Al Jefferson Eager to Fit in With Utah's Winning Tradition
In Jefferson's three years with the Timberwolves, they went 61-185. He finally got his freedom last July when the center was shipped to Utah.
"Minnesota was a good place,'' Jefferson said. "The team and the fans and everything was good for me. It was just a situation where every year I had been there it's a rebuilding year. I'd been there three years and they'd been rebuilding for three years and then a new coaching staff and a new G.M. (before last season came in with coach Kurt Rambis and president David Kahn), and it's another three years before the team gets to where I need to be.''
Where Jefferson feels he needs to be is with a winner. He hasn't been to the playoffs since his rookie year with Boston in 2004-05, and, if you count his final two seasons with the Celtics, his teams have gone 118-292 the past five years.
"It was a happy exit,'' Jefferson said of the Timberwolves trading him to Utah in a salary-related dump in which Minnesota got Kosta Koufos and two first-round draft picks. "No hard feelings. (The Timberwolves) were good to me. They traded me to (Utah). They didn't have to trade me here. They could have traded me anywhere in the world and they traded me to a good spot.''
It looked to be a better spot before Wednesday's regular-season opener at Denver. There was much optimism after the Jazz had gone 8-0 in the preseason despite half its team being gone from last season.
Then Utah got crushed 110-88, and Jefferson was mediocre with just six points and seven rebounds in 31 minutes. But Jefferson stressed afterward it's no time to panic.
"It's just one game,'' said Jefferson, whose team took to the floor again Thursday against Phoenix in Utah's home opener. "Of course, I wish I had (played better Wednesday). But I'm ready to bounce back.''
Jefferson was surprisingly candid after a Jazz debut in which he had no assists. He even averaged 1.8 last season with the Timberwolves when he was a black hole.
Hey, that's his description.
"I got to look to pass,'' Jefferson said. "I got to get out of that habit I had in Minnesota. In Minnesota, I was a black hole when the ball came in. Regardless, I tried to score. I got to make guys pay for the double team.''
But, as Jefferson said, it was just one game. Those on the Jazz still believe the team can compete despite having lost forwards Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver and guard Wesley Matthews to free agency last summer and being without center Mehmet Okur for perhaps the first two months of the season as he recovers from a torn Achilles suffered in the playoffs last spring.
The offseason initially looked as if it would be devastating for the Jazz. But team officials made sure they did a sign-and-trade when they lost Boozer to Chicago and that move gave them the money to pick up Jefferson and his $13 million contract for this season. The offseason also was salvaged with the signings of free-agent guards Raja Bell and Earl Watson.
"We better sign some new people,'' said Jazz star guard Deron Williams when asked what he was thinking when the offseason began with so many big defections. "And we did that. We picked up some key additions that are going to help this team.''
Williams said he "definitely'' breathed a sigh of relief when the Jazz turned around its summer. He likes the acquisition of Jefferson.
Williams is a guy the Jazz really need to keep happy. Like LeBron James and Chris Bosh did in 2006, Williams opted to go with a shorter deal when he got a big contract extension in the summer of 2008. Rather than sign for the full five years, he went for three with a player option for one.
With James and Bosh having opted out of their contracts and bolting last summer from Cleveland and Toronto, respectively, to Miami, that hasn't comforted Jazz fans. But Williams, whose contract extension kicked in last season and who can become a free agent at the earliest in the summer of 2012, isn't looking ahead at this point.
"I got two years left on my contract until I can opt out. That's all there is to it,'' he said.
But is he pleased now with the direction of the Jazz?
"Yes, I am very happy,'' Williams said.
Jefferson, whose contract runs through 2012-13, will play a key role in trying to keep Williams happy for a long time. He was heading for his best season in 2008-09, averaging 23.1 points and 11.0 rebounds, before he went down for the rest of the campaign with a torn right ACL suffered in Febuary 2009.
Jefferson was slow to get back to full strength last season, averaging 17.1 points and 9.3 rebounds. But he said he's now 100 percent.
"My knee is good,'' said Jefferson, 25. "It's been over a year and a half now. It's not an issue.''
Still, Jefferson elected not to play for Team USA in the World Championships last summer in order to continue to strengthen his knee. Jefferson, still on USA Basketball's full roster of 35 for the 2012 Olympics, said that was the right move, and wants to represent Team USA in London.
"I would hope so,'' he said. "If I get another chance, I sure won't turn it down.''
Jefferson and Williams would love to be teammates at the 2012 Olympics. Williams won a gold medal in Beijing in 2008 and said he wanted to play in the Worlds last summer before nagging injuries (namely his wrist) knocked him out.
"I always wanted to play,'' Williams said. "It just didn't work out. I look forward to playing in the Olympics.''
Before then, Williams sure hopes the Jazz get back to where the team was before Boozer and others departed. The Jazz averaged 51.5 wins over the previous four seasons, three of which included winning at least one playoff series.
"It's a different adjustment,'' Williams said. "For us, in the past we had the same team.''
Of Utah's 12 active players, only six were with the team last season. The Jazz's 13th player, Okur, would make it seven whenever he returns from his injury.
"I never thought it was going to be overnight,'' Utah coach Jerry Sloan said after Wednesday's wipeout. "I think we have a lot of work to do. We got some guys that have been here and some guys that haven't. We have some guys that we depended upon that aren't here. It takes a while to understand what we're doing. And they'll be working on it. If we work on it, they'll get their heads up to where (the Jazz previously had been).''
Utah is adjusting to having a different type of center in the 6-foot-10, 280-pound Jefferson. While the 6-11 Okur was perimeter-oriented on offense, the rugged Jefferson is strictly a low-post guy. And the team has lost Boozer, who could hit an outside jumper while Jefferson's range is very limited.
"One plays the five, one plays the four,'' Sloan said of the difference between Jefferson and Boozer. "Boozer was almost exclusively a four. Al pretty much is exclusively a five. ... (Jefferson) is a young guy coming to a new team with different things coming at you. He's going to have to get comfortable. He's done a good job working very hard. I think experience is a good teacher.''
Already, Williams said Jefferson gives the Jazz a type of "low-post scorer we've never had'' who will "command double teams.'' Of course, even Jefferson admits that, when those double teams come, he sometimes must pass.
Jefferson, though, overall is excited about coming to Utah. He shrugs off there being any pressure to replace Boozer since he's already been through that by taking over for Kevin Garnett when he went from Minnesota to Boston in the July 2007 deal that landed Jefferson.
"I love it, man,'' Jefferson said of being with the Jazz. "It's the best thing that could have happened to me. I think it's the beginning of something special, a chance to show the league what I can do on another level.''
It sure beats growing old during Minnesota's seemingly endless rebuilding process.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson