Charlotte Hornets

February 10, 2014

Charlotte Bobcats’ Al Jefferson getting hot at the right time

Al Jefferson averages 20 points and 10.6 rebounds per game and is on his way to one of the best individual seasons in Charlotte Bobcats history. Last week he led the Eastern Conference in scoring (28 points per game).

Every basketball player has his sweet spots. On many of the Charlotte Bobcats’ offensive possessions, you will see big man Al Jefferson headed directly for the one he likes the most.

That would be the left block, just outside the paint and eight feet from the basket. Jefferson posts up with his back to the basket, gets a pass, usually spins left into the paint and begins to create.

Jefferson churns out pump fakes and ball fakes like they are disposable razors. Almost inevitably, one of them works.

“I’ve got so many different ways to score on that block,” Jefferson said. “If you want a ‘for sure’ two points, get it to me on the left block.”

Other teams know it is coming. A lot of times they double-team Jefferson. Lately, though, not much has worked. After Jefferson scored 26 against San Antonio Saturday night, coach Gregg Popovich proclaimed that Jefferson’s pump fakes were the best in the league.

“He’s still got that herky-jerky, unbelievably tough game to guard,” Popovich said. “He gets people off their feet constantly.”

Jefferson averages 20 points and 10.6 rebounds per game for Charlotte and is on his way to one of the best individual seasons in team history. Last week he led the Eastern Conference in scoring (28 points per game).

As Jefferson has grown older, Popovich said, he has extended his offensive game farther from the basket with a more reliable jumper. That makes him more difficult to stop. “He’s more confident,” Popovich said, “and he shoots jumpers a little bit more than he used to.”

As the Bobcats (22-29) prepare for Tuesday night’s home game against Dallas, Jefferson is riding one of the hottest streaks in franchise history. He had 40 points and 18 rebounds Jan. 31 against the Los Angeles Lakers – one of the best games any player in the NBA has had all season. In January, Jefferson had 12 games of 20 points or better.

“I know my game better than anybody,” said Jefferson, who was troubled by an ankle injury early in the season and missed nine of the Bobcats’ first 11 games. I know when I’m 100 percent or even close, I can be a 20-10 guy in this league. I’ve proven it many times.”

That’s why the Bobcats are paying him an average of more than $13 million per season for this season and the next two. “Big Al” was their big free-agent acquisition of the summer of 2013, and because of his ankle injury the relationship began slowly.

Said point guard Kemba Walker, who had campaigned hard for the Bobcats to sign Jefferson: “The hardest thing for us has been to learn how to play inside-out. ... It took a little while for all of us to get acclimated to his game. But we’ve got it down to a T at this point. No one in this league can guard him one-on-one down low.”

Roy Hibbert? Tyson Chandler?

“Nobody,” Walker said firmly.

Which begs the question why Jefferson, who is 29 years old and in his 10th season, has never made the NBA All-Star team. Although Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said Jefferson has been playing at an “All-Star-plus” level, he wasn’t selected once again this season. Jefferson said he wasn’t surprised.

“This isn’t the first time I felt like I didn’t make it when I’ve had the numbers,” he said. “ I’m used to it. It’s a great experience, I’m sure, though I’ve never had it. I don’t get mad about it any more.”

More important to Jefferson is the Bobcats’ making the playoffs. If the season had ended Monday, they would have had the eighth and final seed in the East.

“My ankle is still not 100 percent,” Jefferson said, “but it’s a lot better than where it was. I think the All-Star break will help, and hopefully by the playoff run it will be 100 percent. And yes, I said, ‘Playoff run.’ Right now we’d be in it – and we’ve got to stay in it.”

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