Al Jefferson 2018 Season Review

Pacers center Al Jefferson sits down with Pacers.com's Pat Boylan to reflect on the 2017-18 season and look ahead to the future.

Al Jefferson 2018 Season Review

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Al Jefferson 2018 Season Review

Pacers center Al Jefferson sits down with Pacers.com's Pat Boylan to reflect on the 2017-18 season and look ahead to the future.
May 19, 2018  |  03:30

Al Jefferson 2017-18 Season Highlights

Check out the top plays from Pacers center Al Jefferson's 2017-18 season.
May 19, 2018  |  02:34

My Home Court: Al Jefferson

Growing up in Mississippi, Al Jefferson's grandfather built him a basketball hoop out of a foot tub. Jefferson and his family would play on the hoop for long hours, where Jefferson honed his impressive post moves.
Apr 9, 2018  |  03:45

Player Review 2018: Al Jefferson

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer
@MarkMontieth

Age: 33
Years Pro: 14
Status: The Pacers have a team option on the final year of his three-year contract.
Key Stats: Played in 36 games, starting one. Averaged 7 points in 13.4 minutes per game, shooting 53 percent from the field.

How do you put a price tag on Al Jefferson? His salary was as hefty as he used to be for a third-string center, although it should be remembered he signed in the summer of 2016 when NBA inflation was about as rampant as in Germany after World War I when people were burning cash to stay warm.

He only played in 36 games this season, only averaged 13.4 minutes, only averaged 7 points. It was in many ways as if his 14-year NBA career came full circle and closely resembled the production of his rookie season in 2004-05, back when TJ Leaf was seven years old.

And yet, Jefferson produced when called upon and was one of the league leaders in intangibles. Victor Oladipo probably deserves most of the individual credit for the Pacers' rare culture this season, being the grounded All-Star who brought energy and a positive aura to every practice and game, but Jefferson might rank second for bringing a professional attitude and a virtual mentoring program to the team. After all, if the guy who had scored more than 14,000 points in his NBA career and was still capable of playing well wasn't complaining about his role, who could?

Jefferson played just 484 minutes this season, barely more than half of what he played the previous season with the Pacers as a backup center and a drop in the bucket compared to the 2,553 minutes he rang up four seasons ago. There was irony in that, because he had prepared to renew his career over the summer by switching to a vegetarian diet and losing 40 pounds. He looked ready to go, but his destination had been moved.

PHOTO GALLERY: Al Jefferson's 2017-18 Season in Photos »

The summertime trade that brought Domantas Sabonis from Oklahoma City added a younger and more mobile center to back up Myles Turner. Nate McMillan, in an example of his straight-up method of communicating with his players, told Jefferson before training camp began that he would not be part of the playing rotation unless an injury intervened.

Jefferson appreciated his coach's honesty and understood the logic of the decision, so he accepted it.

"One, we're playing well," he said at the end of November. "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."

Thing was, when Jefferson got to play he usually played well. He befuddled the young centers trying to guard him with old-school, low-post moves that utilized a wide array of head fakes and footwork, punctuated by well-timed releases from his huge, soft hands. He might be ill-suited for the job description for most of today's centers because of his limited shooting range and lack of mobility, but it cuts both ways. Today's young centers are ill-suited for defending someone with his veteran savvy.

"These young guys don't know how to guard guys like me no more," he said, a point he proved repeatedly.

Jefferson played extended minutes in various stretches of the season when Turner or Sabonis were out with injuries. When doing so, he was often the Pacers' most entertaining player in a retro kind of way, lifting teammates off the bench with his arsenal of scoring weapons.

He scored 19 points in 22 minutes on 7-of-10 shooting in a loss at Detroit on Nov. 8 when Turner was out with a concussion. He scored 13 first-half points at Brooklyn on Feb. 14, sending Nets rookie Jarrett Allen a memorable Valentine with a one-handed pump fake and dunk that sent the Pacers' bench into hysterics. He showed his stuff to the home fans, too, scoring 20 points against Toronto at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 15. He hit 9-of-15 shots and grabbed 12 rebounds in 25 minutes that night, leaving the Raptors' backup center, 22-year-old Jakob Poeltl, dumbfounded.

Jefferson played in just two of the final 10 games and didn't make an appearance in the playoffs, leaving his status for next season uncertain. The Pacers might need the money that could go to him to land another free agent or to put into a trade. Kevin Pritchard, however, allowed in his postseason press conference that Jefferson could be brought back again.

"You look at him and he's not playing much but the influence he has on our team is gripping," Pritchard said. "He really has the team's ear. I didn't want to take a player like that off our team and out of our locker room." Pritchard made those comments shortly after the trade deadline had passed, but they still applied after the season ended.

Arguments for keeping Jefferson another season are abundant, statistically and otherwise.

With his playing time factored, he was one of the Pacers' most productive players, and nearly as productive as he had been in his prime. He was their most accurate field goal shooter (.534) and ranked second in scoring, rebounding, and blocked shots on a per-minute basis. Delve into the advanced analytics and he fared just as well, ranking second to Darren Collison in WIN share, which measures how many victories a player contributes to the season, and second to Oladipo in Player Efficiency Rating.

Many of his contributions, however, went well beyond statistical measurement, advanced or otherwise. He was a leader in the locker room and on the practice court, providing calm, sage advice to younger players when needed. He often held court in front of his locker after games, keeping teammates relaxed with his gentle southern demeanor, lack of ego and sense of humor. He provided serious straight talk, too, backing up the coaches if teammates began to grumble in practice.

He might as well have been a coach when not playing. He tutored younger players on post moves in pre-game warmups and after practice. A case in fact could be made that he should have been utilized more, given the struggles Turner had scoring around the basket. Who better to teach the young dogs old tricks? And who better to offer advice from the sideline?

"He always tells me things like to attack quick," Sabonis said during the season. "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 wants to continue playing, believing he has a few good years left in him. And he wouldn't mind continuing his role from this season with the Pacers, even if it means erratic playing time. He told Pritchard in his exit interview the role of leader, mentor, and occasional destroyer of young and naïve centers suits him well.

Nobody could disagree with that.


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