Al Jefferson finds himself in the playoffs for the second time in this three-year tenure with the Charlotte Hornets. In his first year with the team — the 2013-14 season — Big Al averaged a double-double with 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds, and was without a doubt the best player on the team. However, the Hornets were swept by LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the first round. Last year, Big Al struggled with his stamina and health, and saw his numbers dip across the board. The Hornets ultimately finished with a 33-49 record and missed the playoffs.
But now, the Hornets are in an good position to make a deep run in the playoffs, and Jefferson's play may be as important anyone else's.
While Al Jefferson has averaged near-career lows this season, thanks to a calf injury he suffered in November that essentially halted whatever momentum he had going into it. The strained calf was followed by a arthroscopic knee surgery in late December that kept him sidelined until after the All-Star break. But he's had his share of uplifting moments.
After returning from injury, Big Al joined the bench unit, which ultimately led to the creation of "Al's Pals". Off the bench, Big Al has averaged 10.8 points in under 22 minutes per game. While those numbers don't scream at you, Big Al's offense has crucial to the Hornets' success. In fact, his production makes up for nearly a third of the bench's total output of 35.4 points since the All-Star break.
Sometimes, Jefferson also gets run with a couple of the team's starters. He'll occasionally even stay on the court as the starters return in the fourth quarter. This very thing happened last Wednesday, when the Hornets defeated the New York Knicks thanks to a burst of scoring from Jefferson in the fourth quarter. He scored the first 10 points of the quarter for the team, and eventually added four more. He finished with 24 points on the night and also had eight rebounds. There are very few teams in the NBA capable of bringing a similar scoring threat off the bench.
Defensively, the Hornets have received what they expected from the big man. There are still times he is easily targeted by the opposing team for his liability on the defensive side, however. In terms of athleticism, he doesn't quite fit the bill of the new-age center, and while he's a big body, his lack of lateral quickness works against him. Luckily, with Jefferson playing as part of the bench unit, there isn't as much worry about his defensive incapability. Also, against contrary belief, his slower style of half-court offense doesn't negatively affect the Hornets. The team is in the bottom half of the league in pace with an average of 97.73 possessions per 48 minutes, despite the large uptick in 3-point attempts and being 11th best scoring team. It's easy to tell that Big Al's offensive presence suits the Hornets at times because of the way they can play through him on the block or at the high-post.
His offense will continue to be the Hornets' x-factor heading into the playoffs. After all, bench units are a vital part of any team's success in the postseason, and Jefferson can provide that much needed spark.
At the age of 31, Big Al remains as one of the hardest post players to guard. When he starts to hit a couple of shots, he becomes lethal from 15 feet and in. This season, however, he doesn't appear to shoot in as heavy of volume as he's done in past years, which has actually been beneficial to the rest of the team in case he's having an off night. When he picks his spots, Jefferson has helped both the bench and the starters, depending on which unit he's playing with. It's also important to note that Jefferson's absence and move to the bench has been beneficial to the development of Cody Zeller as an NBA center. This gives the Hornets versatility in the starting five, while giving them a legitimate scoring threat off the bench. He even appears to have his dunking ability back:
Ummmmm how about THIS off ball action to free up Big Al. Not to mention Al moving well to get open and finish! pic.twitter.com/5LcZdm8t78— Hive Talk Live (@HiveTalkLive) February 20, 2016
In the 2014 playoffs, the Hornets fully depended on Al Jefferson, who struggled through the series with nagging injuries. Now, he holds a much different role with the team — one where his offense will be heavily relied on in key situations. He's not carrying a team, but instead serving as a nightmare for each opposing team's bench.
In bench unit situations throughout the playoffs, a significant change in a lead or deficit can be crucial towards the ending result. Therefore, Jefferson will need to provide big plays with his immaculate touch and footwork. For the season, Jefferson is averaging around 23 minutes per game, which appears to be what is expected in the playoffs. Of course, if he gets rolling, don't expect Clifford to take him out. As the offensive x-factor, expect Jefferson to have a good showing throughout the playoffs, now that he appears to be fully healthy and in great form.