Top 50: Al Jefferson, no. 44

by September 26, 2013

by Abe Schwadron / @abe_squad

They say honesty is the best policy. And after all, my first name indicates I can’t lie to you guys. So let’s get this out of the way up front—Al Jefferson wasn’t on my personal Top 50 list. Big Al was one of my final cuts.

That means two things:

1. That you should remember these rankings are a composite. And while my list, or anyone else’s list, may seem perfect to us, that’s not the way it works.

2. Enough of my SLAM fam peers still have faith in Jefferson that I’ve been forced to re-consider.

I’m not mad at Jefferson’s ranking. Truth be told, it’s within spitting distance from where he landed for me, and upon a closer look, I can rock with it. I’ve got bigger fish to fry later on in this countdown, anyway. Matter fact I hope, for the handful of Charlotte Bobcats (are we supposed to call you Hornets yet?) fans out there, that he far surpasses this spot. Lord knows dude has the talent.

The first time I saw Al Jefferson play basketball was back in 2004, when I sat in the lower bowl at University of Maryland’s Comcast Center for what was then still called the Jordan Capital Classic. The previous year, I’d watched LeBron James do his thing in the Jumpman showcase down in DC. This time, top billing went to future No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Dwight Howard.

And while Dwight picked up MVP honors in convincing fashion, a wide-bodied, bruising man-child from Mississippi had me scanning my program from the jump. (I learned his name was Al Jefferson, and that he averaged a ridiculous 42 ppg in his senior year of high school.) Jefferson gave Howard all he could handle on that day with 17 and 10, and looked destined to be a perennial All-Star and sure-fire 20-10 guy in the L.

College? Nah, b. I like this nugget from an ESPN scouting report prior to the ’04 Draft: “Jefferson, when asked by reporters about whether he’d play at Arkansas next season, laughed at the question. ‘They’re like, ‘Come one year and be a lottery pick next year,’ and you can’t get an education in one year.’”

Of course, none of that has anything to do with Jefferson’s No. 44 ranking for ’13-14.

But perhaps it helps contextualize why Big Al’s trajectory on this list looks the way it does since entering the League with the Celtics nine years ago. After showing flashes in Boston, he exploded in Minnesota, then finally logged legitimate post-season minutes in Utah. And yet here we are: Charlotte next up on the 28-year-old’s wandering NBA career.

Coming off a monster ’08-09 season, Big Al looked like a top-25 player on the planet. Offensively, dude couldn’t be stopped, dropping consecutive seasons of 21-plus points and 11 boards a night. Alas, neither season resulted in so much as an All-Star bid, let alone a first-round playoff series victory.

Still, we wanted to believe that Jefferson still had it in him to be a bona fide No. 1 option on a contender. But his production slipped slightly and his teams stayed mired in barely-above-average-ness at best. Last season, we ended our Top 50 write-up of Big Al with this:

“What this No. 45 ranking tells me is that Jefferson has proven much, but he still has much to prove. That he’s a very good center, but not an elite one. That until he shoulders a deep playoff run, his talented offensive game won’t be able to mask his status as a secondary star in this League.

At age 27, entering his ninth season, Big Al still has plenty of time to do just that.”

Now a decade into his career, and on a team that no sane person would call a contender, is time beginning to run out on Big Al?

A year later, after Jeff’s Jazz missed the Playoffs and his numbers dipped to 17.8 and 9.2 per, we moved him…up a spot. Because, well, a new face in a new place often breeds optimism.

Jefferson inked a three-year, $40.5 million deal with Charlotte back in July, which by default immediately makes him the biggest free-agent signing in the history of the Charlotte Bobcats. He will surely make the Cats a better team offensively and probably produce big numbers as the top option in Charlotte, while freeing up space for Kemba Walker and shooters.

Sure, there is nothing sexy about Jefferson’s game. On offense, it’s a whole lotta post-up, and he’s damn good. Big body, big hands, big task for opposing centers. He’s never been terribly efficient, but since entering the NBA, he’s scored between 1.08 and 1.12 points per possession in every year where he played at least 60 games. That’s good, not stupendous.

On the other end of the floor, even Jefferson admits that, well, he stinks. He’s a proficient defensive rebounder, but he’s generally lost beyond that. He literally told Grantland’s Zach Lowe that this is what he thinks about when playing D: “On defense, I’m just thinking, OK, Al, you gotta be ready. Be focused. Here they come with the re-screen! Oh, shoot!

He promises to get better, though. And if he can improve defensively even in the slightest, he may finally be poised to put together that All-Star season we’ve been waiting for—after all, on a Bobcats team devoid of scoring, he’s primed to push his career bests in points. Convince me, Al.

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SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2013
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Monta Ellis Mavs SG 5
49 Luol Deng Bulls SF 10
48 Ricky Rubio TWolves PG 14
47 Greg Monroe Pistons PF 12
46 Kawhi Leonard Spurs SF 9
45 Mike Conley Grizzlies PG 13
44 Al Jefferson Bobcats C 9

Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’13-14—to players’ team, the League and the game.