Top 50: Al Jefferson, no. 23
The definitive ranking of the NBA’s best players.
by Brett Ballantini
In one of my first plays
he dunked over me.
But he didn’t just
dunk over me,
he took me with him.
I wrapped my arms
to stop his shot.
Shaq just lifted off the ground,
me clinging to him like a leaf,
and completed the slam, anyway.
Like I wasn’t even there.
Welcome to the NBA, kid.
–Al Jefferson (2009)
OK, so the blockbuster deal that sent Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff, Bassy Telfair, and two 2009 first-rounders (who became Johnny Flynn and Wayne Ellington) to the Timberwolves for Scowlin’ Kevin Garnett hasn’t been that pronounced a victory for Minnesota—at least not yet.
Nobody can ever take away the ring KG cruised the Celtics to in 2008, so in truth, the trade’s a win for Boston until Al Jeff has two fingers weighed down. But there’s an awful lot of evidence that Jefferson is already a better player than Garnett. Offensively, Big Al has the edge, with a touch more polished than KG’s, more trips to the line, and big advantages in the ultimate hustle stat, offensive rebounding. Defensively, no one’s going to argue that The Kid’s Pterodactyl wingspan isn’t as good as it gets—but Jefferson is learning, getting better, and becoming tougher.
But the No. 23 slot is not an opportunity to bury Garnett, but extol Jefferson. He was the clear prize of that July 2007 trade and has done nothing to evade the potential that found former GM-for-life Kevin McHale willing to deal away the only face of Minnesota’s franchise.
Al Jeff is a bad, bad man on the floor, and every bit the southern gentleman off it. Consider: K-Mac felt the obligation to re-ink his new franchise centerpiece to a max extension in 2007—and Big Al refused. Rather than extorting a franchise on the wane, or angling for bigger bucks in some future collective bargaining agreement still to be negotiated, Jefferson took on a “fair” five years and $65 million because he didn’t feel he deserved more than that.
An NBA player who felt he hadn’t yet “earned” a max deal. Big Al learned Minnesota Nice in an awful hurry.
Also consider the tale above, told earlier this year by Jefferson, of his first meeting with his childhood idol, Shaquille O’Neal. Big Al has become every bit the superstar Shaq is today, yet he wouldn’t cop a gangster attitude and bravado his way through an amusing (and embarrassing) moment. Al Jeff being “real” doesn’t denigrate other players, but serve respect—with a side of self-deprecation sprinkled in.
But the SLAM Top 50 isn’t the place to count Big Al’s Boy Scout merit badges or pat him on the back for being humble. It’s where he’s honored for being enough of a beast (his preferred term for his hardwood intensity) on the floor to parlay an ACL-torn, 50-game 2008-09 into the promise of being 23rd-best player in the League this season.
At the same time, it’s sort of insulting to have to do so—what sound reasoning can be used to pin Al Jeff down at 23? He doesn’t have a sufficiently groovy nickname? His reconstructed ACL is thought not to be sound? The team jumping center around him this fall at the Target Center couldn’t beat the Minneapolis Metro Target Store Employee All-Stars?
To the latter question, well, this summer’s Wrath of Kahn indeed decimated the short-term prospects of his Minny Mites. But as much as he tried, GM Genghis couldn’t tear down the entire team. Kevin Love, in spite of the enormous pressure Farmer Ryan Jones’s bromance places on him, is pure monster. You Gotham City dwellers think David Lee is something special? Love is to Lee as John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” is to Julie Andrews’. Gomes is no future All-NBA candidate, but he’s got enough Josh Howard in him to hold his own with the wingmen of the L. And Flynn might have struggled sharing a locker with Ricky Rubio in Genghis’ imagined fly-around-a-bug-zapper offense, but sans the Second Coming of Pete Maravich, Flynn will rock the point better than any Wolf since Sam I Am.
Jefferson is, and at 24, should remain so for the next decade, The Franchise. It appears that he, and not Amar’e Stoudemire, is the spiritual son of Moses Malone, an o-board gobbler (3.4 per last year and well north of three per in his career as a starter) and already the 81st-best shooter (at .505) in NBA history. He’s shifted into becoming the centerpiece of the offense with aplomb, facing double- and triple-teams without a significant loss of shooting accuracy. He’s increasing his trips to the line, a sign of offensive maturity. Had he played enough in 2008-09 to qualify for year-end lists, his PER of 23.1 and Offensive Rebound Percentage of 10.6 would have tied him for ninth in the league, and his Total Rebound Percentage of 17.5 would have placed him eighth. Smoothed out over a per-36 minute standard, Al Jeff is a 19.3 and 11.1 player for his career.
And it bears repeating how much credit Jefferson earns as a skilled offensive rebounder. Offensive boards are not a product of luck, or height, but pure hustle and court smarts. Statistics can’t measure pure heart, but the closest comes in the form of offensive rebounding. And Big Al’s got that number nailed.
Humility is the mortal enemy of personality. If Shaq is Wilt Chamberlain, Dwight Howard may as well be Bill Russell. There’s no meaner, badder sweetheart in the League than Jefferson, which makes him who, Bob Lanier? That’s not exactly damning with faint praise, especially recognizing that Lanier is as gentlemanly an NBA veteran as you’ll ever meet.
It’s Jefferson’s ticker that sets him apart. He’s cool, aloof, even jovial, but during that Great 48 every night, nothing gets between him and baskets, boards, stops, or fouls drawn. There are taller players in his games most every night, but there is no more intimidating man on the floor than Big Al.
Shaq is now half-man, half-Jabberwocky prop. Dwight wears a cape, but sometimes seems just one slam-dunk prop from Terence Stansbury. And jumping center, who else you got? The list is thin. Al Jeff is on it, with a bullet.
And by the All-Star break, surely our fair SLAM fans will have trouble counting 22 players better than the man from Monticello.
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’09-10 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Brett Ballantini, Russ Bengtson, Toney Blare, Shannon Booher, Myles Brown, Franklyn Calle, Gregory Dole, Emry DowningHall, Jonathan Evans, Adam Fleischer, Jeff Fox, Sherman Johnson, Aaron Kaplowitz, John Krolik, Holly MacKenzie, Ryne Nelson, Chris O’Leary, Ben Osborne, Alan Paul, Susan Price, Sam Rubenstein, Khalid Salaam, Kye Stephenson, Adam Sweeney, Vincent Thomas, Tzvi Twersky, Justin Walsh, Joey Whelan, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.