32 points and 18 rebounds--good golly!! (Jefferson's stats on March 3rd against the Nets). This is the type of numbers you'd expect to see from Shaq or Amare, even Dwight Howard and maybe Chris Bosh. But not from a player playing for the Celtics, right? I mean, Boston is supposed to be deprived of any real basketball talent, right? Well, a couple of years ago, this would have been true. But this is a new day and age in Celtics-land and we are in the beginning stages of our next Celtics dynasty.
The first stage toward greatness is having a big time big man--and we have one of the league's best young power forwards on our hands. Jefferson was drafted out of high school known for being a huge offensive force (averaged 42 ppg in his senior year at Prentiss High). With his long arms, quick movements, and soft touch, Big Al had no problem eating up meager high school competition. He dominated and played like a man among pre-schoolers. But his next stop was the NBA--a huge jump from the level of competition in Mississippi, and we all crossed our fingers that Big Al would not disappoint. He was extremely raw and had a lot to work on--but one thing for certain right off the bat was his nose for the basket. One way or another, he was going to get the ball to fall through the hoop.
He came into the league needing to lose baby fat and get in better shape, but we didn't pounce on him for not accomplishing those tasks in his first season. We gave him some leeway since he was young and clueless. But in his second season, he arrived in less than tip top shape (good, but not as good as we'd want), and we grew concerned. But we were willing to look the other way once again because we saw the promising future Jefferson could provide, as we witnessed glimpses of excellence in his rookie season. But injuries derailed his second season, and many fans were left scratching their heads. "Is Jefferson ever going to get in shape? Is he ever going to reach the level we think he can reach? Is he turning out to be a bust?"
Knowing he had let down a lot of people and wanting to prove his worth, Jefferson worked tirelessly on his game and conditioning and came into this season in excellent shape (even being confused for Jessica Simpson). Getting his ankle injury out of the way was a big step toward moving forward, and he hasn't looked back.
Going from 7.9 ppg and 5.1 rpg last season to 14.5 and 10.9 this season (plus 1.5 bpg) is a major step forward for young Al Jefferson, and he's not stopping here. With his 32 point, 18 rebound performance against the Nets, Jefferson is getting better as the season tolls on and is consistently putting forth his "A" game. His 28 double doubles this season ranks among the league leaders.
At the tender age of 22 years old, Jefferson has ample room to grow. One of the many areas in which Jefferson has progressively improved is his decision with the ball. Whereas he once relied strictly on outquicking his man to the basket, Jefferson can now perform a myriad of moves to get his shot off. He's a triple threat with the ball in his hands--he'll either dribble drive, post up, or pull up for a jumper, and his poor opponents have no idea what he's going to do. But it doesn't stop there--if Jefferson decides to power dribble to the basket, he has the ability to pick up his dribble and drop a quick hook before his man knows what's coming. And if he backs his man to the basket, he'll either rise up for his deadly hook shot, or pump fake that move and then go under his man for a closer shot. If his man is playing him to attack the paint and gives him some room, Jefferson puts up a jumper--one that is improving more and more as his confidence in it grows. When Jefferson is knocking down his jumper, it easily sets up a world of possibilities because he easily gets his man to bite on his pump fakes. Despite only being in his 3rd season in the league (and 3 years separated from high school), Jefferson is already one of the most diverse scoring big men in the NBA. Categorically, Jefferson is as diverse as Elton Brand, Tim Duncan, Amare Stoudemire, and Zach Randolph. As good as Chris Bosh is, he's mostly a jump shooting big man.
What's more, Jefferson is starting to get to the line more often--and as referees around the league start to give him more attention, he'll get more fouls called his way. In addition, I've viewed Jefferson as a guy who could knock down his free throws at a good clip, and he has been proving me correct by connecting on 70% of his free throw shots (I believe he'll settle in at 73%). This will help pad his scoring stats up a notch, probably bumping him up to the 20+ ppg level.
Whereas we all knew Jefferson had the ability to score, many fans are excited about his rebounding. He's already become an 11 rpg big man--putting him in an elite level along with only 5 other big men in the league (all of whom play more minutes than Al). Al snatches rebounds with authority and crispness and he uses his body much more to secure his area in the paint.
One of Jefferson's biggest weakness has been downgraded a notch this season. His defense once was incredibly horrible. He could never stay in front of his man when he was posted up. But now, he not only stays in front of his man, but he also contests it on a regular basis. He's far from being a steady defensive player, and there are many times when he misses shots that I think he could have blocked, but like the rest of his game, all I ask is that he continually improves.
Lastly, my confidence in Jefferson grows on a weekly basis. Not only my confidence in him putting up solid numbers--but confidence in him taking big shots down the stretch in close games. He's beginning to become a go-to guy and I can see the expression on his face, as well as his positive body language, that he believes in himself now and is willing to shoulder a bigger role as a team leader. It thrills me to see Jefferson walk tall with his chest proudly in front of him after he gets fouled on a 3 pt play. He expects those types of plays from himself now and isn't amazed when it happens. It comes with the territory when you are a big time producer--and that is what he's quickly becoming.
Am I an overly optimistic and blind Celtics fan who deems each and every one of our young players a rising star in the making? No--aside from Gerald Green, I don't believe any of our youngsters will develop into the level of stardom that Jefferson will soon reach. I'm not gushing over Jefferson blindly, and he is proving himself to the world with each double double he amasses. I don't need a player putting up big numbers for 5 straight years in order for me to see that he's got talent. With Jefferson, its pretty evident to see, and its easy to see that he's still got room to grow.
What can we expect from Al Jefferson in Year 4? 20 and 10? 22 and 11? 25 and 12? One thing fans shouldn't do anymore is doubt Jefferson, and what he can accomplish. He's not a flash in the pan or a one year wonder. He's a legitimate rising star in the NBA and his stardom will rise to new levels as we begin to win and gain recognition around the league.
If you are the type of person who needs to see Jefferson put up big numbers a few more years before you acknowledge that he is indeed a star level player, then be my guest and enjoy waiting on the fence. In the meantime, I will be sitting on my couch, cheering on Jefferson as he puts up his customary 15 and 11. Let me know when you want to come in and I will gladly open the door for you
Tune in next time as I chime in on our other key players who will help us toward our goal for Banner #17.