When Al Jefferson signed with the Charlotte Hornets prior to the 2013-14 season, it’s unlikely that he expected his career to begin a downward trend, but that’s exactly what happened. After a strong first season, where he started 73 games and averaged almost 22 points per game, his numbers declined over the next two years, amid various calf and knee injuries, bottoming out last season where he only played 47 games, starting just 18 and averaged 12 points per game. Jefferson had worn out his welcome in Charlotte to the point where the team felt they were better off without him when he signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Pacers this offseason.
Jefferson arrives in Indiana at a time where the team has moved away from the slow-paced, half court sets of former coach Frank Vogel and installed an up-tempo, run the floor game under new coach Nate McMillan. At 31 years old, 6’10”, 289 pounds and someone who does his best work with his back to the basket, Jefferson seems to be a poor fit for the team, but in limited minutes, he can still run the floor well and has seen that his teammates will reward the big man who hustles down court with them.
In the Pacers first preseason game against the Pelicans, he came off the bench to record a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds. In game two, he led the team in scoring with 14 points. McMillan has made it clear that Jefferson will come off the bench and the team hopes that he will help them improve the reserve unit’s scoring. Jefferson averaged 12 points and six rebounds in 23 minutes per game last season and while there might not be another team in the league who can boast about bringing a talent off the bench as proven and capable as Jefferson, injury concerns linger.
In addition to the injuries that robbed him of almost half of last season, Jefferson missed significant time in 2005 and 2008 with right knee injuries and has had lingering ankle and groin issues in his career. If he can stay healthy and provide similar production to last season over the course of 82 games, the Pacers would consider his contract money well spent.
Scoring, however, won’t be the only gauge on whether or not Jefferson’s season was successful or his impact was felt by the team. The main reason Jefferson will spend his 13th NBA season in a reserve role is the presence of second year man Myles Turner. Drafted number 11 out of Texas last year, Turner played in 60 games, averaging 10 points and five rebounds per game. He will start at center this season and the Pacers are looking for Jefferson to serve as a mentor to the 20-year old.
The Pacers need Turner to help them stretch the floor on offense, also learning to play better with his back to the basket when needed, while becoming a better rim defender who doesn’t foul opposing players as much in the process. In their recent loss to Celtics their lack of a post presence was easily exposed. This should be a perfect match because of Jefferson’s ability to play down low and, as one of the last remaining players drafted directly out of high school, Jefferson knows exactly what it’s like to have a big responsibility put on the shoulders of a young player and should be able to help Turner adjust to the pressure, while maintaining the right attitude. If he can help strengthen Turner’s game and provide a scoring punch off the bench, the Pacers could be a surprise team in the East.