Big ups to Big Al: In appreciation of Al Jefferson

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Monday was a bad day. The Bobcats got blown out and LeBron James scored as many points as entire small nations.

Wednesday was a good day. The Bobcats torched the Pacers, who have the best record in the NBA, like they were an old Christmas tree.

But for Al Jefferson, on an individual level, both days were pretty good days, though he probably wouldn't think so with a loss like Monday's included.

Still, with 38 points and 19 rebounds on one night and 34 points and 8 rebounds on the next, Jefferson's last two games are just the most recent in his shellacking of most teams that must undertake the tough task of defending him.

Since the beginning of the year, Jefferson boasts the 9th-best scoring average with 24.4 points per game on 53.4 percent shooting. He also has the ninth-most 30+ points games of any player this season with 11. And he's 11th in the league in Player Efficiency Rating, a metric that rates each player's impact.

This is no All-Star snub revenge tour; It's just Al Jefferson going out and lighting a fire beneath his opponents' feet every night. For Jefferson, a consummate pro, he's just putting the Bobcats' offense on his back when they need him to.

And this season, the Bobcats are counting on Al Jefferson more than any team has ever asked of him. Jefferson has used 29.8 percent of the Bobcats' possessions when he's on the court this season, per NBA.com. Since the start of 2014, he's used 32.3 percent, the same share that LeBron James does for Miami. The biggest usage rate Jefferson had seen for a season to this point was 28.9 percent in 2008-09 for the Timberwolves.

To the untrained eye, or to willingly closed eye, this is just a new chapter in the "Jefferson Black Hole" fallacy that's been on the decline for a while. But Jefferson's game has developed more than some may think. Yes, he takes a ton of shots (about 19 a game).

However, Jefferson's become a solid passer with a good eye for cutting players. Basketball-Reference estimates that about he makes assists on about 13.4 percent of teammate field goals while he's on the floor, his career high. And his turnovers are somehow down to 6.9 percent. You can argue that that taking so many shots help cut down on his turnovers and missed shots are effectively the same thing as turnovers, but when Jefferson makes half of his shots, I think you take your lumps and let him have his shots when he plays so well.

Plus, with a supporting cast like the Bobcats, maybe letting Jefferson take so many shots is a solid offensive foundation with lacking perimeter options. From the start of the season to the end of December, the Bobcats owned the third-worst offense in the league. Since then they've moved moderately into the middle of the pack with the 20th best offense since January 1. If you prefer, I can say it's the 11th worst offense, but regardless, that's a marked improvement from where they were.

Jefferson's been the centerpiece to all this offensive improvement, though certainly not the only piece of the puzzle. Kemba Walker, outside of his recent decline after winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week, has added better outside shooting and penetration to complement Jefferson's steady post presence.

Coupled with this, the Bobcats have seen better ball movement inside and out, which can't be understated. Even when I watched Charlotte's game against the Thunder, which got out of hand late, the Bobcats were probing Oklahoma City's defense with quick passes East-to-West and North-to-South. Granted, the Thunder have a terrific defense and didn't let the Bobcats see much daylight, but it was way better than what we say towards the end of December when the Bobcats were playing pretty dreadful basketball. Walker's been dropping over 7 assists a game in his past 20 matches, which have no doubt been a result and a cause of the Bobcats' improved offensive impact with a consistently terrifying inside threat in Jefferson and better three-point scoring from Anthony Tolliver and some others.

The Bobcats are playing some real quality basketball lately. They've dropped tough games to the league's top teams but a disciplined and focused defense has recently given way to an improved Bobcats team on both sides of the floor and Al Jefferson has been the center of it (pun not initially intended, but I'm happy with it).

When Charlotte signed Jefferson last summer, I was among those initially concerned with the Bobcats suddenly shifting their sights towards the playoffs on the back of a player with a reputation of being a defensive sieve for a new coach with an eye for defensive discipline.

With the league increasingly moving away from the post players who prefer a slower pace and more towards the uptempo styles of the Heat or Spurs or Thunder, I was worried Jefferson's defense would be a major weakness at such a critical position. As point guards have become the focal points of teams' offenses with the pick and roll (Westbrook, Parker, Rose, Irving, Wall, etc) to create space and subsequent passing or scoring lanes, a mobile big man has become an important part of a defense to close down these opportunities.

But give Steve Clifford credit because he's hidden Al Jefferson's weaknesses pretty well in his defensive schemes that holds opponents to the 6th-lowest field goal percentage within a 5-foot radius of the bucket. He's still no great shotblocker and his resignation to let players score over him as he rotates without doing anything more than getting a hand up irks me, but there's not much I can say when he's helping the Bobcats' defense play so well with as many limitations that he has.

His first stint for the Bobcats left me more than unimpressed and quite a bit shocked, but Jefferson's return from a severe ankle sprain was premature and he wasn't ready. Ankle problems complicated by arthritis he's had in his ankle since he was a child kept him out of the lineup sporadically but once Jefferson became fully healthy, he showed a knack for scoring no Bobcat has ever had.

Equipped with head and ball fakes for days and a post game that no one else has, Jefferson is putting his opponents in the torture chamber. He took down Roy Hibbert, All-Star defensive stalwart and Defensive Player of the Year candidate, in the paint with a wicked drop-step and fake to start his night. He went to work fooling Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi from the post with his back to the basket or facing up. Mahinmi was noticeably embarrassed on multiple occasions by Jefferson's nimble footwork with fakes leading to spins and layups. He even sank a three-pointer to beat the shot-clock, sending the folks in the Cable Box to their feet.

These days Jefferson's style is rare. He plays almost exclusively from the left block but uses his right hand even when that puts his layups and push shots at greater risk to be blocked since using his left would let his body space his opponent more easily.

But Jefferson is nothing if not methodical from the block. His understanding of space and timing is superb in exploiting a defender's gambles, however minor. Every fake is performed with the cadence of an Oscar-winning actor and each shot is released as though tempting opponents to block it, though his footwork and savvy prevents opponents from being in the best position to do so.

With the Bobcats approaching the final leg of the playoff chase, they have good positioning to maintain their current spot or to simply skate by in the 8 seed. With crucial games against other Eastern Conference playoff teams on the horizon, Charlotte also has the opportunity to possibly move up if they play well enough.

As they continue to incorporate their new bench rotation additions of Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal to add to their scoring balance and depth, the Bobcats are comfortable knowing they have a dependable scoring machine capable of tormenting opponents with Jefferson at the helm on the left block.

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