Big Al Out: Now What?
Wolves executives look ahead.
When the calendar turned to 2009, the Minnesota Timberwolves were the hottest team in the NBA. There was ball movement, made baskets, small semblances of defensive rotations, high-fives, smiles and wins coming from the Wolves. To a small degree, they were beginning to make a small case that there is hope for the future. It was odd and in that miniscule amount of time, it was fun to follow Big Al and the Jeffersons.
“I think Al’s started understanding double-teaming better,” said Head Coach Kevin McHale. “He’s learning to pass the ball out. He’s still going to be aggressive and try to score on double-teams at times, but he did a better job of passing it out. His basketball awareness is improving and that’s another level he has to go, especially on the defensive end, being able to help and all that. There were nights that he was really, really good for us defensively and those coincided with us being very successful because Big Al can block shots and do a lot of stuff defensively. I’ve seen growth in both areas, offensively and defensively.”
Entering the season, team star Al Jefferson acknowledged there were many aspects of his individual game that needed improvement in order for his team to achieve any semblance of success. Taking the first step toward achieving star status—and eventual All-Star status—he slowly and diligently began working on his two biggest weaknesses as a “franchise player.”
“I’m sure he’d tell you defense is his biggest weakness and that’s something he’s going to continue to work hard at,” said Fred Hoiberg, Minnesota’s Assistant General Manager. “It’s showed in his blocked shots this year, and it’s a huge improvement in what he was doing in the past.”
Jefferson’s defensive liabilities are widely known, even a reason cited by national media as a main reason he didn’t make his debut on the national stage in the 2009 All-Star game. Yet, for the few who follow Minnesota closely, staking their own claim in the team’s development, another facet of Jefferson’s game needs substantially improve. If those few die-hard fans know, certainly the men in suits upstairs know.
“I think he has to grow as a leader,” said Jim Stack, Timberwolves General Manager. “At times, he tends to berate a little bit because he wants to win so much and I think he’s grown in that area. The right kind of vocal leadership that’s not punitive and holding things against his teammates. He has to understand these guys have their deficiencies and weaknesses and he has times on the floor when he’s not doing everything he needs to and he’s still growing in that area.”
Then, in an instant, the slightly more-regular good times ended.
Coming down after leaping for a rebound, as he has thousands of times, Jefferson tore his ACL. As he hopped around, eventually crumbling to the floor in pain, reality set in. The remainder of the ‘08-09 season will only be beneficial for the future in regards to securing a high draft pick, increased playing time for others needing to develop or whatever silver-lining one may want to choose.
Now, after undergoing successful surgery to repair the tear in his knee Wednesday, the process of healing and rehab begins. Without the ability to play the game of basketball during the roughly six-to-eight month span it takes to come back fully, the question remains…
How does Jefferson utilize the time off the court productively for both his individual game and, more importantly, for the progression of his young team heading into the ‘09-10 season?
“Well, that’s what we have to figure out,” said McHale. “How are we going to use this? We have to use this to the betterment of Al and that will be a bit of a struggle. We’re just going to support him and he has to use this time to grow in his film-watching, team-watching and some other stuff, but he’s not going to be able to be on the floor. He’s going to have to grow without being on the floor, so we’re going to have to figure out some things that we want him to do. We’ll figure out a way to make it work for him.”
While some in the organization still struggling with the surprise of Jefferson’s sudden absence, others have a thoughtful plan and are more confident the process will go smoothly.
“He has to get his body better,” said Stack. “I know he’s going to put an emphasis on weight lifting and the things he needs to do to get his body in order and this is the time for him to do that. He’s not going to have to physically tax himself playing NBA basketball. The silver-lining with Corey (Brewer) being out is they both have the same injury, so they can tag-team each other and work out together. From that standpoint, that will be a good thing for him because Al has that body frame that he has to watch himself getting heavy and gaining weight. When he’s inactive, that’s tough, so we’ll have to get him going, get him in a program right away and I think he’s ready for the challenge.”
Although knee injuries are always a cause for concern, it is more-than-likely Jefferson will return to the same form—nearly All-Star form—when he is fully healthy. Make no mistake. The Timberwolves believe Dr. David Altchek, who performed the surgery at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, did excellent work repairing the tear and securing the cornerstone of their franchise.
“Our plan is to build around Al,” said Hoiberg. “Anytime you have a guy you can throw the ball to at anytime in the game is a luxury. He’s one of only three guys in the League averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds and he’s shown he wants to take big shots.”
The rest of this season may seem like an eternity for Wolves fans, but they can take solace in the fact their anchor will return next year healthy and motivated. Jefferson showed some of what he’s capable of accomplishing and next year he will have more weapons at his disposal.