Al Jefferson talks as if he has played in the NBA for 20 years, as if he could tell you about his battles with Jordan in his prime or the Bad Boy Pistons or his wars in the paint with Shaq and the Lakers. Jefferson has played 10 years in the league with four teams and been the center of more than a few rebuilding projects, including his current one with the Bobcats.
So “Big Al,” despite being only 28 years old, has his share of stories. They may lack sizzle because Jefferson has played mostly on losing teams, but they are filled with passion. He hopes this latest stop in Charlotte is his last and most successful one.
He has played in 11 playoff games in 10 years, just four since his rookie season with the Celtics in 2004-05. Jefferson is hungry for team success and in the prime of his career is prepared for the responsibility of carrying Charlotte back to respectability.
Yet each time he returns to Boston, Jefferson addresses the bad ol’ days, when he was part of the Celtics’ youthful core with Gerald Green, Kendrick Perkins, and Sebastian Telfair. Team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge ditched rebuilding through the draft and moved Jefferson, Green, Ryan Gomes, Theo Ratliff, Telfair and two first-round picks to the Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett.
The deal turned out well for the Celtics. For Jefferson, he toiled in Minnesota for three years before being dealt to Utah.
“This is kind of the way we were rebuilding when I first got here,” Jefferson said about the current Celtics. “Every team has to rebuild and it was time for the Celtics to do it. It looks like they did a good job with it, they’re playing well right now.”
When asked about his experience with the 2006-07 Celtics, Jefferson said: “Aww, man, I try to forget about it. It was a rebuilding year. That’s all I can say. It was a lot of long nights but the frustrating part about it was we used to lose a lot of games but we lost in the last two or three [minutes] of the fourth [quarter]. That’s what was so frustrating about it. We played hard every game. That’s one thing that I could say.”
That Celtics team went 24-58, the second-fewest wins in the league. Many Celtics fans were hoping to tank the season and have a shot at either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant in the draft. Jefferson heard the same voices.
“Yeah I heard that, that’s why I have no comment on it,” he said. “But I know professional guys don’t go out and play to lose. I know that for a fact. Everybody wants to win.”
Jefferson has become the central figure on the Bobcats. Recent draftees Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist have had moderate success, and the club drafted Cody Zeller and added Jefferson as the first major free agent of the Michael Jordan era on a three-year, $41 million deal.
“I have been playing that role since I left Boston,” Jefferson said. “Minnesota was rough. Utah, I had a little success and that’s what got me here. I like my team. We’ve got a great group of guys, guys who have been going through some trials and tribulations themselves the last couple of years. I want to help turn this thing around and I think the coaching staff is amazing and I think we have a chance to do that.”
There were questions as to whether a franchise such as Charlotte, with such little history and success, would be able to attract a premium free agent. Jefferson, who has averaged 16.4 points and 9 rebounds in his career, answered that.
“First of all they were attracted to me, they wanted me to be part of their family,” he said. “For the record, being a free agent is not fun. It’s nothing like I thought it would be. Charlotte was the team who showed interest in me. To me, that’s all I needed with the coaching staff, [coach Steve Clifford], Patrick Ewing, Mark Price, Kemba Walker, [Kidd-Gilchrist]. To me, that’s where I wanted to be and I made a decision.”
And this time, Jefferson feels at home, hoping this is more than a temporary stay.
“I could see [finishing my career] here because they’re headed in the right direction,” he said. “And they wanted me to be a part of it.”
AN ORLANDO ATTRACTION
Kyle O’Quinn makes big step from small stage
Kyle O’Quinn was thrust onto the basketball landscape in March 2012 when he scored 26 points with 14 rebounds for Norfolk State in its upset of second-seeded Missouri in the NCAA Tournament. The bearded big man growled after each basket, then celebrated after the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference representative upset a Tigers team that was a popular pick to reach the Final Four.
That game was critical to O’Quinn becoming a second-round draft pick of the Magic because he played in near anonymity in college. Prospects from smaller schools don’t get the exposure of their counterparts from larger colleges with television contracts.
MEAC games were rarely televised, so O’Quinn increased his marketability during the NCAA Tournament and also with a good showing at the Portsmouth Invitational.
He worked his way up from a little-used freshman at Norfolk State to perhaps having one chance — that game against Missouri — to prove he was NBA-worthy. That game is cemented in O’Quinn’s mind.
“It did a lot for my career; it was a good jump-start,” he said. “For me to go in to show teams what I can do, it gave them a first look on a national level — ‘This is what we’ve been reading, we’ve just seen him do it.’ It got me more invites to workouts and more opportunities to show what I can do.”
Of the 11 players drafted after O’Quinn in 2012, just two – Tornike Shengelia of Brooklyn and Robert Sacre of the Lakers — remain in the NBA. O’Quinn has played the fifth-most minutes of any second-rounder from 2012 and has played more minutes than 12 first-rounders.
O’Quinn appeared in 57 games as a rookie, making five starts, and averaged 4.1 points and 3.7 rebounds in 11.2 minutes. This year he’s averaging 5.3 points and 4.3 boards as a backup center, and is getting 13.4 minutes per game.
“Sometimes when you sit back and really look at the big picture, you’re like, man, it’s an amazing opportunity and truly a blessing,” said O’Quinn. “It’s a full-time job so you really can’t think about all the things you did to get here. You’ve got to handle what’s in front of you and me being here in Orlando gives me a tremendous opportunity to fulfill my dream.”
NBA scouts will go anywhere to fish out talent but players from underexposed conferences constantly deal with limited opportunities and the perception that they are flourishing against lesser competition.
The MEAC is a competitive conference that has produced such players as Rick Mahorn, Mitchell Wiggins, Jerome James, and Clemon Johnson, but O’Quinn is the only active NBA player from that conference and the first since Hampton’s Devin Green played 27 games for the Lakers in 2005-06.
“That’s what you know going in [the limited exposure] so freshman year your first TV game, you’re geared about it,” he said. “So not too much is going to change by your senior year, one or two games on TV so you just want to take advantage of it every opportunity you can. When you play a big school, you want to come to play every day. You want to get your team a win and every chance you get you’ve got to put out.”
O’Quinn said the MEAC is filled with talented players and teams such as Hampton, South Carolina State, Coppin State, and Morgan State. MEAC programs have a history of giving high-profile schools a lot to handle in the NCAA Tournament.
“There’s definitely some ballplayers there but with the lack of television, it’s everything a big school isn’t,” he said. “It’s tough for guys to adjust to that. It might be smaller than your high school, not as many resources as the big schools, it’s kind of tough for guys to cope with it for four years but the talent is there.”
The transition to the NBA was a pleasant one for O’Quinn but a shocking one, too.
“You’re grateful for everything, getting into hotels and having Gatorade waiting on you,” he said with a bright smile. “Any MEAC player will know what I’m talking about. It’s just an eye-opening experience and you don’t want it to stop.”
Ray Allen had exit strategy
Ray Allen said last week that he had not spoken with Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett since leaving the Celtics in July 2012, and his departure and the circumstances surrounding it are still bothersome to Allen, who believes he was unfairly treated for leaving for a better situation.
Pierce and Garnett were traded to the Nets last offseason only after Garnett waived his no-trade clause, a sign to Allen that Garnett wanted to leave Boston. Meanwhile, Doc Rivers is coaching the Clippers partly because he wanted no part of a Celtics’ rebuilding plan. Allen talked about having the power to determine his fate before the Celtics did.
“That’s what we deal with in sports. You see teams, once [players] retire, get traded, injuries happen. You hope to bridge the gap from one generation of players to the next but it happens,” he said. “One thing that us as players, we have a very short-lived career and the organizations, they’ll find a way to build back to the promised land. For us, we came there and we had a great five years but it comes a time where the team decides it has to move on.”
Allen said he carries fond memories of his time with the Celtics but is detached because of all the recent changes.
“But what’s interesting is now the memory I have, we played Brooklyn three times already and now I’ve seen Doc last game and now to see the Boston team, even though a lot of the players are gone,” he said. “The strength coach is still the same, the training staff is still the same, so the skeleton of the team is still there so that’s the thing about sports, you stay around long enough, you see people come and go.”
Allen said the fact that the Big Three continued to flourish into their late 30s forced the organization to make a tough decision because a major drop-off wasn’t apparent.
“The bad thing probably for the team was that we played so long. Being able to stay healthy and still be able to contribute and play at a high level,” Allen said. “The team at some point had to decide while we’re good and the players still have worth, we’ve got to try and still do something moving forward and build for our next 10 years.”
Rarely does a player have control of their fate so late in their career. Aging athletes are generally fishing for one final contract, hoping for phone calls for 1o-day contracts, so Allen has little regret about ending his career on his terms.
The Celtics’ Jan. 21 game at Miami will be a “nickname” game, meaning the players will feature nicknames on the backs of the jerseys, similar to how the American Basketball Association featured players in the 1970s. It will be interesting to see which Celtics players decide to use nicknames, and what the nicknames will be . . . The Magic fined Glen “Big Baby” Davis an undisclosed amount for his actions at an Orlando-area motel last week when he yanked the computer keyboard from the front desk and flung in into the lobby when he was denied check-in. Davis, who has not played this season because of a fractured right foot, has an uncertain role when he returns, given Orlando signed Jason Maxiell in the offseason. Davis assumed a leadership role last year and appeared to be over his bouts with immaturity. It is uncertain whether his recent actions would damage his trade value for the rebuilding Magic. Davis has two more years on his contract at $13 million and could be a good fit for a contending team looking for a rugged interior player . . . Greg Oden has yet to be active for a game this season as the Heat are being very cautious with the health of the big man. They are essentially saving Oden for the second half of the season and postseason, hoping he can provide some resistance to Indiana’s Roy Hibbert in the paint. Oden is never going to regain his Ohio State form after having multiple knee surgeries but could help Miami in short minutes . . . The Hawks, who are in rebuilding mode and trying to assess their young talent, sent former Mavericks first-round pick Jared Cunningham to the NBADL. The former Oregon State guard is one of a slew of players who left school prematurely and are now trying to find a role for an NBA team. Another player in that situation, Malcolm Lee, is a free agent after being waived by the Wizards.