It's hard to believe that most of us went into the season not knowing exactly what Al Jefferson would bring to this team. While his skill set was always abundantly clear, what we didn't know was how he would impact a team that won only 21 games the previous season. Some questioned the contract, and some questioned whether his addition would limit the franchise's ceiling and future. These criticisms weren't quelled when an injury caused Jefferson to miss nine of the first twelve games, and making a significant impact in only one of the three games he did play in.
When he returned, things started to change. In his first two weeks back from injury, Jefferson began to put up efficient scoring numbers, and his rebounds steadily increased. And while he was very good in the early months of the season, the best was yet to come. After the All-Star break, Jefferson's productivity substantially increased, becoming the monstrous Big Al that we came to know by the end of the season. Now, I don't mean to alarm you, but in the month of April, he averaged 24.5 points, 14.3 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game, with a .532 field goal percentage, with a 29.9 usage percent, all while continuing to be one of the least turnover-prone players in the league. Unsurprisingly, he was named Eastern Conference Player of the Month for April. He was also named Player of the Month in March, but his play then was merely eye-popping, rather than what was clearly the work of a deity.
Jefferson had the type of season you would expect from a center that had no apparent weaknesses. Yes, there are a couple limitations, as his three-point percentage was only .200, but he's obviously better suited to playing a high-low post game that is perfectly formatted to his abilities. (Compare this to previous Bobcats center Byron Mullens, who was the exact opposite in every possible way.) Jefferson was obviously most effective close to the rim, but he had an effective mid-range jumper too, although he had a tendency to take too many shots from only a few feet inside the arc. His offensive arsenal featured a wide array of scoring methods, with a quality push shot in addition to the effective jumper, and myriad post moves that allowed him to see way more open looks than any center in today's NBA has any business getting.
I didn't mention his rebounding as much, but: it was very, very good. His defensive rebounding percentage was 6th in the league, behind five elite rebounders, and his overall percentage is only lower because Steve Clifford had the Bobcats running a system that saw them concede their missed shots in favor of getting back defensively to prevent easy points in transition. If you're a fan of advanced stats, Jefferson was twelfth in the league in PER.
Those pre-season questions and criticisms that I listed in the first paragraph weren't uncommon before we saw what Jefferson could do. I was optimistic regarding both him and the team heading into the season, and yet he more than exceeded my expectations. Not only was he perhaps the best offensive big man in basketball, but he also provided significant contributions on the defensive end. For a team that built its game around strong defensive play, Jefferson needed to be the defensive anchor for much of the season, despite having a reputation that suggested he might not be up to the task. Thankfully, he played very well on that end as well. Jefferson finished the season ranked seventh in defensive win shares, but take that with a grain of salt, because I have absolutely no idea how it's measured, or what it is.
Jefferson not only became the focal point of a team that desperately needed one, but his play attracted the attention of fans across the league. As the Bobcats head into a big free agency year with a lot of cap space to work with, this is going to be a big deal. Jefferson's All-Star caliber season showed everyone that the Bobcats have a bright immediate future, and that's something that few others players could have brought to Charlotte.
Unfortunately, Al Jefferson is not a perfect player. As mentioned before, he does have a tendency to take too many long twos, which does have the effect of stretching the floor, and perhaps this will change with the addition of better three-point shooters to the Bobcats' backcourt. He also became a more dedicated passer this season, which perhaps caused the problem of him taking too many of those shots, which is better than if he just took a bunch of those shots all on his own. I do worry that this may have a little too much influence on Cody Zeller, however.
Rather than another improvement, Jefferson needs to stay as focused on defense next season as he was this year. While his obvious value is always going to be offensive, he is the rim protector of this defense (until he is relieved by Bismack Biyombo), and he needs to provide adequate productivity on that end as well.
It will be interesting to see how troubled Jefferson is by his recent plantar fascia injury that caused him to miss Game Four against the Heat. It is important to keep in mind that I am not a doctor, have not read any medical books, and I cannot tell you what a plantar fascia is, but if I had to guess, I don't expect this to cause him too much trouble next season, although he may be a bit behind during off-season workouts.
As we discussed in our end-of-year roundtable special, most of us here at Rufus on Fire consider Jefferson to have played the best season ever by a Charlotte Bobcat. I am one of the most, in this case. I do not think any single season by any other Bobcats player in history can match the one we just saw. In the spirit of Forrest MacNeil, I award Al Jefferson five stars. And an A+.