NBA Insider: Al Jefferson is reaching new heights

  • Updated: March 15, 2014 - 7:31 PM

Al Jefferson has raised his game to a new level, and lifted the Bobcats with him.

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Al Jefferson is one of two players — Kevin Love is the other — averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds.

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There are at least 41 million reasons why, but Al Jefferson cites another one to explain why he is playing in Charlotte on a team firmly aimed at the Eastern Conference playoffs despite its losing record.

He explains it this way:

“I wanted to do the unthinkable,” he said.

For a guy who has made the playoffs just twice in his first nine NBA seasons, the unthinkable was signing with a Bobcats team that won fewer games in two seasons combined — including a 7-59 record in that 66-game labor lockout season — before he arrived after he signed a three-year, $41 million free-agent contract last summer.

“What I did a lot of guys probably wouldn’t do,” he said. “Come to one of the worst teams in the league last year and help turn them around. That was something I wanted to do. I feel if I come here and things go great, it’s something everybody will remember.”

A team that won barely 10 percent of its games two seasons ago and 26 percent of them last season approached the .500 mark after the Bobcats beat the Wolves on Friday night for the ninth win in the past 13 games.

Jefferson is the biggest reason why.

He missed nine games in November because of an arthritic ankle and didn’t fully recover until January. Since then, he is one of two players in the NBA who are averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds a game.

The other: Kevin Love.

The two played together in Minnesota for two seasons until then president of basketball operations David Kahn traded Jefferson away to Utah in July 2010 after he decided the two couldn’t play defensively together.

“That guy is good,” said Charlotte teammate Luke Ridnour, who played three seasons with Love in Minnesota and joined the Bobcats last month in a trade-deadline deal with Milwaukee. “I didn’t know how good he was. I always knew he was good, but night in and night out … he’s got an old man’s game. Al’s tough, Kevin’s so good, I think they would have been great together: One spread guy, one dominant big. I can’t believe they didn’t stick them together longer.”

Jefferson played two seasons in Utah and became an unrestricted free agent last summer, five years after the Wolves acquired him as the centerpiece in the Kevin Garnett trade and signed Jefferson to a $65 million contract.

He thought the apparently unthinkable and signed last summer to play in Charlotte, a team so like some of the lousy teams he played on but in a place not all that different from where he grew up in Mississippi.

“This probably feels more like home than any other city I’ve played in,” said Jefferson, who counts Boston, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City as his three NBA homes.

At age 29, he is playing like it as the low-post player with a million moves through whom the Bobcats’ offense operates, just like it did with the Wolves, particularly when Kevin McHale coached him for a few fleeting months before Jefferson sustained a season-ending injury in February 2009.

“I like it, inside-out basketball, it works for me,” Jefferson said. “I don’t mind the offense going through me. But they’re also teaching me to make my teammates better around me.”

Bobcats rookie coach Steve Clifford has insisted that Jefferson exert himself defensively and pass the ball, qualities Jefferson displayed too infrequently earlier in his career.

“We haven’t had to say too much to him,” Clifford said. “He’s highly competitive. He has such a unique game, but none of this would matter unless he didn’t badly want to do well. He wants to win. That to me has been as much a part of his success as anything.”

And to win in Charlotte — where the Bobcats have made the playoffs and had one winning season once in the franchise’s 11-year history — apparently is thinkable.

NBA short takes

Royce White’s NBA debut nears

Minneapolis’ Royce White is a step closer to playing his first NBA game after Sacramento recalled him from a two-game D-League assignment. He didn’t join the Kings for Sunday’s game against the Timberwolves at Target Center but could play Tuesday at home against Washington.

White hasn’t played a regular-season game since Houston drafted him 16th overall in 2012 and traded him to Philadelphia late last season when the two sides couldn’t agree on how to manage his anxiety disorder. The 76ers cut him during preseason play.

“I see Royce as a mature guy who is trying to get where he needs to go,” Kings GM Pete D’Alessandro told the Sacramento Bee. “There is untapped potential. Can he get there? That’s really going to be up to him. I have to give him credit. A lot of players would not have been willing to come to the D-League, and we spoke about that from the beginning. And he’s already come in here and done some good things.”

Not for him

An 11-time NBA champion as a coach, Phil Jackson late last week reached an agreement with New York to run the Knicks’ basketball operations.

Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman — nearly 25 years in the same kind of job — said he never aspired to making such a transition.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “Maybe another time if you would have had the opportunity to get into it. … The guys who are in that position, you’ve really got to work at something like that. You have to get used to how to do it and how to put it together. I’ve been in a couple situations where I had a lot of input into what was going on. You don’t have final say, but you have say. So, to each his own…”

Parting words

TNT’s Charles Barkley on Jackson joining the Knicks’ front office: “The Zen Master is going to have to go see Dr. Phil after seeing that team play.”

The Wolves’ week ahead

Sunday: 6 p.m. vs. Sacramento (FSN)

Wednesday: 7:30 p.m. at Dallas (FSN)

Thursday: 7 p.m. at Houston (FSN)

Player to watch: James Harden, Rockets

Yes, he’s much more than the beard: He’s fifth in the league in scoring at nearly 25 points a game, third in free throws made, and he scored 41 points at Portland last week. Oh, and the Rockets own the NBA’s best record (23-8) in 2014, too.

Voices

« Say that again. »

Wolves coach Rick Adelman when asked his impressions of Milwaukee rookie forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

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