Slimmed-Down Jefferson Still Big for Pacers
Go into the Pacers locker room after a homecourt victory and the loudest and longest voice you'll hear likely will be coming from the left side of the room.
It's where Al Jefferson holds court. He'll be talking to teammates such as Joe Young to his right, Thaddeus Young to his left, fellow elder statesman Damien Wilkins farther to his left, and sometimes even to Victor Oladipo, near the middle of the room.
If the Pacers have lost, as they've done four times at Bankers Life Fieldhouse this season, the conversation is more serious and hushed. But if the Pacers have won, as they've done six times at The Fieldhouse, he'll be joking with them, scolding them, playfully insulting them, a seated majordomo who appears in control of the room even while barely visible.
On Monday, after the Pacers had dispatched of Orlando, Oladipo was seated in front of his stall, preparing to meet with the reporters gathering around him. Oladipo, who had just played a brilliant game with 26 points, six rebounds, five assists and four blocks, asked everyone to wait while a member of the training staff retrieved ice bags to tape to his knees. But Jefferson wasn't having it.
"Man, you can't talk without ice on your knees?" he asked, with mock dismay.
Oladipo tried to explain, saying he didn't want to have to interrupt the conversation and ask people to move when the man returned with the ice. It was a legitimate defense, but Jefferson kept jabbing. Wilkins joined in, taking Jefferson's side, then Thad Young piled on.
Oladipo lost the debate, and the interview began.
That moment was typical of a winning postgame locker room. What's not typical is that Jefferson has maintained this positive, chatty demeanor. Although he's proven he's still capable of playing, he's not playing. He hasn't appeared in a game since a 44-second cameo at Chicago on Nov. 10. The game before that, two nights earlier, he scored 19 points and grabbed six rebounds at Detroit.
He's averaging 7.2 points and 4.7 rebounds over 13.8 minutes in his 10 appearances. Extrapolate those numbers over 36 minutes, and his scoring (18.6) and rebounding (12.2) averages are second-best on the team behind Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, respectively.
That's why retirement is not in his plans – "not even a little bit." He's 32, not 42, and has no intention of winding down his career this way. He's averaged more than 20 points four times in his career, most recently four seasons ago, and averaged more than 12 points his final season in Charlotte, two years ago. He's merely biding his time and doing what he can to contribute, even if it has to be from a seated position.
"Playing the cards I'm dealt," he said. "I'm a professional, I've been around a long time. I had veteran guys mentor me when I was coming up in this game and trying to establish myself. That's just my mindset and who I am."
He was warned. Coach Nate McMillan told him in September he would likely be out of the regular playing rotation most of the season because of the acquisition of Sabonis, who can handle the backup minutes at center behind Myles Turner. Never mind that Jefferson had spent the summer dropping 40 pounds from last season's ample frame, seemingly dedicating himself to a resurgence in this, his 14th NBA season.
So, he's not angry, and not particularly frustrated. He's more in the mode of understanding.
"One, we're playing well," he said. "Two, I have to be professional when my name is called and ready to go. If this is happening to me six or seven years ago, yeah, it probably wouldn't sit right with me. But I've been around a long time. Yeah, this is my first year being in this position, but it's not the end of the world. If we were losing and not playing well and if I knew the guys playing in front of me weren't better than me, then I'd have a problem with that.
"When Nate told me (he would not play much), I respected that, and I told him I'd be professional and be there when he needed me. That's what I'm doing."
Jefferson's contributions haven't gone unnoticed. He often can be seen tutoring a teammate during pre-game warmups, and sometimes works with Turner or Sabonis before or after practice. He isn't as interested in teaching Turner his post-up moves, which seem to number in the hundreds, as fans might like him to be, believing both of the 21-year-olds fit the modern version of an NBA center.
He, of course, does not. Jefferson is a throwback to the days when centers posted up with their back to the basket and teams played inside-out. Back in the day, he would get the ball and dig into his bag of tricks to get off a shot, or draw a double-team and toss it back out to a teammate for an open shot. He can still score on most anyone in the league that way, but isn't capable of stepping out and hitting anything beyond a mid-range jump shot as Turner and Sabonis are. In his 889 NBA games, he's hit just eight 3-pointers – in 64 attempts.
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His style of play works both ways, though.
"I think it's give and take," he said. "It may hurt in a way, because most teams want to play a spread game now, but it helps me because these young guys don't know how to guard guys like me no more."
Until he gets more opportunities to prove that, Jefferson settles for being a mentor. He says he's constantly in the ears of Turner and Sabonis, telling them what will work against specific defenders, drawing from his years of experience playing against some of the current veterans. Or, how to avoid picking up unnecessary fouls. Or, how to handle certain pick-and-roll situations.
"He always to tell me things like to attack quick," Sabonis said. "He says I'm a lot quicker than the other guys, so don't always be banging into someone. If he sees a particular matchup, he's probably guarded that player a lot more than me, so he tells me what will work."
Jefferson makes bigger points as well, even to teammates who don't play his position. Rookie TJ Leaf, for example, has shown great promise in some of his early appearances, such as when he scored 17 points in the second game against Portland, or 11 points in the fourth game at Minnesota, but hasn't played substantive minutes since the Nov. 12 home game against Houston.
Jefferson has been in his ear, too.
"Man, he's just a big presence in the locker room, especially with some of the young guys," Thad Young said. "TJ, he hasn't been playing very much, and Al is sitting there talking to him, telling him he's going to get his chance. It happens. You just have to stay ready."
Jefferson now knows that from personal experience. He's ready to play when called upon, lighter than he's been in years and still capable of putting defenders in the spin cycle. He'll wait his turn, too. And if isn't given the chance to fill up a box score, he'll keep filling the locker room.
"It's just in me to teach and help guys out," he said. "It's a long season, man. It's a long journey."
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