Last month, Charlotte Bobcats president of basketball operations Rod Higgins promised to be “ultra-aggressive’’ in pursuing a top-flight free agent this summer.
Thursday, Higgins delivered, as the Bobcats came to terms with former Utah Jazz center Al Jefferson, who has averaged 16.5 points and nine rebounds over a nine-season NBA career.
This is the boldest and most expensive free-agent acquisition in the franchise’s decadelong history. Sources familiar with the deal say Jefferson will make about $13.5 million per season. The contract length will be two seasons, plus a third season at the 28-year-old Jefferson’s option.
The Bobcats had many flaws in going 28-120 over the past two seasons. Arguably their biggest problem has been the lack of reliable low-post scoring. Shooting guard Gerald Henderson was really the team’s only post-up option last season.
The two frontcourt players the Bobcats drafted in 2011 and 2012 – center Bismack Biyombo and small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – combined for just 14 points per game while starting most of last season.
Jefferson, 6-foot-10 and 289 pounds, can put the ball through the hoop. He’s averaged 50 percent shooting from the field over nearly 20,000 NBA minutes, after being drafted in 2004 out of high school in Prentiss, Miss.
“Ain’t too many people out here in the league right now that kind of got that old-school game like I have it,” Jefferson once told the Salt Lake Tribune.
“It kind of makes me feel good. I’m a unique player. Everybody, when they hear my name, they know what type of game I got.”
Jefferson can’t formally be signed (and the Bobcats can’t comment) until the NBA’s moratorium period ends on July 10. The Bobcats have informed power forward Tyrus Thomas that he will be waived under the NBA’s amnesty provision once the moratorium ends.
Using amnesty on Thomas means the remaining two seasons and approximately $18 million on Thomas’s contract won’t count against the Bobcats’ salary cap. It’s difficult to precisely calculate the Bobcats’ projected payroll after dropping Thomas and adding Jefferson. But it appears to be roughly $46 million (including Henderson’s qualifying offer as a restricted free agent).
Next season’s salary cap is projected at about $58.5 million per team.
The Bobcats are dramatically making over their frontcourt. They used the fourth-overall pick in last month’s draft on 7-footer Cody Zeller of Indiana. After Zeller demonstrated impressive shooting range in a Charlotte workout, new coach Steve Clifford projected Zeller as a “stretch four” – a power forward who could score both inside and outside, as far from the basket as the 3-point line.
Jefferson is more of a pure post player offensively – he took only 25 3s his first eight NBA seasons, making one. Jefferson grew up in Mississippi idolizing Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal, two of the best scoring centers in recent memory.
He was originally chosen 15th overall by the Boston Celtics in the same 2004 draft that produced centers Dwight Howard (No. 1 overall) and ex-Bobcat Emeka Okafor (No. 2). Jefferson shares agent Jeff Schwartz with Okafor and another former Bobcats center, Tyson Chandler.
Jefferson’s first NBA coach, Doc Rivers, suggested Jefferson model himself after Moses Malone, a 12-time All-Star with height and weight nearly identical to Jefferson. Rivers provided video of Malone’s repertoire of moves for Jefferson to absorb.
“I’ve still got that DVD to this day,” Jefferson told the Salt Lake Tribune. “I watched it, and I was like, ‘Wow. He reminded me of myself.’ And I’m pretty sure Doc would say I reminded him of Moses Malone.”
Jefferson has a variety of offensive moves, but is probably best known for a pump fake that either gets defenders off their feet or freezes them in a way that creates space or driving lanes.
The balance in all that is Jefferson is not known as a particularly strong defender. He lacks the great lateral quickness to excel at that end of the floor and teams have been known to attack him in pick-and-roll situations.
Jefferson’s draft class was one of the last before the NBA barred American high school players from entering the league. Now a player must be at least a year removed from his high school class’s graduation to be eligible for the draft.
Jefferson played his first three seasons in Boston, then was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the deal that brought Kevin Garnett to the Celtics. Three seasons later he was dealt to the Jazz. Though he suffered a knee injury in Minnesota, he has been quite durable in Salt Lake City, missing nine of 250 games the last three seasons.
Jefferson’s father died when he was a baby, and his two grandmothers played a big role in raising him. Jefferson credits his maternal grandmother with creating great drive in him as a player.
“I averaged 42 points a game in high school, and I swear nothing I did was good enough for her.” Jefferson told the Deseret News.
“If I missed a rebound, she’s going to tell me,” he said, laughing. “And I’m talking about embarrassing me, coming out there after the game in front of all my friends and fans who think I’m amazing, and she’s grabbing me like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you get that rebound?’ ”
Jefferson requested the trade out of Minnesota because he’d reached the playoffs in only one of his first six NBA seasons. He made one playoff appearance with Utah, as the Jazz was edged out by the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets for the last two postseason spots in April.
The Bobcats waiving Thomas under the amnesty clause was not unexpected. Thomas played in just 26 of 82 games last season, averaging 4.8 points, 2.3 rebounds and 14 minutes per game.
Thomas had various injuries over his last three seasons as a Bobcat, including a calf strain that cost him a month last season. He had an altercation with former coach Paul Silas, then fell out of favor with Silas’ one-season replacement, Mike Dunlap.
Despite plummeting playing time – Thomas wasn’t included in the team’s travel group on a West Coast trip – he trained hard before and after games, according to teammates.
He’ll be paid the $18 million left on his contract and now becomes an unrestricted free agent, able to make a fresh start elsewhere in the NBA.