By Peter F. Stringer
May 24, 2006
If there's one word that's been used to describe Al Jefferson's sophomore season, it would be "disappointing."
And Jefferson will be the first one to tell you.
"I disappointed myself last year, but I'm here to take care of my game," said Jefferson. "If you take care of your game, your game will take care of you."
Big things were expected of Big Al after an impressive rookie season and a coming out party in the first round of the playoffs against the Pacers in 2005. Jefferson suddenly found himself on the cover of media guides and Celtics posters, and his locker in the right corner of the Celtics dressing room became a hot spot for reporters.
But Jefferson's second season didn't turn out the way anyone expected, as ankle injuries derailed his progress. And by his own admission, he wasn't in the type of shape he needed to be in to build on an impressive rookie campaign and continue to progress in his second year.
That's why Jefferson is working out twice a day this summer in Waltham, and why he's planning on playing for the Celtics in the Las Vegas Summer League, despite having two NBA seasons already under his belt. Jefferson, who's already visibly leaner and more defined in his upper body, said his ankle has only recently healed up sufficiently to allow him to participate in full court basketball workouts, but he expects to be able to go full tilt in mid July when the summer league begins.
Jefferson, who'll likely be among the most experience players in the summer league, said he won't be in Vegas to try to dominate anyone -- or to try his hand at craps, for that matter, despite recently turning 21 -- but simply just to expand his repertoire and continue to build his skills.
Tuesday, Jefferson ran through passing and dribbling drills, and then worked with Ryan Gomes on post up moves, emphasizing finishing strong with both hands on the offensive end, while working on his footwork and lateral movement on the defensive end. But more than any special techniques, there's one thing that stands out to Jefferson. It's highlighted, underlined and blinking in neon lights on his list of improvements.
"I'm working on my skills and my body, but the main thing, if I don't work on anything else, I'm going to work on my conditioning. If I'm able to run the court all-day, all-night, I'm going to be really difficult to stop," Jefferson said.
Jefferson's determination comes through in his voice. He seems fixated on erasing the memory of a sophomore slump and getting his development back on track to match the lofty expectations that were bestowed on him before last year. And he seems to understand that his success rests on his own shoulders, a point that his coach made several times last season.
"The bottom line is that you've got to put in work to be a good player," said Doc Rivers, who was at the Sports Authority Training Center to check in on pre-draft workouts Tuesday. "There's no secret to being a better player. I think Al is committed to doing that."
What about those expectations, placed on Jefferson at such an early age after one impressive season? Were they fair?
"Yes and no," said Jefferson, who paused a few seconds before answering the question. "It wasn't fair for me because it was just somebody's opinion, and they put me in some big shoes and I had to fill them up, and I didn't. But it was fair, because I should have stepped up to the challenge."
His coach didn't quite know how to answer that question either.
"I don't know," said Rivers. "But Al is going to be a good player. Whether he's a good player or not next year, we'll see. I think there's perceived pressure, more from you guys, but I don't think Al - I don't expect Al to make the All-Star team next year. It would be great if he did."
And with that in mind, the Celtics are going to do everything they can to make sure Jefferson reaches his potential. They've brought in heralded big man coach Clifford Ray to work with Boston's bigs, but it appears Jefferson will be Ray's special project. Ray has worked with most of the successful big men in the league today, with Orlando's Dwight Howard standing out as his most recent success story.
Jefferson spent part of Tuesday working with Ray on footwork and post moves, and he'll get plenty of attention from Ray this summer as he looks to take his game to the next level. Jefferson's been to Ray's big man camps (that he hosts along with Robert Parish) and he's enthusiastic about working with Ray full time.
"Clifford just knows the game," said Jefferson. "He was a very smart player, he's been around the league a long time, and he's what me and Perk need, help from a big man who played the same positions, and [Assistant Coach] Dave Wohl knows the big man position just as well. I think with those two guys and me and Perk, I think that's going to be what we need."
Gomes, who actually found most of his playing time in February when Jefferson went down with what was effectively a season-ending ankle injury, is seeing the progress up close.
"I think he's back. He had a bad ankle injury, which is hard to come back from in any sport," said Gomes, who plans to join Jefferson in the Vegas league. "He's gradually getting himself back and he still has four-five months before he has to go full-throttle every day in practice."