When the Cavaliers reached the NBA Finals last June, it had been 12 seasons and 56 postseason games between Richard Jefferson’s last trip to the Association’s biggest stage. And when the epic seven-game series with Golden State wrapped up, it was the first NBA title for the lively 15-year vet.
And although the Championship drought lasted through a decade-and-a-half for R.J., he did plenty of winning while he waited. In 15 seasons, Jefferson reached the Playoffs in 11 of them – including his first six in New Jersey and two seasons ago with Dallas.
Last year, Jefferson appeared in 74 games with the Cavaliers, averaging 5.5 points on 46 percent shooting – notching double-figures on 15 occasions. And the native Angelino was even better in the postseason – hitting on nearly 52 percent of his shots in the 2016 Finals.
Jefferson was originally selected by the Houston Rockets with the 13th overall pick in 2001 and immediately dealt to New Jersey – along with fellow picks Brandon Armstrong and Jason Collins – in exchange for Eddie Griffin.
And in that first season in the Garden State, all three rookies – along with the newly-acquired Jason Kidd and incumbents, Kerry Kittles, Keith Van Horn and Kenyon Martin – helped lead Byron Scott’s Nets to the NBA Finals, where they faced and fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in four games.
In today’s installment of Bright Futures: Rookie Tales presented by BBVA, we look back on R.J.’s freshman campaign in New Jersey, his relationship with former Cavs coach Byron Scott and which player gave him the most guff as an NBA neophyte …
Even after spending three years at a prestigious program like Arizona under Lute Olsen, were you still pretty green when you got to New Jersey?
Richard Jefferson: Definitely! You’re a rookie, this is the NBA!
No one walks into the NBA – I don’t care who you are, you could be the No. 1 pick – no one walks in there and thinks ‘I got this this stuff figured out.’
I was fortunate where we had four rookies come in at the same time: myself, Brian Scalabrine, Jason Collins and Brandon Armstrong. We all had a good Summer League. Kerry Kittles was rehabbing his knee, so he played in Summer League with us. I had a bunch of guys that I played with and against in college. We drafted three PAC-10 guys, so we were kind of familiar with each other. And Jason Kidd I knew from just around the way, local Arizona stuff.
So I probably felt as comfortable as you possibly could as a rookie.
Most rookies don’t have the luxury of four classmates to take the heat off.
Jefferson: It was great, man! Rookies usually share the brunt of the mistakes and the grief. And me and Jason were rotation guys. Brandan cracked it a few times and Brian was still trying to find his niche. Now, as a stretch-4, he’d have been able to play forever.
I think it was good to have other rookies that you can count on; guys that you’ve played against, guys that you knew because you kinda stuck together.
Plus, I don’t remember what it was, but we had seven or eight guys that were either born in or from the state of California. Keith Van Horn was from California, Lucious Harris, J-Kidd, Me, Byron Scott. I was comfortable as you could be as a rookie. I had guys you could relate to; that you could share stories with on the back of the bus. It made life a little easier.
During his time in Cleveland, Coach Scott was known to have little patience for rookies. What was he like with you?
Jefferson: He was great. But growing up as a Lakers fan, he was like a dad to me. And even now to this day, I have so much respect for Byron as a person and as an individual that cares about the game, cares about how people respect the game. That’s something that’s a true compliment to him.
He was great. We still have a relationship to this day.
Was he tough on you?
Jefferson: He was tough on me. But I’m tough on myself.
I tried to do the things you want from a rookie. I played hard, I ran the floor hard, I tried to take the defensive challenge. I attacked the rim hard – I wasn’t a jumpshot-happy rookie, I wasn’t a gunner.
If anything, he actually tried to instill confidence in me. He put me into the rotation and let me go play.
How much did it help that you came from a successful, established college program like Arizona?
Jefferson: Part of the reason Arizona and schools like that generate pros is because I played against Jason Terry, I played against Gilbert Arenas, I played against Luke Walton every single day in practice. We ran a pro-style offense.
When we came into the pros, that doesn’t mean we knew anything. And the hardest part for me was picking up the offense. We did run a simple offense at Arizona. And then we ran a Princeton Offense in New Jersey. And that’s one of the most difficult offenses to pick up. It just takes time.
As a rookie, they thought I was special. But I told them at Arizona, we ran five plays.
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A lot of rookies – especially high picks – go into rough NBA situations. How did joining a Finals-bound team affect you then and did it shape the rest of your career?
Jefferson: I always believe that you contribute to whatever situation you’re put into. I think drafting three guys that were going to play 10 years in this league contributed to the success of New Jersey, especially early on.
You had guys who had played in the Tournament, who had been No. 1 seeds, had gone on the road into hostile environments. So being in a pressure game in Boston 70 games into the season didn’t really faze us. You had multiple guys who’d played in a Final Four and these are guys that you’re drafting.
And I think that’s what makes it hard to draft these guys today because guys aren’t staying in college. It’s bad for basketball.
When I was young, yeah, I was a little jealous. You’d see guys getting all these shots on a crappy team and you’re out there averaging nine points a game for this team.
But it put me early on into a mindset that success and winning are the ONLY things that matter. And that’s always the way it was for me. And it’s always affected my decisions – to go to Dallas, to go to Cleveland.
There might have been more money on the table, there might’ve been a better opportunity, but I want to go to the place that had the best chance of winning. And it finally paid off.
That 2001-02 Nets team had some big names on it. Were they big personalities? What was the locker room like?
Jefferson: Our team was fairly quiet. J-Kidd was an introvert; K-Mart was kind of an introvert. We were all good teammates, but it wasn’t like here, where LeBron’s an extrovert, J.R.’s an extrovert, Tristan’s an extrovert. That’s not what we were like.
You were with the Nets during 9/11. What was that time like in New Jersey/New York?
Jefferson: We were doing a “Read to Achieve” event at a school that morning and the way things transpired, we got to the practice facility and it was going on and it was just so crazy – the facility was right off Route 3 in Rutherford where so many people from New York lived and worked. We were 10 minutes from the Lincoln Tunnel.
Our first two games of the season were on the road and third game was at home. So it was 9/11 Tribute after 9/11 Tribute and it was all year long. It was a very difficult year. Even though we had great success, it was hard for fans to celebrate.
Which veteran was your best mentor? Which one was hardest on you?
Jefferson: I would say J-Kidd is the obvious answer. And I’d say the non-obvious answer is Lucious Harris.
(Harris and I) both averaged about nine points a game that year and so every time I’d make a mistake, I’d come over to the bench and he’d mess with me. I’d vent to him, I’d yell at him. He was mean to me, but he was freakin’ great! Just a good, good veteran guy that not a lot of people will remember in the history of basketball.
We would sit there to start the game – we both came off the bench – and he’d be making fun of me the entire game. He was such a smartass, such a jerk! He would just dog me: ‘What are you gonna do when you can’t jump anymore? You sure as hell can’t shoot!’
He was a great teammate. He was funny, he’d have everyone laughing. He was just a really good veteran and we still stay in contact to this day.
Any rookie hazing on that squad?
Jefferson: Well the term “hazing” – that’s something that was done in the 1960s in a frat house.
Every now and then, idiots get carried away with things. But NBA “hazing” is a right of passage. Find an individual on this planet that doesn’t believe in right of passage!
Guys come in and you have to humble them just a little bit.
I don’t care if you’re the No. 1 pick – you make ‘em go buy the donuts, you make ‘em carry the bags, you make ‘em pick up the newspaper, pick up the laundry.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Bright Futures from BBVA Compass
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