record you must take into account how decimated the team has been by injuries this year. Al missed the first 9 games, Kemba Walker has missed 7 games, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist missed 20 and Jeff Taylor tore his Achilles tendon and will miss the whole season. So despite the injuries, lack of depth and new coaching system the Bobcats have managed to compete night in and night out which is more than you can say for this franchise over the last 2 seasons.
Al Jefferson was lobbied to come to Charlotte by point guard Kemba Walker when they met by fate at their agent’s office during the summer. Al said "If I come I'm not coming there to lose", interesting words for a guy who has been a perennial loser for the better part of his career. The proof is in the pudding though; Charlotte has 22 wins in early February which has surpassed their win total from last year by 1. 7 more wins will surpass the Bobcats combined win total of the last 2 seasons. So while they aren't a .500 team, the Al Jefferson version of the Charlotte Bobcats is much improved and they compete.
Nobody thought that this team had any shot of being a remotely good defensive team due in large part to Al Jefferson’s horrible reputation on the defensive end. Al and company has silenced the critics and became not only a good defensive team but a top 10 defensive team as they currently rank 7th in team defense. Big Al's defensive unit only gives up 97.4 points per game. Last year while playing for the Utah Jazz Al Jefferson and his teammates ranked 20th in the NBA in opponent points in the paint per game as they allowed 42.6 points in the paint per game. This was due in large part to Al's poor rotation on pick and roll situations.
Fast forward to this year and Al Jefferson has actually been an asset to the team’s interior defense this season, as the Bobcats rank 3rd in the NBA in opponent points in the paint per game behind only the Pacers and Bulls. The Bobcats only give 37.5 points in the paint per game which happens to be a 6 point improvement over last year’s 43.9 opponent points in the paint per game. I have watched countless amounts of game this year and Al Jefferson hasn't been the slouch he was in Utah on the defensive end. The same hands he uses to average just under 20 points are the same ones he uses to strip opponents of the basketball. He is averaging 1.2 blocks and .9 steals per game. Add that up and that’s 2 takeaways per game for the Mississippi native.
Al is also still a force on the offensive end as well. He is the only player in the Eastern Conference that averages 19 points and 10 rebounds. He has collected 22 double-doubles in the 41 games he has participated in. Al Jefferson's presence means a lot to this franchise as whole. The Bobcats have never had a consistently productive big man like Jefferson. We can go down the list from Emeka Okafor to Tyson Chandler to, dare I say, Kwame Brown. The Bobcats have struggled to find that low post presence and in the last season of the teams existence they have finally found it in Al Jefferson.
As the Bobcats are set to enter an era that features the 2nd coming of the Charlotte Hornets things are finally looking up for the franchise. They have a young point guard who gets better every year in Kemba Walker. They have a lockdown perimeter defender in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who still has some upside on the offensive end. He’s also very young and still learning and improving his game. They have a solid NBA rotation player in Gerald Henderson, along with young guns like Jeff Taylor and Cody Zeller. Last but not least they have a dominant low post big man in Al Jefferson who they can depend on in late game situations. The building blocks are there and at 22-28 right now, currently seeded as the 8th seed, playoff basketball has a great chance of making a return to Charlotte this year.
Al Jefferson will age gracefully due to the fact that his game is not built on athleticism, but skill and technique. It’s important moving forward that the Bobcats upgrade at the shooting guard position and improve the perimeter shooting. If they do this right they can maximize Big Al's talents and the hive will be alive again in the Queen City.