When Al Jefferson held himself accountable for finishing the 2016-17 season minus-99 in 931 minutes of action by switching to a vegetarian diet and dropping down to 275 pounds prior to the start of training camp, there was some trepidation that the anachronistic center’s efforts to shed weight might prompt the coaching staff to find him regular rotation minutes and revert to old patterns; thereby, delaying their discovery of what Domantas Sabonis could be when no longer utilized as a makeshift power fauxward with underdeveloped range.
Instead, on the first day of practice, the Pacers handed Jefferson a green jersey signifying that he wouldn’t be on the floor with the starters or the reserves while presenting him with a challenge:
“Be the best mentor you possibly can be and be prepared to play when you can,” Kevin Pritchard said of the charge the team made to him.
In response, the 14th-year veteran — who had once averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds and ended the season observing more games than he played — embraced his circumstances and rose to the occasion.
How did Al Jefferson impress?
He stayed ready, and the improvement of his stamina in tandem with his throwback combination of footwork, ball fakes, and soft touch allowed him to teach some memorable lessons to a handful of the league’s young bigs from the low-block as an adjunct professor.
Against the Sixers, when Myles Turner picked up two fouls in the first three minutes and 10 seconds of the game and finished with zero points in 15 minutes of action, Jefferson put Joel Embiid in the spin cycle and scored around him for a lay-up. Later in the same contest, he poked the ball away from the unicorn of unicorns at the top of the key, and (in what was arguably the most visible demonstration of his revitalized energy stores) he outhustled every other player on the floor for the loose ball.
In Brooklyn, he flat-out embarrassed Jarrett Allen with a show-him-the-ball move, as he scored 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting in eight minutes.
And, when he was pressed into service late in the season against the Toronto Raptors with Sabonis inactive due to an ankle injury, he abused Jakob Poetl with an array of hook shots and up-and-under moves headway to recording his first and only 20-10 game with the Pacers.
All of the while behind-the-scenes he was challenging his teammates in an appropriate way, playing 4-on-4 with the young players, talking down Lance Stephenson, giving Sabonis tips on how to read double-teams, and staying in the ear of Turner to take it personally and leverage his size when opponents switched guards onto him.
How did Al Jefferson disappoint?
He got picked on defensively.
Jefferson was plus-one and went 6-for-6 in the first half of that above mentioned contest with Brooklyn, but the Nets were able to close the third quarter on a fast-and-furious 8-2 run when he checked in with 2:11 to play, mostly because they hunted down his lateral mobility and tortured it with Spain pick-and-rolls.
An already unfair fight turned out-and-out mean when Joe Harris set back-to-back back screens on Al Jefferson after Timofey Mozgov had set high picks for D’Angelo Russell.
First, by impeding the aging center’s retreat and allowing Russell to glide to the rim for an easy layup.
And, then, by popping to the 3-point line with Sabonis showing hard on the ball and Jefferson covering the roll-man.
The other downside of trotting out his ability to punk young guns in the post when they were in a pinch is that Thaddeus Young was only given the opportunity to play 38 total minutes at small-ball five.
On the season, the Pacers were minus-18 in the sparse minutes that the lefty power forward logged at center and opponents shot above 65 percent inside the three-point line.
Moving forward, however, it’s somewhat regretful that there isn’t a larger sample size available to determine whether that particular lineup wrinkle was ineffective because it was inexperienced or inexperienced because it was ineffective.
What’s next for Al Jefferson?
Kevin Pritchard didn’t count out bringing the 33-year-old mentor back next season, but the Pacers could shop his partially guaranteed contract to teams trying to shed salary ahead of draft night or gain $6 million in cap space by waiving him.
“Al brought a lot of value just because he was great in our locker room,” Pritchard said of the aging center following the season.
Even if they decline to exercise his third-year team option and try to reach agreement with him at a lower dollar amount, due diligence will be of the utmost importance to determine if the intangible value he adds as a locker room patrolman exceeds the potential opportunity costs presented by his price tag.
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