Movin' On Up
Huge expectations, a lost season and whispers of doubt motivated Al Jefferson to reshape his body and take care of his game. His hard work is paying off.
This article is taken from the upcoming edition of Parquet Magazine, available exclusively at the TD Banknorth Garden on gamenight.
Al Jefferson's right ankle just wouldn't heal. And while he was trying to shrug off the physical pain, at times, he might have been in more emotional pain over the offseason.
He thought that aside from Danny Ainge, no one believed how hurt he really was.
Jefferson had already suffered a right ankle sprain at the start of training camp in October 2005. So when it happened again on a Friday night in early February, just as he was starting to pick up some steam after a string of four solid games, and he struggled with pain as he attempted to rehab the ankle, the whispers started:
Is Big Al soft? Is he really hurt? Why isn't he back yet? He just sprained his ankle.
The injury ended his sophomore season after just 59 games. But months later, in retrospect, it might have been the best thing that ever happened to Jefferson in his young professional career.
"I'd finally got back and got where I wanted to be, and then bam! It happened again," Jefferson said. "But everything happens for a reason, and I'm glad it happened. It made me understand that if you want to do what you set out to do, you've got to work hard at it.
"It kind of knocked me back into reality."
"Again! Again! Be a beast, Big Al!"
Clifford Ray's voice is echoing through he gym as he hollers at Al Jefferson. He's demanding that Jefferson pick up the basketball off the floor, bring it up to the basket and put it in off the glass in one fluid motion. When it drops through the net, Ray slams it back on the floor in front of Jefferson and delivers the same instruction.
Within minutes, Jefferson's sleeveless t-shirt is soaking with sweat, practically begging to be rung out over a tub. Big Al's got a lather going, and he's trying to catch his breath. It's late May, the Celtics' season is over, but Jefferson is working out with Ray on his footwork and post-up moves. As Jefferson puts it, he wants to be a "beast in the paint".
"That's the message," Ray said. "If you want to be nice guy, get off the floor."
Ray played 10 years in the NBA, helping lead the Golden State Warriors to an NBA Championship in 1975, and has held several coaching positions in the league since 1987. But he's really carved out a niche tutoring some of the NBA's best bigmen. Dwight Howard and Ben Wallace are just a few of Ray's star pupils.
Jefferson is his newest student, and according to Ray, he's a willing learner. Ray contends that it takes five years for a big to truly develop, and if that's the case, Jefferson is just scratching the surface of his potential.
"There's no secret formula. It's a process," said Ray, who beams when he talks about Jefferson. "I'm going to give him a foundation. But he knows he belongs and he wants to be a great player. This summer when I first got here, he said, 'Coach I'm so happy you came here, because people don't think I can play, and I just want to show people that I'm not lazy and I'm a hard working player.'"
Jefferson's always been blessed with the rare, valuable combination of size, soft hands and quick feet, but such natural abilities will only get a player a chance at a roster spot in the NBA. Honing those abilities, learning the tricks of the trade and understanding how to use them against larger, stronger and more experienced opponents is what allows a player to truly make an impact - and especially for 'bigs', it just doesn't happen over night. Young bigs need to learn how to set NBA-caliber picks, protect the basket, use leverage in the post, seal off their man, see cutters, pass out of double teams, keep opponents off their backs, establish their rebounding position, finish strong with both hands, and just generally be physical. And they need to do all of this without fouling out, which still proves vexing for Jefferson at times.
"He went straight out of high school to the top. So there's a lot of things that Al just doesn't know," Ray said. "It's not that he couldn't do them, he just doesn't know. And how can you have a great basketball I.Q. if you've only played a few years of high school basketball?"
Big Al dominated his competition in high school, and at times was the tallest player on the floor by eight inches or more. Vickie D. King/The Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, MS
Jefferson grew up in Prentiss, Mississippi, a small village 55 miles outside of Jackson. Playing for the Bulldogs at Prentiss High School at 6'9" and 250 lbs. at the time, Jefferson was literally the biggest thing many locals had ever seen. Hence the simple, but fitting nickname: "Big Al".
The story goes that his English teacher in high school, Minnie Magee, had to find a bigger chair for him to sit in, because Big Al was just too big to fit in the standard desks in her classroom. And those who saw him play in high school recount how he was the biggest kid on the floor on some nights by eight inches. "He looked like a football player out there, a man among boys," says Rusty Hampton, Sports Editor at the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. Another story in the Clarion-Ledger compared Jefferson's opponents to "small terriers yapping up at a Great Dane."
Jefferson absolutely dominated and overwhelmed his competition. Opponents would try to beat the Bulldogs by pressing his teammates in the backcourt, but all they had to do to break the press was launch the ball across half court, above everyone else's head, and Jefferson would catch it where no one else could. Once he had the ball, he could dribble behind his back and pull up for a three if need be (and he often did), but why not drive the lane and shake the backboard with crowd-pleasing dunk? Who was going to stop him? You could foul him, but that wouldn't stop him either, because he could hit 20 free throws in a row, like he did in a garden-variety 56-point effort one night.
Big Al averaged 42.6 points, 18 rebounds and seven blocks per game in his senior year at Prentiss, and when the word got out that Memphis Grizzlies President of Basketball Operations and NBA legend Jerry West was in the house to scout Jefferson at a regular season game, Jefferson said he wanted to put on a show. He didn't even recognize West when he looked for him in the bleachers during the game that night, but he knew who he was and what he could potentially mean to his future. So Big Al dropped a rather big triple-double: 62 points, 21 rebounds and 11 blocks.
Named Mr. Basketball in Mississippi that season, Jefferson racked up plenty of national accolades; he was named to the McDonald's All-American team, the Parade and USA Today All-America first teams, and played for the 2004 USA Men's Junior National Select Team. But despite the pervasive attention, Jefferson remained a humble country boy who liked to go fishing to get away from the hype. While he'd committed to go to the University of Arkansas, talk of the National Basketball Association grew louder, and it became clear that he was a projected lottery pick and at least a first-rounder.
Still, observers said that he seemed uncomfortable with all of the attention.
"In all my dealings with Jefferson, I always got the sense he was an extremely humble young man who seemed so grateful for his basketball gifts," said Bill Spencer of the Clarion-Ledger, who's covered Mississippi high school basketball since 1978 and seen plenty of talents like Clearance Weatherspoon, Chris Jackson, Othella Harrington, Jonathan Bender and Travis Outlaw find their way to the NBA.
"He's just a country kid from a small town in Mississippi, and I don't think he'll ever forget his roots or the people in his hometown or home state."
The 15th selection in the 2004 NBA Draft, Jefferson made a splash in his rookie year after a nice showing in the Celtics 2005 first-round playoff series loss to the Indiana Pacers. While he had strong showings in Game 1 and Game 4 of the series, his 11 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks in Game 6 really opened eyes and heightened expectations as well. Before he knew it, Jefferson was on the cover of the Celtics media guide, and ready or not, he was cast as the future of the franchise.
Was it fair to expect so much so soon? Probably not. But Jefferson now realizes that he should have responded to the challenge. In fact, it might have taken something of a bottoming out for him to realize where he needed to go. While he'd occasionally have a big night and show flashes of brilliance in the low post, he couldn't seem to bring it on a nightly basis. Jefferson slid in and out of the starting lineup, and his poor play on the defensive end was making him a liability. At times he was so bad that he had to be pulled from the game when it was clear he didn't understand where he was supposed to be on the floor, and his man was scoring at ease. Celtics Coach Doc Rivers, who would rave about Jefferson's personality, said on more than one occasion that if he wasn't scoring the basketball, he didn't have any value on the court because his defense was so poor.
"He gets himself into positions that when he gets there, you have to write down on a piece of paper, 'we've got to teach him that, too.' I don't think he guarded a whole bunch of centers at Prentiss," Rivers said at the time after taking him out of the starting lineup early that January.
Such growing pains led to inconsistent minutes and limited opportunities to show he belonged in the NBA. Rivers wasn't going to just hand Jefferson minutes; he said time and time again that effort would earn him playing time. But something had to give, because the team knew Jefferson had star potential.
When the Celtics made a seven-player trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves on January 26, 2006, part of the plan in including Mark Blount in the swap was freeing up some playing time for Jefferson. That point was not lost on Big Al, and he seemed to respond immediately, playing four consecutive strong games. Three days after the trade, Jefferson posted a 12-point, 12-rebound effort against the Milwaukee Bucks. He followed that up with 10 and 10 against the Timberwolves, and then a 17-point, seven-rebound night against the Phoenix Suns. And Friday against the Los Angeles Clippers, he'd played just under seven minutes in the first half and had already racked up a block and six rebounds as he went up for his seventh board of the game.
Trying to gather the ball, Jefferson came down awkwardly on Chris Wilcox's sneaker, his un-taped right ankle buckled beneath him, and he instantly collapsed to the parquet in pain. Watching him crawl like an inchworm along the baseline under the basket, writhing in pain, it was obvious that he was done for the night.
Even though he returned to the floor just about a month later on March 1 against the Miami Heat and played 12 more games, the bone bruise on his ankle effectively ended his season. He logged a DNP against the Toronto Raptors on March 22 and was designated as inactive for the rest of the season.
"I shouldn't have played the games I played after I twisted my ankle because it was really hurting. I really embarrassed myself because I couldn't move like I wanted to. I was in really bad pain, I really was. I tried to play through it, I tried to be a monster and just come back and play. But I failed," Jefferson said. "There's a certain pain that you just can't play through."
"I disappointed myself last year, but I'm here to take care of my game," Jefferson said in an interview with Celtics.com. "If you take care of your game, your game will take care of you."
While he hoped that his ankle had mostly healed, pain from the bone bruise was still lingering, but he was in the gym again in May, working out twice a day with Celtics Strength and Conditioning Coaches Walter Norton Jr. and Bryan Doo. He'd decided he was going to deal with the pain, get "Karl Malone tape jobs" (basically, tape his ankles as tight as humanly possible) and make the necessary sacrifices to transform his body.
So he worked with Norton and Doo to create a training plan, and the first step was to strip him down and get him as lean as possible. For a guy who first reported to the Celtics as a rookie with just under 25% body fat, there was a long way to go. So Jefferson hired a personal chef, and overhauled his diet with the help of a nutritionist. Norton says that Jefferson must have called him "literally 50 times" from the supermarket or restaurants looking for advice on which foods were better for his body. While he'd work out with Norton and Doo in Waltham during the day, he was going to Doo's house at night to get in his second workout. Jefferson constantly credits them with dedicating their time to him over the summer, but the coaches talk about how Jefferson really started responding to the training when he could see the results in his game.
"He made a conscious decision that he wasn't content with his level of play and where his body was based on his potential. He wanted to put in two-a-days when a lot of other guys around the league were still taking time off," Norton said.
Mostly, Jefferson talked about wanting to improve his conditioning. Too often he was running out of gas, gasping for breath and having a hard time making it up and down the court after a few minutes. Rivers had told him that he didn't work hard enough in his first offseason, and at first Jefferson didn't agree, but reflecting back on what happened in his second year, and knowing that he'd disappointed himself and his team, Jefferson came around.
While he's always a pleasant guy to be around, there seemed to be an edge to Jefferson that hadn't been seen before. He sounded determined about reshaping his body, but clearly didn't like talking about his ankle. Even though he was convincing himself that he'd healed physically, mentally, his ankle was still front and center. He shuddered at the thought of re-spraining the ankle, and admitted that he even thought about ankle injuries watching other players jumping up for rebounds in traffic. And when it was really hurting him like it did in the Toshiba Vegas Summer League, Jefferson started to get a bit defensive. Asked if the ankle was still hurting him after a summer league game, Jefferson, out of character, responded curtly: "The only time I think about it is when you guys ask me."
Jefferson planned to take about two weeks off after Vegas and then get back to work. But upon returning to Boston, another MRI discovered something that hadn't been seen before: bone chips in his right ankle. Jefferson went in for what was termed a "successful minor arthroscopic surgery on his right ankle."
For Jefferson, the result was anything but minor. The surgery validated Jefferson's claims that he was in constant pain, and the longer the injury wore on, the more Jefferson had to wonder if anyone believed how hurt he really was. He still says that Ainge was the only person who really showed him that he believed how much pain he was in; Ainge told Jefferson that he had a similar bone bruise injury when he played and knew how debilitating it could be.
"When the summer was over, and he got the surgery, people said, 'Oh, he really was hurt.' At the time, you really don't know how much pain a guy is in," said Ryan Gomes, who worked out with Jefferson on a daily basis over the summer. "I felt he was getting a little discouraged and down because he just kept hearing 'hurry up, get back', or the negative things, and I think that motivated him a little bit more."
The first day he was allowed to ride the exercise bike out of his protective boot, he was ready to go, and the next step in his offseason program was to develop his speed, quickness and explosiveness. "That's where he really responded, and that's where we knew he'd have a tremendous advantage on other people," Norton said. "And it's not just his first jump that's better, it's his ability to get off the ground repeatedly, which is a more important attribute for playing well in the NBA." Meanwhile, Jefferson continued to shed body fat, getting down to 7.7% to start the season, a transformation Norton calls "ungodly" given where Jefferson had been just a year ago.
Al Jefferson is getting accustomed to facing double teams on a nightly basis as he becomes a focal point of the Celtics attack. Elsa/NBAE/Getty
Jefferson seemed primed for a breakout season with a sleeker, streamlined body and a fresh slate of games ahead of him. But three games into the year, a "stomach ache" that turned in to an emergency appendectomy - is there any other kind? - sidelined him for 10 days and seven games. Jefferson dropped about 10 more pounds after the appendectomy, and got a pretty good scare to boot, but he seemed to take it all in stride, and hey, at least it wasn't another ankle sprain.
He returned on November 22 against the Charlotte Bobcats, and for the next two weeks the Celtics eased him back into the rotation. But center Kendrick Perkins' nagging plantar fasciitis injury finally led the Celtics to shut him down on December 6 for a few weeks, thrusting Jefferson into the center spot.
Big Al responded that Saturday with his best game as a pro, a 29-point, 14-rebound effort in a 92-90 win in New Jersey that Nets Coach Lawrence Frank called "dominant." Falling behind by 20 points in the first quarter, Pierce and the Celtics made a point of feeding Jefferson in the post as they mounted a comeback, and the victory sparked a five-game winning streak for the Celtics that featured strong play from Jefferson throughout. Facing tough centers like Emeka Okafor, Marcus Camby and Eddy Curry, Jefferson rose to the challenge.
His conditioning was clearly improved from last year, but Jefferson's slimmed-down frame also made him quicker. In fact, some observers even suggested that the appendectomy had been a blessing in disguise, forcing Jefferson to shed even more weight than he'd originally intended.
Either way, it was clear that carrying less weight allowed Jefferson to carry a greater load for the Celtics' offense. While he's still learning what moves he can get away witon the block (referees have rung him up for traveling quite a bit), his up-and-under post-up moves were happening faster, and he was dusting off some headfakes and drop-steps that haven't been seen from a Celtics pivot since the days of Kevin McHale's "slippery eel". And when it came to rebounding, Jefferson was now getting up off the floor a second, third and fourth time in succession, a skill that he'd worked on developing over the summer with Doo and Norton, and one that's highly relevant to his work in the paint. His rebounding numbers jumped because he was doing something he almost never did last year, tipping the ball to himself when he couldn't grab it cleanly, or simply tipping it in off the glass for two.
Along with improved rebounding, Jefferson's also starting to block shots again, and it all gets back to his improved agility and conditioning. "You'll see him get rebounds where he goes up five times in a row," Norton said. "And he's blocking more shots this year because not only is he quicker, but he's elevating higher up off his feet."
Against the Knicks the following Monday at Madison Square Garden, Jefferson was beating Curry up and down the floor and watching him gasp for oxygen, something to which the old Al Jefferson could certainly relate, and he finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds in the win over the Knicks. Against Charlotte, Okafor must have blocked his shot "five or six times" according to Jefferson, but Big Al kept going at him in the 106-100 win, and he finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds.
His progress is not lost on his teammates, and they have started to understand how to motivate him as well. Brian Scalabrine talked up Camby before the Denver Nuggets game, telling Jefferson that the veteran shotblocker would give him problems. And Pierce was also getting in Jefferson's ear about Camby.
"Before we played Denver, Paul asked me, 'Is your name Al or Big Al?' And I told him, 'My name is Big Al.' And he said, "Show me." He has a lot to do with my success, he's keeping the ball in my hands and looking for me."
Pierce said he sees a guy who continues to improve his play as his confidence grows, and that Jefferson's improvement had to do with playing smarter and finally being healthy. So it just made sense to try to make Jefferson a focal part of the Celtics' offense.
"I know what kind of ability he has, and if he demands the ball, I want to get it to him because I know what kind of potential he's got down low," Pierce said. "When you've got a man with that type of potential down there scoring, it takes a lot of pressure off of me."
After all of the prodding from his teammates, Jefferson had another huge game against the Nuggets, scoring 28 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
Afterward in the locker room, Jefferson looked at Scalabrine and asked, "Who's next?"
Maybe the real question is, "what's next?" While he's made great strides, Jefferson knows that he's really only embarking on his journey. He's planning to be back in Boston again this summer, and now that he's shed the body fat, his next move is to add strength without sacrificing the quickness and agility he's developed this year.
Once a man among boys in his high school days, Jefferson is really still a kid at age 22. He needs to work on establishing his position and keeping it against the grown men of the NBA. He still needs to roll to the basket with more authority on pick and rolls, and he still needs to bring a consistent effort on the defensive end every night. But after seeing the results of dedicating himself to improvement last summer, Jefferson is excited about the road ahead.
"I'm going to be even better, because I know I can do it," Jefferson said. "I know that if I put the hard work in that I'll get what I want out of it."