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Al Jefferson’s weight loss has potential to be bittersweet

Big Al isn’t so big anymore, does it matter?

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

By the looks of Al Jefferson’s dramatically slimmed down frame, Kevin Pritchard’s publicly critical opinion of the anachronistic center’s poor conditioning was mutually held.

"I try not to look back on it because it's not something I want to look back at," Jefferson said of his disappointing first season with the Pacers at the team’s annual preseason golf outing. "I know I didn't do nowhere near what they brought me here to do and I had to go into the offseason with a bad taste in my mouth, so I did something about it.”

Inspired, yet again, by how Tim Duncan extended his career by lessening the weight on his knees, the 32-year-old big man dropped down to 275 pounds by switching to a vegetarian diet.

“The big fella’s been working,” Thaddeus Young said of Jefferson. “We played the other day, and he was running the court. He actually dived on the floor for a loose ball, and I was like, ‘Wow!’. I had to go shake his hand after that.”

Still, while shedding weight may positively impact his durability and stamina when it comes to short-arming makeable shots, laboring on defense, and struggling to box out, past precedent indicates that his weight loss won’t alter the overall type of player he is as he heads into his fourteenth season.

In fact, Jefferson has already followed this exact pattern once before. Two offseasons ago, he lost 20 pounds by cutting out his favorite fatty food, but he still posted up more frequently than any player in the league (52.2%), minimum 300 possessions.

Why?

Because that’s his old school game, and it isn’t likely to change no matter what the scale reads.

That reality, of course, doesn’t bode particularly well for his potential reunion with confirmed sixth man Lance Stephenson.

Even if Slim Al’s body takes up less space, parking his paint-bound game on the block with someone who needs the lane to be unclogged to be most effective projects to be awkward.

Recall, for instance, that the odd couple posted the worst net rating (minus-7.9) of any two-man lineup that played at least 900 minutes for the Charlotte Hornets during the 2014-15 season.

As that dreadful mark suggests, Lance’s forceful driving game is better served when surrounded by players capable of stretching the defense so he can turn the corner, find stop-releases on the perimeter, or hit the screener, whether rolling, popping, or flaring.

On that note, Jefferson has attempted less than 15 percent of his shots from between 16 feet and the three-point line over his 13-year career, and he lacks the agility necessary to roll hard toward the rim when Stephenson gets a head full of steam, regardless of his yo-yo dieting.

Domantas Sabonis probably isn’t going to play much above the rim, either. But, he’s a mobile and instinctive screen setter who can find creative passing angles out of the post without being a complete non-factor on the perimeter.

"He's been really good," Glenn Robinson III said of Sabonis. "He's able to set that screen and roll and attack, but also able to pop out and shoot.”

He’s also only entering the second season of his rookie contract whereas Jefferson is signed through the 2018-19 season, but has a team option.

If the aging 32-year-old doesn’t fit Indiana’s long-term plans, then his trimmed-down physique shouldn’t take away from them doing their due diligence evaluating whether the son of Arvydas Sabonis tracks better at power fauxward or backup center.

“I think he's grown since last year, probably put on a couple inches,” Myles Turner said of his already listed 6-foot-10, 21-year-old teammate. “He's strong, he's got a really decent post-up game, and he shoots it really well."

As such, even showcasing whatever effects there may be from Jefferson’s transformation to interested buyers — without surrendering an asset in the process — has the potential to produce diminishing returns. Doing so would require that he become more of the bench’s central focus, thus prolonging the self-discovery of Sabonis or Ike Anigbogu while costing Cory Joseph and Glenn Robinson III valuable touches and possessions.

On the other hand, Jefferson holding himself accountable for being minus-99 in 931 minutes of action last season is admirable, and his efforts to shape up could revitalize his energy stores, thereby reinforcing his veteran leadership among his younger teammates. Plus, the simple act of untethering him from Lavoy Allen and Kevin Seraphin should enhance the benefits of him appearing lighter on his feet.

Nevertheless, his increasingly marginalized game will still be looking backward at a time when his team should be moving forward.