Six season later, Richard Jefferson is in a perfect position to return to the Finals.
For lack of a better word, it was an “interesting” summer for Richard Jefferson. It all began with a June trade (from the Bucks to the Spurs). It continued with him calling off his wedding at the 23rd hour. Somewhere in there, he also found time to celebrate his 29th birthday, too. Yes, it was a summer of change and growth for RJ, one that landed him back in the spotlight for the first time in a long time. As the season nears, though, and in late May when the Spurs are contending for a title, just ask yourself one thing: It’s been six seasons (and 45 issues since Arash penned this) since Richard J last played in the Finals–will this be the year he finally plays for the O’Brien again? Stay tuned.–Tzvi Twersky
by Arash Markazi
Huddled outside of their locker room at Continental Airlines Arena, the New Jersey Nets are wearing their gray warmups before an early season game. Their group hug is broken once Richard Jefferson turns from the pack and leads the team onto the court, ripping off his top as soon as he hits the floor to reveal a purple shooting shirt with the Nets’ red and white NJ logo emblazoned on his chest.
If the colorful Jefferson stands out from the rest of his monochromatic teammates, it’s only fitting, for the man who—before the return of Jason Kidd and the trade for Vince Carter—was the Nets’ version of Superman this season. “We’re asking Richard to be a superstar,” Nets coach Lawrence Frank said early on. “We want him to be great.”
That request became more of a requirement once Jefferson signed a 6-year, $78-million contract extension—and after the team traded away Kenyon Martin and started the season without an injured (and disgruntled) Kidd. Suddenly, the man who had so often been the third option during his first three years in the League had, for the first month or so of the ’04-05 season, become the team’s first, second and third option almost every night. And regardless of the impact of Kidd’s return and Carter’s arrival, there’s no denying the load Jefferson has accepted.
“It’s been an adjustment for me,” admits the 6-7, 225-pound swingman, the League leader in minutes per game through early December. “It’s a completely different situation than what I’ve been used to and it’s been difficult at times, but I’m learning. It’s a process.”
Jefferson’s on-the-job training as an NBA star has certainly been a work in progress. The 24-year-old wing was on pace for career highs in nearly every statistical category this season—and that includes turnovers, at an average of nearly 5 per game. “What’s made it difficult is that we have a lot of guys adjusting to each other and learning the offense,” he says. “I think I’ve tried too hard at times because I am unselfish, and I see the impact JKidd can have getting other people involved and getting other guys going. At times I haven’t been as comfortable as I would have liked.”
Despite RJ’s load-lugging, the depleted Nets got off horribly this season after three years of deep playoff runs, and even with a healthy Kidd and Carter (a big assumption, we know), they’ll likely finish with their worst record since Jefferson’s arrival in ’01. “I knew we would have some tough times,” says Jefferson, who has played on title contenders every year since high school. “But regardless, I was going to stay optimistic. I wasn’t going to get down on myself or my teammates or the organization or the coaching staff. I just believe that I’m going to make the best of this situation, good or bad.”
Of course, there’s little doubt that the Nets’ inability to win games with RJ as the centerpiece had much more to do with their inability to find anyone to help him than his inability as a leader. “I wish we could give him a little more offensive help for his efforts,” Alonzo Mourning said shortly before being shipped north. “He puts himself in situations where he overexerts himself and he tries to do way too much. He’s trying too hard.”
Jefferson doesn’t know any other way to do it. He’s been “trying too hard” from the moment he picked up a basketball in grade school. As a kid, he would play for hours at a local park near his Phoenix home, going against men two and three times his age. He would practice constantly, hoping to one day become a household name on the national level. He even recorded his goals into a tape recorder during his freshman year in high school, often falling asleep to the soothing sound of his own voice telling himself he’d be all-state, All-American, All-Star. “He always had a vision,” says his mother, Mikanese Licata. “He can see it done. He doesn’t have to have it right then and there, but he always knew where he would be.”
Despite lofty aspirations and undeniable athleticism—he high-jumped 6-10 as a senior at Moon Valley (AZ) High—few could have envisioned a player who averaged 11.3 ppg and 5.4 rpg during his third and final season at the University of Arizona would double his output at the next level. “I couldn’t see him doing what he’s doing now when we were back in college,” says Wizards guard and former U of A teammate Gilbert Arenas. “He changed a lot, because in college he didn’t have a big role. He found a great situation, and now it’s his time to shine.”
Not even the keenest scout or GM can honestly say they thought Jefferson was going to mature into a star in this League—not even the man who traded away the No. 7 pick (Eddie Griffin) in the 2001 NBA Draft to obtain Jefferson and two other players. When Nets president Rod Thorn made that trade, he did so hoping to gain some depth at the small forward position, maybe get an athletic defender who might contribute offensively some day. He ended up with far more. “I wish I could say that I knew he was going to be the type of player that he’s turned out to be, but I can’t,” Thorn says. “Once we got him, you could see midway in his first year that he was going to be better than a contributor, that he was going to be a real good player.” What made Jefferson so good, so early was his incessant work ethic. Thorn says he would see Jefferson improve a different part of his game almost every month.
“He couldn’t make a play when he first came in,” Thorn says. “If he had to dribble, he stopped and he just couldn’t make plays. It’s been a progression with him. He didn’t go from A to C. He went from A to B to C and just got better. There is something that seems to improve every 15 games with him, whether it’s his shooting, rebounding, ball-handling. He’s always improving.”
The biggest improvement came in the form of a shooting touch that was non-existent for much of his first NBA season. Defenders would play off him, knowing RJ couldn’t hit a mid-range jumper. “At first he was a layup guy and got lucky that he came into a team with a guy like Jason Kidd where you got layups,” Thorn says. “If he was coming into the League this year with this team, it would be tough.”
But after shooting hundreds of shots a day that season, Jefferson was so good that Thorn traded away Keith Van Horn, the team’s starting three, so Jefferson could get the minutes and opportunities he’d earned. “We knew we had to play him more, and that’s one of the reasons we traded Keith,” Thorn says. “We felt Richard could be a starter, and he has certainly exceeded expectations.” That said, Thorn isn’t quite ready to hand RJ the reins of the team just yet. “He’s gotten better as a leader,” says Thorn. “But Jason is still our leader. Richard’s personality is nice. He’s a funny guy. But you have to grow into being a leader. You don’t just do that. Some people are born leaders; I don’t think Richard is a born leader, but he’s getting better.”
That’s the perception the sarcastically comedic Jefferson has had to overcome this season as the team’s leader early on. He constantly cracks jokes with his teammates, and with his deadpan delivery, he’s rarely taken seriously by those friends or reporters who know better. “Everything with Richard is funny,” says Jason Collins, one of the two players (Brandon Armstrong is the other) who joined RJ in that ’01 Draft trade. “He’s always joking around. Some people can never tell if he’s being serious or not.”
Watching Jefferson early this season, running the team and barking out orders, had some of his older teammates doing a double take. “I told him I never thought I’d see the day when he was the voice of reason around here,” forward Aaron Williams said just before he joined Zo in the trade to Toronto. “He’s always been like the little brother who’s acting out.” Acting out, maybe, but not showing off—at least, not off the court. Jefferson doesn’t flaunt his wealth, preferring t-shirts and jeans to three-piece suits. He doesn’t own any jewelry and bought his first car, used, from college teammate Mike Bibby. “I’m not big on that stuff,” says Jefferson, an admitted homebody. “If you want something, go get it, but there’s no need to be flashy or bragging or show everyone all the money you have.” In fact, the only thing RJ brags seriously about is his pristine video game record against fellow NBA players. “I’m the best Halo player ever,” he says. “I play against everybody—Tim Duncan, Gilbert Arenas, Luke Walton. I play online with those guys, and I’m the greatest Halo player of all time. I beat them all pretty bad. It’s not even close.”
When Jefferson first arrived in the L, his oncourt cockiness rivaled his arrogance in Halo. Just the sight of him rubbed opponents the wrong way. He smirks more than he smiles, pontificates more than he talks and struts more than he walks. But it’s that very confidence that has made him the player he is today. And while Jefferson will still be the first to let an opponent know he just became an extra in one of his highlight reels, he also admits he has matured since his rookie year. “I’ve grown up a little bit,” he says. “After my first year, I learned that the difference between a good and a great player sometimes is just competitiveness. The difference between a great player and an unbelievable one is a competitive player who works extremely hard. So I just try to be extremely competitive and work hard every day.”
While Jefferson may still be adjusting to his new role, he actually took his first stab at becoming the Nets’ leader last season, when he was the focal point of the team during a nine-game, late-season stretch when both Kidd and Martin were out with injuries. The Nets went 4-5 during that stretch, but they were in every game, and Jefferson carried them, averaging 24.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg and 6.4 apg. “It gave me the confidence that I can do it this season,” says Jefferson, who also looked like the go-to guy more than once during that aborted playoff run last May. “But right now we’re in a different situation.”
In addition to having the green light on offense, Jefferson has also been given the responsibility of showing the red light to the opposition’s No. 1 man. “Part of greatness is defending the other team’s best player, playing big minutes, carrying the load and making the right decisions,” Frank says. It’s a responsibility Jefferson has embraced, as he helped slow the likes of Tracy McGrady and Ray Allen, holding them to 14 points each in a pair of back-to-back early season matchups. “Who have I guarded? McGrady, Ray Allen? They’re horrible,” Jefferson cracks before getting serious. “The thing is, our team is playing good defense. Obviously it starts with me guarding the other team’s best player. That’s the role I’ve been given.”
With Kidd back and Carter recently arrived, it’s possible that Jefferson’s role might have changed drastically by the time you read this. What won’t change is how he established himself in November and December—as a player who’s willing and able to carry the load. “In the end, I know that I can have my team,” Jefferson says. “I can have a team that is based around me and plays through me and is successful. I know it will happen.”