Al Jefferson arrived at Target Center 10 years ago this summer a promising 22-year-old star and centerpiece of a blockbuster trade that sent Timberwolves superstar Kevin Garnett to Boston.
He returned on Thursday a 32-year-old backup center and mentor to young Pacers star Myles Turner.
“To me, it’s right on time, man,” he said. “Thirteen years in the league, I feel like I’m at the teaching point. I like that. I really do.”
He left Charlotte last summer to sign a contract with the Pacers that guarantees him $20 million over the next two seasons. A decade ago, he rushed upstream against a heavy-metal concert crowd departing Target Center and signed a five-year, $65 million contract by an 11 p.m. deadline on Halloween night.
Jefferson played three seasons as the Wolves’ new star, a throwback, low-post player in a league changing on its way to being all about layups and three-point shots. He was traded to Utah for two first-round picks in 2010 by basketball boss David Kahn, who didn’t share former boss Kevin McHale’s vision that Jefferson and Kevin Love’s unique offensive skills could complement each other despite their defensive liabilities.
Would Jefferson have liked to have seen how he and Love developed together? “Yeah, of course,” he said. “I don’t think we would have been a championship team, but I think everything happens for a reason. I think right after I left, Kevin turned into a superstar player and I went to Utah and had a great run. It worked out the way it was supposed to.”
A decade and three changes in management later, the Wolves presumably have a core of young players aimed to finally replace Garnett and return the franchise eventually to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
“They’ve done a great job of trades and drafts the last three, four years,” Jefferson said. “They’ve got a nice young group of guys averaging 20 points. That’s pretty amazing. They kind of remind you of those OKC teams eight, nine years ago.”
Meanwhile, Jefferson has moved on to his fifth NBA team and has adjusted to a new role as a scorer off the bench and teacher to Turner, whom Jefferson calls “another young superstar who is going to be great in this league.”
Always undersized to play center, Jefferson now doesn’t have to bang so much against the NBA’s biggest and best.
“It’s a lot less pressure,” he said. “It’s good to come in off the bench and do my job; I’m going against the second-unit center. You know, Myles is upcoming. To back him up and work with him every day has been fine.”
Jefferson left Minnesota nearly seven years ago now but considers a yearly trip back with an Eastern Conference team a homecoming. His uncle and other relatives from his grandmother’s side lived here for years and a cousin who moved with him to Minnesota stayed here after the Wolves traded him away.
“I still have friends here, too,” he said. “It’s like a family reunion whenever I come back.”
He said he realized all the time that has passed when he walked back into Target Center on Thursday. There’s now an impressive practice facility next door, a roster remade more than once since he left, and an arena that’s being remodeled as well.
Considering he calls his newfound role in Indiana right on time, is that an admission that he’s getting old?
“You said that, I didn’t,” Jefferson said, laughing. “Well, 13 years in the league, put it that way. I just turned 32. It’s crazy because I was 22 when I got traded here. I was a baby then. I’m a big baby now.”
• Cleveland superstar LeBron James made his public plea last week calling for team management to add another playmaker when his defending NBA champion Cavaliers were in the midst of losing six of eight games.
“He says he needs help,” TNT analyst Charles Barkley said. “He’s the best player in the world. He’s got plenty of help. … They’ve got the highest payroll in the league.”
The Timberwolves visit Cleveland on Wednesday.
• Fans worldwide won’t see Wolves guard Zach LaVine go for a third All-Star slam-dunk title, and teammate Karl Anthony-Towns suggests this year’s version won’t be the same.
“It’s his size that makes him so special,” Towns said. “His stature is amazing. It seems his dunks are more like paintings. A lot of people can try those dunks, but for him to do it so gracefully is what makes him so special, and that’s why so many people levitate toward his dunks. People just are going to miss the swag he brings to it. He has that confidence that he should win this easily.”
• There are always players snubbed and unexpected results in NBA All-Star balloting, particularly this season when fans, media and coaches voted for the game’s starters for the first time. Given the political climate these days, two players responded with these quips:
When the league’s coaches left him off the reserves, Philadelphia center Joel Embiid tweeted, “Once again the popular vote didn’t matter …”
And when players’ balloting included votes for such players as the Wolves’ Cole Aldrich (three of them) and Adrien Payne, James told reporters, “There’s always goofy votes. Donald Trump is our president.”
WOLVES’ WEEK AHEAD
Monday: 7 p.m. vs. Orlando
Wednesday: 6 p.m. at Cleveland
Friday: 6:30 p.m. at Detroit
Saturday: 8 p.m. vs. Memphis
Mon. FSN, Wed. FSN/ESPN, Fri. FSN,
Player to watch: LeBron James, Cavaliers
He put his general manager’s cap back on during the Cavs’ recent 2-6 spin, calling for his team to add a playmaker to its bloated salary cap while he plays on, all the way to consecutive triple-doubles last week for the first time since March 2009.
“I feel like I have accomplished everything I could.”
Wolves guard Zach LaVine on why he won’t go for a third consecutive slam-dunk victory at next month’s All-Star Game in New Orleans.
Twitter: @JerryZgoda, E-mail: jzgoda@star tribune.com, Blog: startribune.com/wolves