Is this what the career of Al Jefferson, who was once regarded as the league's brightest low-post talents, had come to? Al Jefferson needs a private lesson on low-post moves and footwork from Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis?
"Yeah, actually, I do," Jefferson says. "[Rambis] was showing me how to throw the ball back out and re-post, and how to go quick so I can move away from the double-teams. I need it because right now a million things are going through my head on those double-teams."
"Al wants to learn, wants to be good," Rambis says. "All the great players are constantly trying to improve their game. In the past, all he had to worry about was scoring. Now he has to worry about focusing on executing the offense I've put in, where he is supposed to be on certain sequences. Then you throw in the defense and the rebounding -- most of the time, he is the backstop of our defense, so he has to do a good job of communicating and supporting and stopping penetration.
"That's a lot of new things I'm asking him to learn. It requires new skills and a new way to play. It is mentally taxing until it becomes part of his muscle memory and he doesn't have to think about it."
Before being felled by a torn ACL last February, the 24-year-old Jefferson ranked seventh in points, sixth in rebounds, and -- in the eyes of many -- first among players unfairly excluded from the 2009 All-Star Game. Adding to the incongruity of Rambis serving as Jefferson's dance teacher in the paint is that Rambis' immediate predecessor as Minnesota's coach was Kevin McHale, perhaps the savviest low-post tactician in NBA history. Big Mac openly admired Big Al's footwork and intuitive wiles down near the hoop, and recognized a kindred spirit in the way Jefferson approached the game.
When he traded Kevin Garnett before the 2007-08 season, McHale defended signing Jefferson to a five-year, $65-million contract by claiming that the big man would some day be a perennial All-Star, and that feeds to Jefferson in the low left block would become the signature play of the Wolves offense.
But when McHale was fired last summer, Jefferson's role with the team took a sharp turn, and his disappointment was buttressed by the hiring of Rambis, a proponent of the triangle offense -- a disciplined, read-and-react scheme that favors the mobile Jordans and Kobes, but not the ball-hogging Jeffersons on the low block.
One major difference between this season and the previous two is Jefferson's lack of ball dominance with Rambis as coach. As a player, McHale used to revel in taking opponents into what he called "the torture chamber," using his seemingly endless array of moves to frustrate defenders in the low post. His sets were designed to allow Jefferson similar time and freedom to operate. But the ball and player movement is much more constant under Rambis' triangle system, and passes to open teammates in response to double-teams is demanded.
But the first few months under the new regime were a sobering trial. Bent on maximizing space under the salary cap, president of basketball operations David Kahn pared the roster down to a handful of holdovers. Then the learning -- and unlearning -- began in earnest.
"When we first started training camp, Al was running to the left block every time," says forward Ryan Gomes, who came over with Jefferson from Boston in the Garnett trade. "He was accustomed to thinking, 'This is the block I like and I showed everyone I can score here.' But coach was telling him to run to the middle of the floor and then find the ball. This year we have other options. That's good because last year the double-team was coming even before Al got the ball."
Just before the season started, fellow big man Kevin Love, whose skill set is better suited to the vagaries of the triangle, was shelved for the first five weeks with a broken hand. Meanwhile, Jefferson's surgically repaired knee was much more painful and less flexible than he had anticipated. After eking out a last-second victory over New Jersey in the home-opener, the Wolves dropped their next 15 games -- 11 of them by double-digit margins. Mentally and physically, Jefferson seemed confused and cautious on the court, and angry and frustrated during timeouts.
"I'm not going to lie: There were times in October and November where I was going, 'Why the hell are we running this offense?'" Jefferson says. "There were nights where I wanted to say this offense is not getting me my shots. But then I'd look at the stat sheet and see I'd gotten 14, 15 shots and I just wasn't making them. So, I want to blame the offense, but I can't. I've got to be a man about that."
After a month's experience and the return of Love, both Jefferson and the Wolves markedly improved in December, so the harshest growing pains may be past. In the 10 games from Dec. 9 through 26, (the Wolves went 4-6), Jefferson posted 10.2 rebounds and 19.9 points per game on 51.9 percent shooting, very close to his vintage numbers of the past two years. But after scoring a season-high 27 in a win over New Jersey last week, Jefferson struggled in the next game against the Wizards, hitting just four of 13 shots. He compensated, however, with a season-high five assists as the Wolves registered back-to-back wins for the first time this season.
"Al did a good job of readjusting," Rambis said after the 101-89 win over the Wizards. "He was catching the ball too far away from the basket early and settling for jump shots and I encouraged him. I insisted strongly that he make better decisions on where he received the basketball. And he began doing a better job."
But enhancing his quickness hasn't come easy for Jefferson, who is still bothered by his knee. Just as trusting in Rambis' system has taken time, so has trusting in his rehabilitated joint, which Jefferson admitted was sore against Washington.
To ease the stress on his knee, and to better prepare for what Kahn promised would be a much more up-tempo style, Jefferson lost 30 pounds during the offseason. And with a little browbeating from Rambis, Jefferson's agility on defense has seen improvement, though it's still lacking in critical areas. His blocks are about the same as in previous years, but more subtle aspects -- such as his alert interior rotations from weak side to strong side and his diligence at stopping penetration in general -- are crucial to better team defense.
"Good teams have a guy at the five spot who is like the captain of the defense," he says. "I've been trying to get better and I think I am better. Kurt is one of those guys, if you're not doing it right, he doesn't care who you are, he's going to let you know and call you out. And I hate to be pointed out."
Add in a nearly doubling of his assists-per-game rate (2.0, versus a career 1.1 average) and a slight dip in turnovers compared to the previous two seasons, and it's clear Jefferson is serious. And as the most challenging part of his career comes to a close, Jefferson deserves recognition for the silent grind, for his persistence and eagerness to adapt.
"Last year it was all about Al getting the ball in the low block," he says. "I've been 'The Man' before, but we've won 24 and 22 games the past two years. Losing has been happening for a long time, and winning teams have more than one scorer. I like to see guys getting better and trusting themselves. I like to see guys trusting me, and I like trusting my teammates. We need to keep it going and trust that Kahn and Kurt didn't come here to put up with another three years of losing. Believe me, that losing is already old."