By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
Posted Oct 15 2010 6:32PM
At precisely the time when much of the world thought he must have been drifting apart from reality, Richard Jefferson was, in fact, sailing above the clouds.
He'd just spent a week in South Africa watching World Cup soccer and boarded a morning flight for a 12-hour trip out of Johannesburg about 10 minutes after his agent officially announced that Jefferson was opting out of the last year of his contract and giving up $15 million.
Talk about being up in the air.
"It's probably a good thing that I was so isolated and out of touch with everything," Jefferson says now with a grin. "It was definitely a positive thing that I didn't have to listen to all of the talk, see the stuff on ESPN or read opinions. Not that it would have changed my mind. Because I knew where I was going."
The jumbo jet was headed to London as Jefferson continued his summer vacation and, more important, the veteran small forward was bound for a new stage in his 10-year NBA career. Now that he's got a new four-year deal worth $33.8 million, both Jefferson and the Spurs believe the next leg of the journey will be smoother.
A year ago, Jefferson had arrived in San Antonio as the centerpiece of a reconstruction project that was supposed to send the Spurs flying back into the upper echelon of the Western Conference and once more jetting into championship contention. But instead it turned into a turbulent, shaky flight that kept the seat belt signs lit for almost the entire season.
Never mind that Tim Duncan's production was down, that Manu Ginobili spent more than half the season trying to get himself healthy and that Tony Parker missed a third of the season with injuries.
When the Spurs could do no better than the No. 7 seed in the West -- even though they upset No. 2-seeded Dallas in the first round -- it was Jefferson who got the blame.
"I know," Jefferson said, "that people expected more."
More than the 12.3 points a game and 31.6 shooting percentage from behind the 3-point line, both the lowest of his career since his rookie season, all while playing more minutes than anyone else on the team.
Now it is Jefferson who expects more.
"I don't think there's a situation in life where your second year doing something you don't feel more comfortable," he said. "You just have a lot more confidence in everything you're doing. You know what's expected. You know the pace of things. You know the direction the team wants to go in. You just have a better idea of what the coach wants out of his system. So you glide in and fit in a better."
It won't hurt that as the season begins the Spurs' Big Three of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker are all physically in the best shape of the past three or four seasons. None of them are recovering from offseason surgery. Nobody is worn out or beaten up from having played for their national team in the World Championships. And it will help that big man Tiago Splitter, a first-round pick in 2007, is finally making his NBA debut.
But for the Spurs to get all the way back among the elite and challenge the Lakers in the West, they need more from Jefferson. And he spent much of the summer in San Antonio working to deliver it by doing drills, by playing and by just absorbing more of the Spurs' culture.
Jefferson is not the first to find the transition to the "Spurs way" a bump road.
"We just do things a little differently, and Pop expects more from people," Duncan said. "When your head gets out of the way and you're allowed to play your game, things are better."
Jefferson's head never told him he wanted to play anyplace but San Antonio. But at age 30, he felt he owed it to himself to try free agency and eventually get himself a longer contract.
His willingness to take less this money and more years also allowed the Spurs to add Splitter and stay below the luxury tax threshold with their payroll. His willingness to work on his game so hard over the summer allows the Spurs to be encouraged.
"It's very uncommon for a player to look at himself so introspectively and understand what is needed to get back to a championship-level performance like he was at when he was in New Jersey," said coach Gregg Popovich, who worked individually with Jefferson over the summer. "He has lost some of that focus and discipline. For him to decided he wanted to get back shows respect for his teammates, respect for the game, respect that he wants for himself."
Jefferson was literally up in the air on the day when he surprised so many by becoming a free agent, but now has his feet firmly on solid ground.
"Look, I didn't forget how to play basketball," he said. "I just feel like this year I'll be better be at it because I'm comfortable again."
HALE AND HEARTY
For the first time in years, the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are fit and healthy entering the season.
Richard Jefferson will have to bury last season's disappointing performance and become the force the Spurs need at both ends of the floor.
If two-time Spanish League MVP Tiago Splitter can be the inside defensive force and the rebounding helper, it will keep Duncan fresh for the playoffs.
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LAST YEAR: 50-32, 2nd in Southwest
FINISH: Lost in Western Conference semifinals
2009-10 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2009-10 Stats|
RICHARD JEFFERSON, FORWARD
12.3 PPG | 4.4 RPG | 31.6 3PT%
If he can return to his attack-the-basket style that thrived in New Jersey, the Spurs will be potent.
TIM DUNCAN, FORWARD
17.9 PPG | 10.1 RPG | 51.8 FG%
There are fewer nights of sheer dominance at this stage, but the Big Fundamental can still pull the wagon.
ANTONIO MCDYESS, CENTER
5.8 PPG | 5.9 RPG | .48 BPG
The Dice-man should be more at home in his second season in San Antonio.
MANU GINOBILI, GUARD
16.5 PPG | 4.9 APG | 1.37 SPG
He's still the straw that stirs the drink and the player who can always make the difference.
TONY PARKER, GUARD
16 PPG | 5.7 APG | 48.7 FG%
His reputation and profile slipped due to injury, but when healthy he can hang with the big dogs at the point.
|George Hill||6-2||180||G||Outstanding insurance policy for either backcourt position and ready to move up.|
|DeJuan Blair||6-8||265||F||No knee ligaments, no problem for the leaping, hustling rebounding machine.|
|Tiago Splitter||6-11||232||F-C||The most anticipated arrival from Brazil since bikinis and coffee.|
ADDED: James Anderson, Ryan Richards, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, Richard Jefferson
LOST: Keith Bogans, Roger Mason, Jr., Ian Mahinmi
TONY PARKER, GUARD
He's going into the season in exactly the same position as Manu Ginobili a year ago – in the final year of his contract and he has to wonder if the Spurs to will make a new commitment. So many rumors. So much talk. He has to put the gossip about going elsewhere aside and let his play speak for itself.
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