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Al Jefferson Chases The Money Into The Playoffs

When Al Jefferson signed a three-year, $40.5 million contract with the Charlotte Bobcats last offseason, everyone figured he was simply following the money with his third and potentially final big NBA contract. It was obvious to anyone that Jefferson was signing with whomever paid him the most, especially with the Bobcats having gone a combined 28-120 record over the past two seasons.

Even though Jefferson was snubbed of an All-Star berth, he has certainly been worth the contract individually and in making the Bobcats a playoff team. After starting the season rocky—missing nine of the first 12 games thanks to a severely sprained ankle—Jefferson has averaged 21.7 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 blocks in 68 games this season.

While the Bobcats score an average of 96.7 points per game this season, Jefferson accounts for 22 percent of those teams’ points—almost a quarter of their total points. 

Jefferson runs 52.3 percent of his offensive plays via his bread and butter post-up moves. His skilled footwork and touch around the basket enable him to score effectively and with ease. He shoots at a 50.3 percent field goal clip when relying on his post-up and converts at a highly efficient 0.96 PPP rate per Synergy Sports. It doesn’t take too much game tape footage of Jefferson to realize he is one of the most underrated centers in the game.

After winning a 96-94 overtime thriller over Cleveland—squandering any little playoff hopes the Cavs had—Charlotte is fresh off clinching a playoff berth for the second time in their brief franchise history.

“I thought this could happen for us if we worked for it,” Jefferson told the Associated Press. “I couldn’t tell you when I signed that we were going to be here in a playoff run, but I knew that if we locked into what coach wanted us to do and committed and dedicated ourselves to this team, that we were going to have a chance.”

Charlotte currently sits as the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference with a 39-38 record with five games left and one game back of Washington for the 6th seed. Steve Clifford has been instrumental in changing the culture of the Bobcats franchise. With a defense first approach, the Bobcats rank six in points allowed per possession.

Coming full circle back to Jefferson, he has never been someone that scouts and analysts have dubbed as even having much of a defensive presence throughout his career. Clifford recognized that Jefferson was never an elite defensive clog hence focusing the teams’ defense on protecting the interior, relying on scramble zone rotations to force extra passes which increased the opponents’ chances of turnovers. With young athletic swingmen in Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and even Gerald Henderson, it allowed Clifford to have them scramble all around the court to help on defense easier.

Bleacher Report featured columnist—Dylan Murphy—describes the effect that this sort of defensive scheme has on Jefferson best.

“While this puts a lot of pressure on the guards, it does a great job of utilizing Jefferson’s lone defensive advantage: his strength. By shrinking the court and allowing the guards to handle the perimeter, Jefferson only has to concern himself with battling bigs down low.”

Recently, the Bobcats' PR team put together a website to campaign for Jefferson’s All-NBA Team bid. Not at all misleading since Jefferson akes 59.6 percent of his shots within the paint and converts 59.2 percent of those shots. A pretty creative campaign put together for a small market team that falls to generate much buzz around the league.

Fresh off winning the Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Jefferson sees big things coming for the Bobcats not only during these upcoming playoffs, but also when the team officially changes to the Hornets.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Jefferson tells the Boston Herald. “But we can be one of the elite teams in the East.”

Searching For Journeymen

The Philadelphia 76ers have scoured the far edges of the NBA universe to find potential where others have only found disappointment. It’s been a running gag all season with this team. The D-League Sixers. Thaddeus Young putting his arm around a young referee pointing out to him who all of the players are perfectly encapsulates the rotating door that has been the team’s roster all year. But amidst the D-League hopefuls and marginal talent, a few players have proven themselves as NBA caliber, and deserve to have roster spots either with the Sixers or with another franchise.

Henry Sims

Who Henry Sims is: A midseason acquisition as part of the Spencer Hawes' trade with Cleveland (initially considered a throw-in), Sims went undrafted in 2012 after four seasons at Georgetown (Sam Hinkie must have an affinity for Hoyas, more on this later). He’s bounced around various D-League and Summer League squads, as well as spent some time playing for the Petron Blaze Boosters of the Philippines. 

What He Brings: When your frontcourt consists of players such as Hawes and Byron Mullens, it’s safe to say that you are lacking in muscle. Sims is big (6’10’’, 248lbs), strong, and more skilled than anyone realizes. The best part of his game however, is that he is hungry on defense.  Sims was able to come in and quickly establish himself as the team’s starting center. His verbosity on defense has won over coach Brett Brown, who has been desperate to find someone who can be a presence on the interior for this team. Since joining the team on February 20th, he has posted four double-doubles, had a 24 point, nine rebound performance against Boston where he shot 18 free throws (a career high), and was instrumental in the team’s two recent victories (for a team that has 17 wins on the season, that’s a big deal). 

What He Needs to Work on and into the Future: Sims can be a bit undersized at the center position (a recent manhandling by Charlotte’s Al Jefferson demonstrated that), and he doesn’t possess great length. He also would never be referred to as a leaper. Continuing to develop his strength should be a priority. He just turned 24, so some potential is still there. If he continues his productive play and demonstrates the kind of character that Brown and Hinkie so cherish, he should keep a spot on this team’s roster, perhaps a long term piece as Nerlens Noel’s backup. If his baseline and free throw jumper continue to improve, he could be utilized at power forward against big lineups, along with Noel.

Hollis Thompson

Who Hollis Thompson is:  Hinkie probably has a giant bulletin board with pictures of all players and staff, mapping their entire basketball careers and paying special attention to any potential intersections, similar to a television detective piecing together a case. Thompson is also a Georgetown product, and a former teammate of Henry Sims. Coincidence? Doubtful. Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel played on the same AAU basketball team when they were in high school, BABC Boston. Carter-Williams, Noel, and Brett Brown are all from the Boston area. Hinkie is looking for synergy, and Thompson might just fit the bill.  Also undrafted in 2012, Hollis played for the Spurs Summer League squad (Brown’s former team) in 2013 before landing a deal with the Sixers.

What He Brings: An athletic specimen at 6’8’’ and only 23 years old, Hollis is capable of playing the shooting guard or small forward position. He shoots the 3-ball at a very respectable clip, just under 41%.  He is fast in transition and a good finisher on the break. His combination of speed and length give him promising defensive potential on the wing. He has been in and out of the starting lineup this year, generally rotating with another former Spur, James Anderson. He recently hit a career-high six threes against the Nets, two of which came in the guts of the game that would ultimately end in a tough fought loss. 

What He Needs to Work on and into the Future:  Thompson’s ability from long range is currently his greatest offensive strength, so he should use his shooting touch to establish a midrange game this offseason, as well as develop some signature ball handling moves to create his own shot off of isolation plays (he is mostly utilized as a spot up catch-and-shoot player, very reminiscent of Bruce Bowen standing in the corner getting ready to receive the pass). Defensively, he is long but slight.  Strength-training should be heavily emphasized this offseason if he wants to establish himself as a two-way player. Like Sims, the potential is there, but Thompson’s future with the team hinges upon this year’s draft. It’s no secret that there is another 6’8’’ wing that the Sixers are targeting.

People never hesitate to point out the detrimental effects that tanking/rebuilding has on the league, but rarely do we hear about the beneficial ones. Securing a roster spot in the NBA is incredibly difficult, with athletes playing all around the world just to get their one opportunity on the one team that has a need for the position that they play. Say what you will about the Sixers this year, but players like Sims and Thompson will likely have jobs in the NBA next year, and it can be attributed not only to their hard work, but to the exposure they’ve received with this franchise.

A Champion Is Crowned

#7 Connecticut defeated #8 Kentucky

Monday’s national title game ended with a pair of missed threes, and a rebound that careened across the court. Instead of the normal sequence of fouls and timeouts, we got an abrupt and surprisingly quick ending to a basketball game. Jim Nance barely found time to sneak in a quote about UConn winning the title for the postgame highlight reel.

And in some ways, that abrupt, quick finish was appropriate. This UConn title snuck up on us and caught us all by surprise. It is hard to call the UConn win a complete shocker. When a team had won three national titles in the previous 15 seasons, it was not quite like Butler and VCU making the same Final Four.

Moreover, when a team had guards as quick and talented as Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, out-executing a team down the stretch should not have been shocking. And yet Napier did not look like his normal comfortable self in this game. When he and Boatright dived out of bounds for a loose ball, and Napier had no one to throw it too, Napier was frustrated. When Kentucky got a bucket and foul moments later, Napier was angry with his teammates. This was not quite the normal calm and calculated late game execution you normally saw from UConn. And yet there it was, the final buzzer sounded, and the game was over. And it was hard not to play-up three storylines:

1) The downfall of youth

Connecticut was the veteran team that knew the importance of practice and making free throws. They were 10 of 10 relative to Kentucky’s 13 of 24.

Kentucky all season was like the young college student that loves to procrastinate. First, they didn’t focus enough during the season, and had to overcome an 8-seed to make the Final Four. Then they kept falling behind by double digits in every game. Metaphorically, they didn’t study for their exams until the final minute, and they bombed the final.

But that’s probably a gross simplification. What Kentucky really struggled with was adjusting to each opponent’s approach. They had the talent to compete with anyone, but it usually took them awhile to figure out where they had their strengths. On Monday, it took them awhile to figure out that the Harrison twins could not beat Napier and Boatright on penetration.

And even late in the game, they struggled to adjust. When UConn went very small and played zone with Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan in foul trouble, Kentucky didn’t have a clue how to attack that defense on the first possession. They wasted a chance to throw a simple lob to Julius Randle, and a veteran team would have seized that moment.

2) The downfall of philosophy

If Kentucky’s youth was costly on Monday, you can argue the one-and-done strategy is flawed. But I think there was another failure of the NBA development strategy too.

Anyone who watched Kentucky this year knew they struggled with pick-and-roll defense. John Calipari decided he was going to use a switching man-to-man defense this year, and it was never great. I thought from the beginning of the year that if Kentucky played zone, they would have the best chance. Passing over the top of a defense with 6’6” players up top would be virtually impossible. But playing zone doesn’t really fit with the philosophy of one-and-done players. Like the dribble-drive offense, Calipari was trying to get his team to learn how to play man-to-man defense, because that’s what the NBA wants to see. And Calipari values the NBA pipeline over everything else.

Busting out a zone defense helped a little on Monday, but according to Seth Davis, Kentucky only played zone five percent of the time this season. That simply wasn’t enough game preparation to be ready to play elite zone defense in the title game.

That said, this doesn’t prove Calipari’s philosophy of focusing on developing players for the next level is a bad one. Kentucky played for a national title. And if Julius Randle has a more typical day, or if the Wildcats made a few free throws, his strategy would have worked.

3) The downfall of arrogance and the redemption of years of practice

One of the things that amazed me heading into Monday’s title game between Kentucky and Connecticut is how many people viewed Kentucky as a huge villain. Unlike Michigan’s Fab Five, Kentucky has never really captured the nation’s imagination. And that’s surprising because these kids have done nothing to earn our hatred.  This is not a team where the players have been arrested or suspended for off-court conduct. Julius Randle is a gregarious and charismatic player on the court, and I don’t know how anyone can watch him play and wish harm upon him.

What people hate about this team is not the players, but the concept of this team. Whatever you want to say about Michigan’s Fab Five, at least they stuck around in school a little while. This group has basically announced from the start of the season that college degrees are not their long term goal.

It also hurt that they were not even remotely humble. Just like when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh announced that they were getting together to win multiple titles, John Calipari endorsed the idea that this team could go undefeated. That kind of confidence comes across as arrogance, and it turned people off from the beginning.

The good news about Final Four weekend, is that even if you get sick of all the future NBA stars, there is still an acknowledgement of something more. Saturday afternoon featured the NABC Senior Game. And if you missed it, spend a minute looking at the rosters, and you will see some of the players that symbolize college basketball. Personally, I was happy to see Indiana’s Will Sheehey, denied a post-season experience because “Indiana doesn’t play in the CBI”, play well in that game. Sheehey started the game with a three and moments later he had a brilliant drive for a basket and one. It was a more fitting end for the Hoosier senior than the first-round flame-out in the Big Ten tournament.

But in the second half of the NABC senior game, Doug Gottlieb and Steve Lappas really hit the nail on the head with their commentary. First they talked about how Pittsburgh’s Talib Zanna came from Nigeria to the US and saw snow for the first time. Then they talked about how Zanna enrolled at Pittsburgh because his dad knew a professor, not a basketball coach. They talked about how Zanna, despite being a less heralded recruit, was actually Pitt’s best post player over the last three years.

Then they talked about Rober Morris’ Karvel Anderson. Anderson went from being homeless to becoming a star college player, to becoming a man with a college degree. They talked about Weber St.’s Davion Berry becoming the first member of his family to get a college degree. Even if your stomach turns at seeing one-and-done players in the title game, Saturday was one last chance to salute the players who symbolize what college basketball is all about.

And Monday gave us that chance too. UConn senior Shabazz Napier went from apprentice to leader, and earned titles at the start and the end. He improved his efficiency and shot volume every year. He was a leader in every area of the court.

But probably the player who best exemplified college basketball was Niels Giffey. Giffey was never going to be the best player on the basketball court. He lacked the strength or quickness to be a truly dominant player. There were plenty of times during his career where I questioned why UConn kept playing him. But he honed his jump shot. After averaging just 10 threes per year as a freshman, sophomore, and junior, his coach finally saw his shot falling in practice and gave him the green light. And Giffey made 60 threes, shooting nearly 50%, as a senior. His two late threes in the national title game were daggers. In a game filled with fabulous freshmen, UConn would have never won without a hard-working senior.

And for many fans, the villain was slain.

Looking Ahead

In sports today, there is no offseason.

If you have not yet read my Way Too Early Top 25, click here.

Next week, we’ll have team coverage of the best high school all-star game of the year, the Nike Hoop Summit. And we’ll be back with coverage of the Jordan Brand Classic the week after that.

In May, I’ll be back with my Way Too Early Conference Previews. And I hope to have some other fun summer features as well. For example, I have some numbers and hope to show whether the change in the foul rules has made PGs more valuable than SGs.

And as always, RealGM will have wiretaps on all the key coaching changes, transfers, and NBA draft decisions. Even if they just cut down the nets, we’re not going anywhere.

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