Al Jefferson had a feeling all along last season. With his contract due to expire and Charlotte needing to devote its financial resources to younger players rather than a 31-year-old backup center, he thought he would be changing teams over the summer.
A team such as the Pacers.
So when his agent called him on July 1 to tell him the Pacers had come through with a quick and determined contract offer, he jumped on it.
"When I actually got the call I thought, wow, I guess my gut feeling was right," Jefferson said Friday when introduced to the media at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
"I didn't talk to nobody (else). It was just Pacers. At this point in my career I've put myself in a position where I can go where I want to go as far as what's best for me, and for winning. For me, no other team out there (was a better fit)."
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There seems an element of fate and timing to Jefferson joining the Pacers. They lacked a low-post scoring threat last season, and he's proven in that regard. He's also perfectly content to play off the bench, adding needed interior depth to the second unit. He's also a willing mentor for Myles Turner, whose post-up game needs work.
There's also a symmetry to Jefferson's 12-year NBA career. He's never been named to an All-Star team, but often has been widely regarded as one of the league's better centers, a guy who's averaged 19 points on 50 percent shooting and 10 rebounds in the nine seasons he's been a starter. He played three seasons with Boston, three with Minnesota, three with Utah, then three with Charlotte. Now he's signed up to play three more with the Pacers.
He's only 31, middle-aged for a center, but has put a lot of miles on his 6-10 frame. Having entered the NBA out of high school in 2004, he's played 24,844 minutes. That's more than former Pacers center Rik Smits played in his 12-year career (23,100) but far short of the likes of Patrick Ewing (40,594) and Robert Parish (45,704) managed to get through.
He's not sure how long he'll go, but is confident he has at least three more good years in him. He played in just 47 games last season, the result of a strained calf muscle, a five-game suspension for a failed drug test and arthroscopic surgery on his right knee to repair a torn meniscus. He says he's 100 percent now.
"When I was younger I said I wanted to play 'til I was 38 or 39," he said. "I'm still in my prime. I just have to get things right. My knee is better now. I just have to continue to keep it better. I'm really impressed with the trainers here; they talked about some things they can do for me and I'm really excited about that. I'm just looking forward to it.
"The surgery I had on my knee was probably something I should have done two years ago," he added. "For the first time I feel like my old self."
Jefferson has tipped scales as high as 290 pounds during his NBA career, but has trimmed some of the fat. He played at about 280 last season and wants to get to 275 for next season to take pressure off his knees.
"Kind of get on that Tim Duncan thing," he said. "I don't want no more problems. I want to continue to get it better."
If he can do that, he could be invaluable to the Pacers. While the league trend is toward smaller and faster players who score points three at a time, Jefferson sees his anachronistic game as an asset. Who is being taught to defend post players such as him these days? He might be so far behind the times he's ahead of the next curve.
"I feel like I'm rare," he said. "Most times teams don't know how to defend a guy like me. It's not like it was when I first got in the league and you had a power forward and a center and both guys posted. Now you have to come up with a game plan to stop it."
The Pacers were among those who struggled to stop him. Two seasons ago, his most recent healthy season, he scored 28 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a game at Bankers Life, and had 30 points and 13 rebounds in a game in Charlotte. Both of those came in match-ups against Roy Hibbert, who will be replacing Jefferson as Charlotte's backup center next season.
Team president Larry Bird recalled a game last season when assistant coach Dan Burke was forced to abandon his normal defensive concept and call for a double-team of Jefferson.
"The one thing about Al is, anytime you have somebody in the post who can score it takes a lot of pressure off everyone," Bird said. "If you just have a big body there you can throw to, it takes a lot of pressure off you."
One of Jefferson's new teammates, nine-year veteran Thad Young, called Jefferson "one of the hardest guys to stop, ever, in the post. I've never seen so many people try to stop a guy from going to his right and he always finds a way to make it with his right hand."
Jefferson should be that much more effective with the second unit. Bird told Jefferson's agent that was the plan when he called on July 1, and Jefferson is fine with it. He was comfortable with it his first two seasons in the NBA and again with Charlotte last season. In fact, he said he would have balked at starting if asked, given how well the team played in his absence.
Besides, he believes he can feast on second-tier centers.
"I don't see too many backup centers in the league who want to face me, healthy," he said.
"This team is established. Turner is going to be a future All-Star. Me coming off the bench to help him, also help the team, I don't have a problem with that."
Helping Turner is the intangible element of the acquisition of Jefferson. Turner proved himself an effective perimeter scoring threat in his rookie season, but struggled to maneuver efficiently in the low post. Jefferson can provide hands-on – and hip-on – tutoring in that regard, and take pressure off Turner by playing with him when coach Nate McMillan wants to go with a bigger lineup.
"That's part of my DNA," said Jefferson, who recalled many of the low post tutors from early in his career.
Bird said Turner has been working out in the Fieldhouse most of the summer, "working as hard as anybody we've ever had here," and has improved significantly since the end of last season. Jefferson, meanwhile, plans to spend most of the rest of the summer there after he gets settled in Indianapolis. That should allow plenty of time for the two to get together in private workouts.
"Myles is a sponge," Bird said. "He likes anything you can help him with. Al, down in the lost post, can teach him some tricks and angles and how he sets up his man. Any help he can give down in the post, (Turner) will be willing to learn."
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