In what could be his final NBA stop, Richard Jefferson understands he’s in Denver more for his leadership.
The years of catching alley-oops or driving baseline for one-handed jams are done, replaced by being a veteran sage in the Nuggets’ locker room. The 37-year-old Jefferson looks like he could give the Nuggets some quality minutes, but he’s played in just eight games this season. He sees the end but he’s choosing to enjoy every last bit of the journey.
He won a championship with the Cavaliers in 2015-16, and helped Cleveland reach another NBA Finals last season. But the Cavaliers’ roster was loaded with veterans after they picked up Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Isaiah Thomas, and Jae Crowder, so Jefferson was jettisoned. He eventually signed with the Nuggets, a team hungry for playoff success and in desperate need of leadership.
Jefferson has accepted his role with no complaints. He is one of six players still active from his 2001 NBA Draft class, and he is proud of his career and longevity.
“I think we really have young players that want to do well and excel in this league, if anything I’m more of a confirmation voice that they’re working as hard as they should and they’re playing as hard as they should,” Jefferson said. “After you hit about 10 years in this league you start to experience the [age difference] because guys that are 19 were 9 when you came into this league. The first time I heard that was Year 9 or Year 10, and it’s something that you get used to.
“People want to make it seem like old jokes, but at the end of the day I pray that everyone in this league gets to 17 years. I pray that every one of these guys gets an opportunity to play well past their prime. That’s a compliment to work ethic and health. As much as there’s jokes, there needs to be compliments said about guys that have the ability to stay around.”
Jefferson understood the business side involved in his exit from Cleveland. Because of his contract, Channing Frye remained even though Jefferson might have been of more use because of his versatility.
“I don’t get sentimental,” Jefferson said. “You might want to be in a situation, but this is professional sports. You had great times, great relationships, but more than anything you just enjoy the moment. But even when you’re in the moment you just realize that it doesn’t last forever. You can’t allow feelings and emotions to get involved. There’s not longevity in that.”
Jefferson reached two NBA Finals with the Nets and has averaged 10.8 points in 140 playoff games.
“I’ve been a part of some very, very close-knit teams,” he said. “Obviously toward the end of my career, pretty much at the end of it, [the Cavaliers were] the most recent [special time] and the time I remember most because it was toward the end.”
Late-30-somethings aren’t common in the NBA, and Jefferson understands he may be aged out because of the infusion of young talent.
If this is the end, Jefferson made the most of his talent. He was a solid, productive small forward and made major contributions to the Cavaliers’ title team, averaging 18 minutes per game during the playoffs as a 35-year-old. He’s had a standout career in a league that tends to discard aging players, regardless of production.
“It could be a combination of a lot of things, how your body feels, if people are still calling and asking,” he said. “If the right team or the right situation doesn’t want me, then I have kids and I don’t want to uproot my family to go play in a city I don’t want to be in just to continue this dream. At some point you have to say goodbye.”
Bryant reflects on his career
Before both of his numbers — 8 and 24 — were retired by the Lakers at halftime of last Monday’s game against the Warriors, Kobe Bryant talked for nearly 20 minutes about his career and his future goals.
Q: Did you understand the effect you had on the city of Los Angeles after a 20-year career after seeing the support you’re receiving today from the fans?
A: “Growing up, I just wanted to play basketball. I wanted to win championships. I wanted to be regarded as one of the greats. All of the stuff that was very internally driven, individually driven. As I get older and I sit here now, I’ve come to realize that it’s really not about those things. It’s how well you can impact others. Through your actions, through your behavior, through your commitment to the game, how can that inspire people? That is the connection that we have. That’s the reaction you’re seeing.”
Q: What is life after basketball like?
A: “Basketball, I was born to play, but the second phase took a lot of work, a lot of soul searching, a lot of investigating, trying things out. But when you find what it is that you love to do, then you wake up every morning with a sense of purpose. So, my life has been great.”
Q: Can you discuss the impact of the 1996 draft class?
A: “When we came in we were the draft that was full of a bunch of misfits. We were everything that was wrong with the game. [Allen] Iverson, he does not fit the mold. He is not marketable. But inside of us we just had a passion to play. Ray [Allen], Steve [Nash], a passion for the game, that superseded everything. And so eventually things balanced out and the fans began to see us for who we were. A.I. and I definitely had an impact on culture.”
Q: Do you have any compassion for the Lakers players that have to follow your legacy?
A: “It’s a challenge, but isn’t that what we’re here for? For players, they just looked at it day by day, that’s all. How can I get better today? You look at it in incremental steps and when you do that, you wind up forging your own legacy that you’ll look back years from now and everybody will look and marvel at. But it’s [the media’s] job to look at the macro vision of it. It’s the players’ job to look at the micro vision to get there.”
Q: Which number would you choose if you had to, 8 or 24?
A: “8 has something that 24 will never ever, ever have, and that’s the ability to grow hair. It’s tough. 24 was more challenging and I tend to gravitate toward things that are harder to do. And physically, it was really, really hard to get up night in and night out, it was a grind, taking on the Boston Celtics, having a bone fragment in my foot during that series, having a broken finger. Muscling through that back half of the career, some of the toughest stretches of basketball ever. I guess if you force me to pick one, I’d probably go with 24 because of that.”
JAZZ FOUND A GEM
Mitchell unlike other rookies
Rookie guard Donovan Mitchell has kept the Jazz competitive despite Utah losing Gordon Hayward to the Celtics. Mitchell was the 13th overall pick and much less heralded than some other first-round selections.
Mitchell, 21, entered Friday leading all rookies at 17.7 points per game, just ahead of the Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma (17.4) and 76ers’ Ben Simmons (17.3).
The Jazz are in the hunt for a postseason spot despite injuries to Rudy Gobert, Joe Johnson, and Derrick Favors. Hayward’s departure in free agency hurt the organization, and Jazz players and coaches were reluctant to discuss the topic during their visit to Boston on Dec. 15, but Utah has remained relevant.
“I think Donovan’s play has been really independent of Gordon,” coach Quin Snyder said. “We don’t have Donovan try to replace something as much as we want Donovan to do what he can do. It happens to be that some of the things that he’s doing, the team needs.”
Mitchell plays with uncanny confidence for a rookie. He plays as if he’s been in the league for years and he has enough faith in his game to challenge veterans. He canned two 3-pointers to seal the win against the Celtics, then drew the praises of LeBron James with his performance against the Cavaliers the next night.
“His ability to create offense for himself ends up with him creating for other people. I think he’s improving,” Snyder said. “If you look at his ability to finish, he’s added different things. His ability to pass out of pick-and-rolls and to make reads. Some of those things he’s thrown in there and a lot of those things you only learn through experience. It’s hard to practice that. The combination of practicing, then playing, then watching, I think really has accelerated and given him a chance to improve quickly.”
What perhaps separates Mitchell from other rookies is his preparation. He has already embraced studying video of himself and his opponents. Young players are usually slow to embrace film study.
“He started watching film in summer league, which is really unique,” Snyder said. “He was carrying around his computer, watching summer league games. It’s something that he takes a lot of pride in, that’s a credit to him. He’s thirsty in that sense.”
Said Gobert of Mitchell: “He’s not scared of anything for a rookie. That’s the thing that really impresses me about him. He’s not scared of the moment. He’s been getting better. He’s been learning from his mistakes and watching film after every game, and it’s fun to watch.”
Gobert has been out most of the past two months with separate knee issues, but he is the central figure of the Jazz with Hayward gone. Gobert didn’t take Hayward’s departure well, but he did text Hayward well wishes after his former teammate broke his tibia and dislocated his ankle on opening night.
At age 25, Gobert is one of the best defensive centers in the league and a franchise cornerstone.
“I just focus on the same things I do, they don’t change,” he said. “I focus on winning. As you grow, you learn. There’s always some players that are going to leave, some players that are going to stay. It’s the NBA. Just keep doing what you do and keep getting better.”
The Jazz entered Friday one game out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, with Gobert expected to return in a few weeks.
“Our mentality is the game,” he said. “We’re a defensive team and that’s what we were last year. Our philosophy is defense. Our goal is to be one of the best teams in the West and keep getting better. I wouldn’t say we are satisfied with the way we started the season. There is some good and some bad, and we feel like we can do a much better job.
“We’re definitely trying to win some games. We’ve always been an unselfish team, a group of guys that share the ball, that play defense. Even though Gordon is a very good player, we didn’t change when he left.”
Tracing French connection
Rudy Gobert is one of a handful of French players in the NBA. On Thursday, Celtic Guerschon Yabusele matched up with another rookie from France, Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina.
Ntilikina was drafted eighth overall, one spot ahead of Dennis Smith Jr., a more hyped point guard who was taken by the Mavericks. LeBron James criticized the Knicks for not taking Smith. The 19-year-old Ntilikina, who played professionally in France, has shown steady improvement. He hit two clutch 3-pointers Thursday against the Celtics and played strong defense against Kyrie Irving, catching Irving’s attention.
“A never-back-down attitude, just able to play in those big-time moments,” Irving said of what he looks for in rookies. “Able to manage the game like he did down the stretch and run the offense for [coach Jeff] Hornacek and defensively be a presence. [Ntilikina] did all those things, and when you’re able to do that, especially coming from playing high level overseas and coming over here and making the adjustments, all the credit goes to the hard work that he puts in.
“So as a rookie, you just want to hold your ground. You’ll continue to get better.”
Gobert said Tony Parker is considered the father of the French connection to the NBA. The considerable talent to come stateside includes Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw, former Celtic Mickael Pietrus, and Ian Mahinmi.
“There’s always some players coming up,” Gobert said. “A lot of times, I don’t have time to follow up on all of them, they’re already in the NBA. So there’s always some good talent. I think the guys that really helped are Tony Parker and Boris. They gave us a bit of credibility and now scouts all over the world realized there was so much talent. It’s great for France and all the other countries.”
Isaiah Thomas practiced with the Cavaliers’ G-League affiliate in Canton, Ohio, and then participated in warm-ups before Cleveland hosted the Bulls on Thursday. It’s almost a certainty that Thomas will be available when the Cavaliers make their first visit to Boston on Jan. 3, a return game for Thomas and Jae Crowder. The extent of Thomas’s hip injury forced the Celtics to sweeten the deal for Irving because of the Cavaliers’ fear that Thomas could miss most of the season. Thomas reassured everyone that the injury was not season-threatening. He has been cleared for five-on-five work . . . The Basketball Hall of Fame has shortened the waiting period for eligibility from five years to three, which makes it the shortest wait period of any major professional sports hall of fame. New to the ballot this year are Jason Kidd, Grant Hill, and Steve Nash, which could make for an illustrious class. Perhaps one reason for the eligibility change was the considerable gaps between stellar classes. Last year’s crop was highlighted by Tracy McGrady, who was the lone recently retired NBA player inducted. The Hall knows it will draw more attention and coverage with star-studded classes . . . The Bucks assigned former second overall pick Jabari Parker to their G-League affiliate as he gets closer to a midseason return. Offseason acquisition Zach LaVine is getting closer to joining the Bulls as they make an improbable playoff push. What Parker and LaVine have in common is they are both restricted free agents next summer and could garner major offer sheets if they finish strong. Parker is coming back from a second ACL tear in his left knee (Kenyon Martin is the most notable player to return from multiple ACL tears in the same knee). If Parker can push the Bucks to an East contender, he will also enhance his market value. LaVine was a freakish athlete before his ACL injury and should have no trouble regaining that form.