I recall last season as Al stuggled to come back from one ankle injury after another, he came under fire for being soft and a bust. A lot of fans wanted to trade him for just about anyone because he wasn't going to pan out. I guess I could say I told you so about now because all along I knew that he could play if he could stay healthy.
This summer he had surgery to remove bone chips in his ankle and since then, he has moved ahead and never looked back. He took the criticism to heart and lost weight, worked harder and came back this season on a mission. But along with Al's efforts, we have to also look at the coaching change this summer that may have made the biggest difference in Al's development.
This summer, Danny brought in Clifford Ray to coach his big men. Clifford Ray played 10 years in the league as a 6'9" center. Ray is one of a handful of players to have played at least ten seasons in the NBA and to have recorded more rebounds (6953 over 784 games for an 8.9 average) than points (5821, for a 7.4 average) for his career. Clifford Ray was one of the shorter starting NBA centers to ever win a title. Without even a lot of God-given athleticism or anything else to make up the difference, he manned the inside as Golden State won a championship in 1975, a season in which they were playing rookies and weren't expected to go very far.
As an assistant coach who specializes in teaching big men, he has had miraculous results. If you follow his career, teams where he has been an assistant have been among the league's best in rebounding. Before and after his tenure, they were often among the worst. That's huge: Rebounding is in many ways the single most important statistic in determining which team wins in the NBA. The Magic were 23rd in rebounding in 2003-04 and 3rd in the league in rebounding two years later under Ray's tutelage. Last season we were 26th in rebounding and in spite of all the injuries and problems we have had this season, we are now 17th.
Robert Parish credits Ray as the biggest influence in developing his game while they were still teammates at Golden State. Ask Dwight Howard about Clifford Ray. He will tell you that it was Clifford Ray who developed his game and helped him to become the player he is today. And now, Al Jefferson has completed the rise from a soft, oft injured player to Player of the Week who is 7th in the league in rebounding. A Globe article written right after Ray was hired had this to say:
Ray sees a lot of hard work ahead for Jefferson, with the payoff hopefully to come next season. Ray also has a plan for the ankle problems that plagued Jefferson last season. ``There's a lot of things he can do to help with that," said Ray. ``The reason being is, he's bottom-heavy. He has thick legs. He's going to have to do a lot of things, like jump a lot of rope so he won't have ankle sprains. ``But he's got a very good upside. It's just a matter of him setting goals and wanting to be the best."
The work is paying off and Al's ankles haven't been a problem this season. We are seeing the fruits of his work with Clifford Ray paying off big time this season.
I can see a continued improvement in store as well. Our rebounding will improve again next season, especially if we can stay healthy. If we get another big man in the draft, expect Ray to help him to step up his game as well. And, I would be remiss if I didn't reamind you not to sleep on Perk. Just as with Al last season, people are down on Perk this season. He had shoulder surgery this summer and wasn't able to take advantage of working with Ray this summer. Then, not long after the season started, he developed plantar fasciitis. He has been playing through pain all season because the team needed him instead of sitting out to rest it until he was healed. Next year, I expect Perk to step up to the next level as well and surprise a lot of people. And Clifford Ray will be at the center of it all.