Years pro: 13
Status: Has two years remaining on his contract, with the second a team option.
Key stats: Played in 66 games, starting one, and averaged 8.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in 14.1 minutes per game.
Al Jefferson seemed a contradiction when he signed with the Pacers last summer, a sluggish but savvy low-post veteran hooking up with a team planning to play faster.
How did it work out? That’s a tough one. Although viewed by some as a flop because of the way his season ended — he didn’t play in the final nine regular season games or four playoff games — he contributed more than many fans might remember. He just didn’t play often enough to contribute as much as people expected.
In many ways, Jefferson’s career came full circle last season. His production and playing time were similar to his rookie season with Boston, back in the 2004-05 season, so long ago his teammates included the likes of Gary Payton and Tom Gugliotta. But averaging 6.7 points and 4.4 rebounds in 14.8 minutes while starting one game as a kid fresh out of high school casts a different image than averaging 8.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in 14.1 minutes and starting one game as a 32-year-old battling the bulge.
Gallery: Jefferson’s 2016-17 Season in Photos »
Jefferson has one guaranteed season left on his contract, and another one at a team option. He’ll need to do a better job controlling his weight, which was listed at 289 last season, to maintain his role as a backup center. Like Monta Ellis, he entered the NBA out of high school, so, while he’s only 32, he’s a high-mileage vehicle who needs increasing maintenance to stay on the road.
He said at his introductory press conference he wanted to get down to 275 last season, but if it happened at all it didn’t happen for long. He struggled to get through pre-season conditioning and was listed at 289 in the media guide.
Jefferson, though, doesn’t rely on athleticism as much as most NBA players, which offers hope for productive seasons if he can rededicate himself to conditioning. He’s one of the most skilled post-up players in league history, able to score on nearly anyone at any time, and brings versatility to the Pacers’ offense. He might not be the weapon of choice against certain opponents, but he offers an effective off-speed pitch against others.
As teams play smaller and centers move farther from the basket, finding capable defenders for a player such as Jefferson becomes more difficult. He can take advantage of that, if he can stay on the court.
“I feel like I’m rare,” he said last summer. “Most times teams don’t know how to defend a guy like me. It’s not like it was when I first got in the league and you had a power forward and a center and both guys posted. Now you have to come up with a game plan to stop it.”
2016-17 Player Reviews: More Reviews, Highlights, and Photos »
Not many did. Despite averaging the fewest minutes of his career, he had several productive games. He scored in double figures 24 times and led the team in rebounding six times. He scored 20 points in 16 ½ minutes at Sacramento on Jan. 18, then came back two nights later to score another 20 against the Lakers, all in a 12 ½ minute stretch from late in the first quarter to late in the second.
He also scored 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting in 15 ½ minutes at New York and 18 points on 9-of-12 shooting in 20 minutes at Philadelphia, among other efficient and meaningful performances.
Contrary to the impression of many, Jefferson was one of the most productive offensive players the Pacers had last season. His per-minute production rating (PER) of 18.9 trailed only Paul George and Jeff Teague, and was well above the league average of 15. His scoring average of 28.8 points per 100 possessions was second only to George.
But, after suffering a badly sprained ankle against Philadelphia on March 26 — a game in which he had accumulated 14 points and seven rebounds in 10 ½ minutes — he was done for the season. He was on the playoff roster, and his ankle appeared healthy enough for to play, but he was left on the bench. It left a poor last impression and made some people forget the season’s bigger picture.
Jefferson can contribute more next season, and even the one after that, if he’s in shape and injury free. He can provide an added bonus as well. He talked of working with Myles Turner on post-up scoring before the season began, calling mentoring younger players “part of my DNA.” He rarely did, however, and said during the season that was a task better delayed until the off-season.
Add that to his to-do list.
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