Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.
(D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images)
After nine seasons in the NBA, Richard Jefferson decided it was time for a makeover. His shot needed an adjustment, his footwork needed improvement, his low post game needed work. So he disappeared into the gym and emerged after the summer with a new look.
Spurs coaches are raving about that look and the effort required to get it. “Richard has an incredible basketball resume, but he came to the gym a week or two after we finished the season and it was Basketball 101,” assistant coach Chip Engelland said. “For him to embrace it is a testament to his professionalism. We’re real excited.”
Jefferson spent weeks on his game in San Antonio, New York and Las Vegas. He went to the gym for two-hour morning sessions, followed by two-hour afternoon sessions, and that doesn’t include personal conditioning. “Richard committed himself to improving his game this summer. In addition to logging many, many hours on the court, he devoted a significant amount of time working on his body,” assistant coach Chad Forcier said.
No one complained about Jefferson’s remarkable body last season. But he still lost some body fat, toned up and got stronger. That was part of his summer of sweat. The rest was what Coach Gregg Popovich called a return to fundamentals. Shooting. Driving. Cutting to the basket. Defense. Coaches covered them all and Jefferson absorbed the lessons like a rookie fighting for a job.
“I enjoyed the work,” Jefferson said. “I appreciated the coaches coming to help me out.”
Maybe no one worked harder on his game in the last off-season than George Hill. He became a better guard, a deadly three-point shooter and finished runner-up as the league’s most improved player. Now here comes Jefferson, once a 20-point scorer, trying to improve his shot.
“Golfers are always looking for the perfect swing,” Engelland said. “Basketball players are looking to improve their stroke. His got better.”
Not that Jefferson needs a lesson on how to score. A quick look at his recent history shows that. Three seasons ago, he averaged 22.6 points, ninth-best in the league. The following season he made nearly 40 percent of his shots from behind the arc, while knocking down a career-best 116 three-pointers.
"There are very few pros who have played as long as he has and scored as much as he has, who would do what he did this summer," Pop said. "He has done a wonderful job of getting back to where he was when he came out of school, making defense a priority, guarding people well, making good decisions."
Jefferson arrived in San Antonio with out-of-this-world expectations. After years as an athletic, go-to scorer, he struggled with a new role in a new system. After the postseason, he remembered his ups and downs as a rookie, how he made adjustments, then decided to work on his latest challenges.
"When I came into the league, I couldn’t hit a 15-foot jumper," Jefferson said. "I was an athlete who could drive. But then I learned how to make that 15-footer. And after three years, I could hit threes."
His memory is sharp. As a rookie, Jefferson made 45.7 percent of his field goal attempts. The next year, he made 50.1 percent. He converted 23 percent of his three-point attempts in his first season. He made 36 percent in his third year.
If he could improve then, why not now?
"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," Pop said. "He had lost some of that focus, some of that discipline. For him to decide to get that back shows respect for his teammates, respect for the game, the respect that he wants for himself."
Jefferson says he learned a lot from Pop reviewing video. Pop might freeze a clip, point out a poor play, then show how Jefferson carried it into the next possession. "He showed me how to react better to my mistakes," Jefferson said.
It’s hard to know how the Jefferson makeover will manifest on the court. When the lights flash on, and defenders rush in, and a jam-packed arena erupts, no one knows how a player will perform.
Given Jefferson’s history in New Jersey and Milwaukee, there’s plenty of reason to believe he’ll deliver. He feels confident about the new season, especially his new stroke. "It’s not done but it keeps getting better and better," he said. "I believe I’m going to have a better season. I put in the work so I can feel confident about the results."
Fans are excited about the addition of Tiago Splitter, about a healthy core of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, about the youth and athleticism of George Hill and DeJuan Blair. Add an improved Richard Jefferson and the possibilities dazzle.
Just about anything is possible, including a fifth championship.