Fowler: Jefferson gives Bobcats stability

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comJuly 11, 2013 

Al Jefferson is an old-school big man on a team that wants to embrace an old-school mentality so much that it will soon change its nickname back to the Charlotte Hornets.

So will the newest Charlotte Bobcat fit in well here? Absolutely. Was this a good signing? Absolutely. Will Jefferson push the Bobcats into the NBA playoffs this season?

Well, no.

But Jefferson – officially introduced at a press conference Wednesday by the Bobcats after agreeing to terms last week – provides Charlotte a dose of respectability and a new force down low. He also shows that owner Michael Jordan really will spend money. That $41 million, three-year contract Jefferson has signed is some serious cash.

During his press conference and in a later interview with The Observer’s Rick Bonnell and me, Jefferson reminded me of former Bobcat’s forward Gerald Wallace in both tone and attitude.

Like Wallace, Jefferson hails from the Deep South, has a good sense of humor and speaks honestly about his own flaws and attributes. Jefferson himself brought up his old nickname, “The Black Hole,” from his time with Minnesota – because the ball would go into him and never would come back out.

“I’m not going to deny it,” Jefferson said of the nickname. “I was.”

But after his three most recent NBA seasons in Utah, Jefferson said he had become a better, more unselfish person and player. He certainly exudes maturity when you talk to him.

As for the Bobcats, Jefferson sounds like a nine-year NBA veteran who isn’t going to accept any excuses from his younger teammates, most of whom were part of the 28-120 combined record over the past two years that ranks as the NBA’s worst.

Said Jefferson: “One of the things I told Kemba (Walker, whom Jefferson shares an agent and a modest friendship with) when I first agreed to come here was, ‘I’m not coming here to just fall into place with this losing thing that’s gone on the last couple of years. I’m coming here to help y’all turn this thing around.’ He agreed. It starts with us. ... It’s something you want to do something about. And we’re the ones who can do it.”

My friend and colleague Tom Sorensen has criticized the Jefferson signing, in large part because he wants the Bobcats to have another bad team next season to get another high pick for the 2014 NBA draft – preferably the first pick.

It sounds fine in theory, but we all know that it rarely works. This isn’t the NFL. Even if you have the worst record in the NBA, there’s a 75 percent chance you won’t get the No.1 pick. The Bobcats had that happen in 2012, when a 7-59 record still didn’t earn them Anthony Davis.

So if you’ve got an opportunity to get a player like Jefferson, then you go for it. Right now. Yes, he’s more toward the end of his career than the beginning. But he has been very durable the past three years, he’s only 28, he will be a low-maintenance locker room leader. He will make Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo more effective by mentoring them and allowing each to do what they do best.

“Low post scoring – that’s a premium in our business,” said Rod Higgins, the Bobcats’ president of basketball operations. “If you can find a guy who can score in the low post with his back to the basket, normally those guys aren’t available.”

Here’s a stat to chew on: Jefferson is one of only two players in the NBA to have averaged at least 17 points and nine rebounds in each of the past six seasons. Dwight Howard is the only other one who has done it.

Jefferson – who said Dallas and New Orleans also showed interest in signing him but that Utah had decided to go younger at his position and was not going to re-sign him. He ranked second among centers in scoring average at 17.8 points per game and sixth among centers in defensive rebounds.

So, if you’re only a casual NBA fan, why have you barely heard of him?

Because he’s not flashy. He isn’t a great leaper – a lot of his best work is below the rim – although he’s got a nasty pump fake. He plays sort of like Moses Malone for you old-timers, and that’s a comparison he relishes. And, perhaps most importantly, he has made the playoffs only twice in nine years and didn’t make a dent either time.

So while Jefferson is now rich beyond his wildest dreams he had growing up in Prentiss, Miss., he’s still hungry.

Simply put, he hasn’t won enough to be considered an elite NBA player. Charlotte would seem an unlikely place to try and change that label, but that’s what Jefferson is determined to do.

“The East is way different from the West,” said Davis, who has played in both conferences. “In the East, you have maybe 5-6 great teams you know are going to be there. With the West, you have 12-13. And with the Bobcats, I just think with me coming, and with the guys they’ve already got, and with a lot of focus and dedication – I think we have a chance to turn it around.”

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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