By Steve Aschburner, for NBA.com
Posted Sep 17 2009 11:53AM
A well-known NBA power forward was lumbering along on a treadmill, taking inventory of assorted aches and pains from his playing days while talking about a well-known NBA power forward on the other side of the gym, sweating out contact drills in the early days of his comeback from major knee surgery.
Kurt Rambis was picking up what Al Jefferson was putting down.
"I'm pleasantly surprised that he's down here taking contact,'' Rambis, the Minnesota Timberwolves' new head coach said amid the thumps, whirs and heavy breathing of his own workout. "Once guys come in and start playing, you want to see if he favors that leg or runs around it. The sessions we've had have been more controlled. He could kind of judge where he's going. But when you're playing, you've got to react. You can't modulate what you're doing out there.''
It's been more than seven months since Jefferson went down in a heap along one baseline at the New Orleans Arena, grabbing his right knee and fearing the worst late in a Wolves loss on Feb. 8. Everyone else in Wolves Nation (is there a Wolves Nation?) feared the worst, too, and that's what they got: A shredded anterior cruciate ligament that immediately ended Jefferson's season, a 7-25 slide that spoiled what had been the modest promise of 17-33 (including a 10-2 start to calendar 2009) and all the attendant harsh realities -- firings, trades, changes of every sort -- that typically follow when a team misses the Playoffs for a fifth straight spring.
Since then, it's been largely a bummer summer for Jefferson. Six weeks in a knee brace and on crutches gave way to countless hours in rehab from his Feb. 18 surgery, a repetitive and lonely pursuit despite serious bonding time with fellow Wolf Corey Brewer. Brewer tore the same ligament in his same knee back in November, putting him more than two months ahead of Jefferson in terms of recovery, physical grind, occasional setbacks and recurring doubts.
Now, Brewer is one of just four teammates returning to a roster torn down and rebuilt, McMansion-style, by new Wolves president David Kahn -- McMansion without the Big Mac, since Kevin McHale was bounced in favor of Rambis. And as valued as Jefferson is -- his 23.1 ppg and 11.0 rpg would have ranked him with Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh as last season's only 20-10 players, had Jefferson played enough to officially qualify -- he has heard Kahn tell fans and media more than once that Minnesota won't be a serious contender until he is the team's second-best player. As opposed to the default franchise guy, a surrogate thrust into what used to be Kevin Garnett's suffering role.
That has stoked the fire of Jefferson's comeback, too, a comeback now in its final stages.
"I think I'm more 92, 93 percent right now,'' Jefferson said, nudging his status from a self-proclaimed "90 percent'' back in August. "I've got a ways to go as far as conditioning. But meanwhile, I don' see my knee stopping me or becoming a problem. My biggest thing right now is being in shape.''
His right leg looks the same as the left, save for the obvious entry point for the surgeon's tools. Small scar to bring down such a big man.
"Of course the right leg is a little weaker than the other one,'' Jefferson said. "That's normal. The doctor said it would probably be this time next year before that knee would be 100 percent. But it should be no problem with my movement. I don't have no problem doing nothin' out there that I was doing before I got hurt.''
For that, Jefferson can thank a high-tech, big-ticket treadmill in Minnesota's practice facility that looks like some sort of lunar landing module. It uses forced air to support a runner's weight, lessening the impact on sensitive joints. Similar results can be achieved by jogging in swimming pools, but Jefferson isn't one for wet work ("I can't swim'').
The Wolves forward also can thank a growing maturity, a professionalism at 24 that he simply didn't have when he arrived in Boston direct from Prentiss (Miss.) High School in 2004. Sticking around town, limiting his trips home for Mom's cooking, has enabled Jefferson to shed what he claims are 34 pounds from his 2008-09 playing weight. It surely has him back to where he was at in the gym last week, in a workout with several players and Minnesota's new coaching staff. At one point, Jefferson put a nice double-spin, low-post move on newly acquired Ryan Hollins that made onlookers wonder, "What surgery?''
"I was excited to see where he was, especially since so much of his game is based on spins and quick movements. I haven't seen any hesitancy whatsoever,'' said Dave Wohl, Rambis' lead assistant and the former Celtics staffer who spent three summers honing Jefferson's game and work ethic. "He's so much more conscious now of what he has to do. He's dropped weight. He has such great footwork -- he's so gifted -- but the challenge for him now is to keep improving on the defensive end. He recognizes now that the work in the summer is very important to him. The guys who put the work in every summer, it's not hard to see why they improve.''
Jefferson spent this summer, unfortunately, getting back to even. He sounds determined to go beyond that, beyond the failures he has known for most of his career -- Jefferson's teams in Boston and Minnesota are a cumulative 114 games under .500 in five seasons -- and way beyond the frustrations of watching in warmup suits, from a Barcalounger in front of his HDTV, while his club loses again. Without him.
"At first, it was tough. Tough as hell,'' Jefferson said of his spectator status for the final 32 games. "Once I started getting up and moving around a little bit in rehab, I [relaxed] a little because my movement was getting better, my knee was starting to feel better. My post moves were still there, even though I still had weakness. When that started coming, that just made me work even harder to get where I am right now.''
These days you can find Jefferson on the practice court beneath Target Center, more than likely posting up and fighting his way around Bill Laimbeer, the longtime (and notorious) Detroit Pistons center who also joined Rambis' staff. "I'm looking for Bill to bring that nasty side out of me, that tough side, especially on defense,'' Jefferson said. "He can really bring us to that next level on defense, being that tough guy, that leader.''
Jefferson likes that the new coaches, including Reggie Theus, all have been successful in the NBA. Especially the boss.
"When I found out that Kurt got the job, it was amazing to me,'' he said. "Just for the simple fact that [the Lakers] just won the championship, he's head assistant, two or three years max he was going to have the head coaching job. He left that? To come here? I can roll with a guy like that. I'll go down fighting for a guy like that every night. I know he's not coming here to b.s., he's coming here to win. He won me over right there.''
Looks like Rambis will have a healthy and driven Al Jefferson to roll with, too.
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