by Bryan Crawford / @_BryanCrawford

Runs the floor like a gazelle. Crazy athleticism. Can jump out of the gym. Stronger than a loud pack.

These are things that you will never hear when speaking about Al Jefferson.

Those adjectives better apply to Dwight Howard than “Big Al.” In fact, Jefferson is more Z-Bo than Superman. But in relation to Howard, the one thing Al does have in common with Dwight—besides turning pro straight out of HS while in the same class—is that when it comes to elite post-players in the NBA, they are simply two of the best.

While Howard may have more fame and notoriety to go along with slightly better numbers statistically, Jefferson has much better low-post moves and footwork and Big Al has quietly been putting in the same, if not similar work as Dwight throughout his career. And you know what he gets as a reward? He gets to lead the pack as one of the most underrated players in the NBA today.

When Big Al was a HS player in Prentiss, MS, I got a chance to watch him first hand on several occasions.

Initially I wasn’t all that impressed, but it wasn’t because of him as a player, it was because of the fact that he played in one of the smaller divisions in Mississippi prep athletics. And by small I mean with respect to the size of the schools within his particular division and also with respect to the size of the players he was competing against. Jefferson was easily the most dominating force because he was just that much bigger and by extension, better, than the other kids.

For example, when teams would full-court press Prentiss HS, the sequence would look like this: Jefferson would inbound the ball, run to half court, receive the ball again, pass it off to another player, run down to the low block, get the ball again, put his shoulder into somebody, turn and dunk on them. This happened every single time and oftentimes, the ball would never even touch the floor. He was the antithesis of the one-man press breaker, but the strategy was sound, and it most definitely worked.

Taking all of this into consideration, it’s easy to see how he was able to win the Mr. Basketball award, average 42 points, 18 rebounds and 7 blocks per game as a senior, and establish himself as the most dominating big man in the history of the Magnolia State since Othella Harrington came out of Murrah HS in the early ’90s.

So when he opted for the NBA Draft in the spring of ’04 instead of taking his game to Fayetteville, AR to play collegiately for the Razorbacks, my initial assumption was that against the best of the best, Al Jefferson would probably struggle.

Wrong!

His first couple of seasons in Boston he showed some flashes, but statistically, he was pedestrian at best. But by his third year in Beantown (’06-07), Big Al had transformed himself into a force to be reckoned with to the tune of 16 points and 11 rebounds per game. He was so good in fact that Minnesota traded Kevin Garnett to Boston for him in the summer of ’07.

OK, that’s not entirely true, but in essence, that’s pretty much what happened.

In Big Al’s first year in a Timberwolves uni in ’07-08, he upped his scoring average to 21 points per while still grabbing 11 boards. He wasn’t KG, but the fans in Minnesota appreciated him just the same. And much to the chagrin of many TWolves fans especially, he was snubbed on the Western Conference All-Star team that year.

You see, despite his individual success and better than average scoring and rebounding numbers, by the 2008 All-Star break, the Minnesota Timberwolves had logged just nine Ws and everybody knows that players on losing teams don’t get ASG nods, regardless of how incredible their stats are (unless your name is Kevin Love or Blake Griffin, but that’s an altogether different story).

The following season, ’08-09, Big Al was doing it again; this time to the tune of 23 points and 11 rebounds per. Despite it being a career year for him, he once again received an All-Star snub and a short time after the break (50 games into the season) Jefferson tore his ACL and his season was over.

He came back the for the ’09-10 campaign but both his rebounding and scoring averages dipped dramatically and you could just tell that he wasn’t the same player post-surgery. So in the summer of 2010, Big Al found himself traded once again. This time to the Utah Jazz who were trying to replace what they’d lost in Carlos Boozer who joined the Chicago Bulls via free agency.

On paper, it looked like a solid decision.

During Al’s first season in Salt Lake City, he improved his scoring and rebounding numbers ever so slightly from the previous year and appeared to be 100 percent recovered from his knee injury (evidenced by the fact that he played a full 82-game season for just the second time in his seven-year career). But because the Jazz also threw big money at Paul Millsap, keeping him in the fold, and then acquired rookie Derrick Favors in the deal that sent Deron Williams to the New Jersey Nets, it was difficult for Jefferson to re-establish himself as a truly dominating frontcourt player because he had to either share time at or play out of his position which is something he didn’t have to do in Minnesota or his last year in Boston.

And unfortunately for Big Al, right now the Jazz are essentially in a state of rebuilding and who knows what’s next for him?

After losing Jerry Sloan midway through the season last year and DWill at the trade deadline, the Jazz missed the Playoffs for the first time in four years and Big Al personally missed the Playoffs for the sixth year in a row. To complicate things further, essentially, the team still has a rookie coach in Tyrone Corbin. They also drafted European phenom, Enes Kanter, who along with the aforementioned Millsap and Favors, plus a returning Mehmet Okur from injury, gives the Jazz one of the most crowded frontcourts in the entire NBA.

Decisions have to be made and Jefferson could very well find himself caught up in the dreaded numbers game and could potentially be moved for the third time in his career.

Of course this is all speculation, but if it does happen, know that Big Al is going to do what he’s always done since HS and now in the NBA: quietly put up numbers while nobody else is paying attention.

SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2011
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Luol DengBullsSF8
49Andrew BogutBucksC7
48Ray AllenCelticsSG9
47Marc GasolGrizzliesC6
46David WestHornetsPF15
45Kevin MartinRocketsSG8
44Andrew BynumLakersC5
43Brandon JenningsBucksPG11
42Lamar OdomLakersPF14
41Gerald WallaceBlazersSF7
40Brook LopezNetsC4
39Joakim NoahBullsC3
38Carlos BoozerBullsPF13
37Kevin GarnettCelticsPF12
36Eric GordonClippersSG7
35Tony ParkerSpursPG10
34Andre Iguodala76ersSG6
33Al JeffersonJazzPF11

Notes
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’11-12 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Maurice Bobb, Shannon Booher, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Jon Jaques, Eldon Khorshidi, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Quinn Peterson, Dave Schnur, Abe Schwadron, Dan Shapiro, Irv Soonachan, Todd Spehr, Tzvi Twersky, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Ben York.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.