MILWAUKEE – The Utah Jazz have had painful moments this season out of a partial youth movement while competing for the playoffs, and as a rookie, Al Jefferson was a 20-year-old drafted into the same hybrid situation. Eight years ago, Jefferson was on a Boston Celtics team that won the Atlantic Division behind veterans like Paul Pierce and Gary Payton, with an eye toward nurturing Jefferson and Tony Allen, Kendrick Perkins and Delonte West.
Now, Jefferson finds himself as one of those established vets, a primary piece the Jazz can surround with enough talent to make a playoff run while retooling. He missed his second straight game on Monday night due to a sprained left ankle, and the Jazz are confident the injury isn’t serious but want to be cautious of their leading scorer and rebounder. Even so, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter combined for 38 points and 25 points in Jefferson’s absence, a 109-108 overtime loss to the Bucks that dropped the Jazz to 32-28.
The Jazz have relied on Favors (21) and Kanter (20) – as well as Gordon Hayward (22) and Alec Burks (21) – as integral players in their rotation, and Ty Corbin admits it has resulted in both saving and hurting parts of the season. That’s the outcome of learning, Corbin says. Jefferson knows his growth took seasons after entering the NBA straight out of high school, but he can also relate to the watching and learning that both Favors and Kanter have had to do over the past two seasons.
“It most definitely took some time, but the good thing about me: I came in with an open mind,” Jefferson told RealGM. “I didn’t come in thinking I was going to play and be a superstar my rookie year. I came in sitting back and just watched and wanted to learn. It came to me more easier that way than in the other way.”
Jefferson has had better statistical seasons than this one, and yet the low post game is coming much smoother to him and he has shed the “blackhole” label. Before he joined the Jazz and the system of first Jerry Sloan and now Corbin, Jefferson was seen as a skilled inside option with the caveat that if the ball was going into him, it probably wasn’t coming back out.
In Jefferson’s mind, the trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Jazz was the best thing that could have happened to his career. He has evolved as a player in three seasons with the Jazz, providing a durable, reliable presence and even helping develop Kanter. The losing that Jefferson went through with the Timberwolves still irritates him, understanding at the same time that it led him to where he is now.
“In Minnesota three years there, [we] lost and had three very bad losing seasons, and then I came to Utah,” Jefferson said. “And just how the [Jazz] do things as far as on and off the court, how they teach their players not only to be a great basketball player but to be a great man in life off the court, I just think at that point in time, that’s what I needed – for me to mature as a person and as a player.
“[Karl Malone and John Stockton] let you know that the Jazz were a winning team and they always have been and always want to be. … To be a part of last year’s [playoffs] and be one of the leaders on the team, it was a hell of an accomplishment.”
The Jazz set the foundation for their future with last year’s playoff berth, when they went 36-30 in the regular season before the San Antonio Spurs swept them. It allowed expectations to heighten a little this season, but they have had to work through inconsistent play at times and a torn ligament in Mo Williams’ right thumb.
Williams is slated to participate in a full contact practice on Tuesday and then determine whether he will return Wednesday in Cleveland against his former team. In the meantime, the Jazz had too many miscues, too many defensive lapses, to overcome on Monday – turning the ball over 21 times, six of which by Burks who played almost all his 35 minutes at point guard, and giving up a Brandon Jennings three-pointer to send the game to overtime.
Suddenly, the Jazz have lost four of their past five games, the Lakers have won four of their last five, and Los Angeles finds itself just two games away from Utah for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
“It’s a little painful losing these kinds of games, especially at this time of season, but great things will happen going forward if you get the lesson now,” Corbin said. “Sometimes, lessons are painful.”
Jefferson never doubted that he would remain part of the Jazz’s learning process this season, and he was confident he wouldn’t be moved at the trade deadline. One more NBA season, one more February when Jefferson heard his name thrown around, his name intriguing teams.
“I know how to handle it, because nine out of 10 [times], nothing ever happens,” Jefferson said. “And once again, nothing happened this year either. I never think about it, never let it get to me and never listen to the media at all because of that reason.”
As he’ll enter free agency this summer, Jefferson made it clear he’s focused on closing out this season, locking up a playoff berth. Nevertheless, the Jazz were shown yet again on Monday that Favors and Kanter are the future big men up front, that they might not be inclined to re-sign Jefferson and Paul Millsap.
“I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. … I know both sides, me and Utah, are going to do what’s best,” Jefferson said. “Utah is going to do what’s best for the team and I’m going to do what’s best for my family.”
Once, Jefferson was a high schooler part of the Celtics’ infusion of youth with veterans. He lived through grueling, challenging years of growth, when experience brought maturity. Jefferson is on the other side all these years later, as a veteran leader with an imperative goal while the Lakers finally start to apply pressure: get your team to the postseason.