The Jefferson Factor In the Eastern semifinals, the Nets' hopes of defeating Detroit rest in the hands of absurdly athletic forward Richard Jefferson

May 09, 2004

It was during a summer basketball league game in Phoenix many
years ago that Richard Jefferson's mother, Mikanese Licata, read
him her version of the riot act. Jefferson had just screwed up a
play and, in keeping with his Christian upbringing, screamed,
Fudge! "I wasn't allowed to cuss, so I was always looking for
alternatives," said Jefferson last week. "Sometimes it was freak,
and sometimes it was fudge."

But Licata thought she heard something else and let him have it.
"Richard!" she yelled in the nearly deserted gymnasium. "What did
you say?"

Jefferson looked sheepishly into the stands. "Mom, I said fudge,"
he replied. "Fudge. That's all."

Now the starting small forward for the New Jersey Nets, the
23-year-old Jefferson has added other f words to his
repertoire--as well as a jump shot, a flair for running the
offense and a pivotal role in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The least heralded of the Nets' Big Three, Jefferson splits the
difference between the no-nonsense, straight-ahead disposition of
point guard Jason Kidd and the in-your-face contrariety of power
forward Kenyon Martin. Yes, on occasion the 6'7" Jefferson
irritates opponents with his cockiness (not to mention his absurd
athleticism), but he also plays Nice Net, the one who smooths
over altercations and banters with opponents, the one who was
added to the 2004 U.S. Olympic team because his considerable
citizenship skills match his considerable basketball skills. "I
always remember what my parents taught me," says Jefferson,
smiling.

He remembers his hoop lessons, too, particularly those taught by
Kidd. During a potentially disastrous stretch from mid-March to
early April, when Kidd and Martin were sidelined by injuries for
a nine-game stretch--Martin made one appearance in that span,
coming off the bench for 12 minutes on March 31--Jefferson
carried the Nets. He averaged 24.4 points (while shooting 52.7%
from the floor), 7.5 rebounds and, most tellingly, 6.4 assists as
New Jersey went 4-5. "I had spent 2 1/2 years soaking up
basketball knowledge from Jason," says Jefferson. "I could feel
him out there with me."

The full measure of Jefferson's all-around talents will be needed
in the Nets' conference semifinal against the Detroit Pistons,
who took Game 1 on Monday night 78-56 at the Palace of Auburn
Hills, snapping a 14-game New Jersey winning streak in Eastern
playoff games that dated back to last season. Jefferson struggled
mightily, scoring only eight points on 1-of-12 shooting, while
his counterpart on the Pistons, Tayshaun Prince (15 points, 10
rebounds, five assists), seized the upper hand in their matchup,
one of three that will define what is likely to be a grueling
series.

Neither of the teams' hard-boiled floor leaders, Kidd or Chauncey
Billups, shoots well from the perimeter unless the game happens
to be on the line, while up front, hair-trigger antagonists
Martin and Rasheed Wallace shoot from the hip at all times. And
if those two confrontations are standoffs, the duel of small
forwards will go a long way toward determining whether the Nets
reach the NBA Finals for the third straight year.

Though he was outplayed in Game 1, Jefferson dominated his four
regular-season meetings with Prince (page 48). "I know Tayshaun's
game, and he knows mine," says Jefferson, who faced Prince in
their AAU days and during college. "The first thing I have to be
concerned with is that he's a long six-nine. He stays in front of
me and doesn't take many chances, but he knows he has the
Wallaces [Ben and Rasheed] to help him if he does. On offense
he's an unconventional player with unusual moves, though I've
seen most of them. He's not the guy you want to come off your
bench, because he doesn't have that energy and speed to change
the game. But he's a classic starter because he'll find a way to
get you 15 and eight. He is versatile and steady."

Those two adjectives also describe Jefferson, who has surpassed
New Jersey's expectations in all categories, particularly his
scoring, which has gone from 9.4 points per game in 2001-02 to
15.5 last season to a team-high 18.5 this season. Much of that
growth can be attributed to the salubrious influence of Kidd. At
first Jefferson was too often the wild colt, looking for a way to
show off the gifts that enabled him to high-jump 6'10" as a
senior at Moon Valley High in Phoenix and that made him the 13th
pick in the '01 draft after three seasons at Arizona. But he
learned that with Kidd at the point, he could succeed in more
clearly defined ways: Get out on the break, so Jason can find
you; make sharp cuts in the set offense, so Jason can find you;
carve out good post position, so.... You get the idea.

Jefferson's ability at close range was a given; his jumper was
not, but it has become increasingly reliable, thanks to his
dedication to a flexible shooting regimen. Sometimes he picks
five spots on the floor, sometimes seven. Sometimes he tells
himself he has to make 10 shots before he moves, sometimes 15.
Sometimes it takes him 20 minutes, sometimes 30. He took 132
threes this season (52 more than in his first two seasons
combined) and made a serviceable 36.4%. "I think you make little
jumps in basketball, then all of a sudden you make a big one," he
says, "and I made one of those big ones coming into this season.
It wasn't what I did last summer that made me a better shooter
but what I've done every summer and what I do every single day
before and after every single practice."

For coach Lawrence Frank the revelation about Jefferson came
during an otherwise forgettable March 5 game at Golden State,
which New Jersey won 78-74. Martin was in the lineup, but the
Nets couldn't get on track. "Almost out of desperation we put
Richard out front, let him run pick-and-rolls and kind of
engineer our offense," says Frank, a Nets assistant who took over
when his boss, Byron Scott, was fired on Jan. 26. "And he was
real good at it. I can't say I was shocked, because I know his
skill level and the passion he has for the game. But it was nice
to know we had that weapon."

Jefferson felt comfortable running the attack as long as he
remembered to channel the man he was replacing. "The most
important thing I learned from Jason is to know your personnel,"
says Jefferson. "For example, if I'm running on the break with
Kerry [Kittles], Jason taught me never to lead him, never to
throw the ball where I think it should be thrown, because Kerry
likes to stop at the three-point line or just inside it to take
that shot." Jefferson began soaking up Kidd's lessons when he was
at Arizona and Kidd was a member of the Phoenix Suns. "I saw
right away his talent and how much he wanted to learn," says
Kidd. "My job was to push him to reach the top of the mountain.
And he's getting there."

But what happens as Jefferson climbs higher? What happens when
the kid whom his teammates thought of as a little brother makes
an Olympic team and Martin does not? Both were replacement
players for the U.S. during qualifying in Puerto Rico last summer
(Kidd was one of the original eight selectees), but only
Jefferson has gotten the nod for the Games in Athens. And even if
a couple of the other originals step aside because of injuries,
league sources say Martin will not be invited. "I don't give a
damn," Martin snapped when asked last week if he was bothered by
the snub. "I'm not going to wait around and put everything on
hold. Wait around for them to tell me no? I'm making plans and
I'm not changing."

Jefferson acknowledges that his endearing personality was a
factor in his selection, just as it helped him become Moon Valley
homecoming king and earn a spot in a Nike campaign that showcases
young stars such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. He
attributes that amiability to being the son of traveling
missionaries. "You meet people from different countries and
cultures, and you get exposed to different things," says
Jefferson, who visited Africa with his parents between seventh
and eighth grades. "That gives you a respect and an openness for
people that the average American kid doesn't get. My parents
encouraged me in basketball, but they were never the 'YMCA
parents' who analyzed my game and told the coach to give me more
playing time. I was a sophomore at Arizona before my mom could
say what a free throw was. She used to call it, 'That free thing
where you stand there and nobody's moving.'"

Whatever anger Martin feels about not making the Olympic team, it
does not appear to be directed at his good bud Jefferson, whom
K-Mart praises for improving "his all-around game, his ability to
put the ball on the floor and make decisions, and his shooting."
As they try to even the series Friday night, the Nets do seem to
be a cohesive group, one defined both by positive chemistry and
Martin's high-octane 'tude. They have circled the wagons for the
postseason, playing that nobody-gives-us-credit card. ("We
believe in ourselves, so you all don't have to believe in us,"
says Martin.) They believe that with the deft X-ing and O-ing of
Frank, with a healthy Kidd and K-Mart and with a vastly improved
Jefferson, they are stronger than the two previous Nets teams
that made the Finals.

And if they fall short of that, the reaction, even from the
missionaries' son, is going to be well beyond an emphatic fudge!

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CLAY PATRICK MCBRIDE KIDD BROTHERS Jefferson's game has grown under the guidance of Kidd (5), who provided a sense of direction--and many an assist. COLOR PHOTO: BILL KOSTROUN/AP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO REVERSAL OF FORTUNE After dominating Elden Campbell and Detroit in the regular season, Jefferson struggled in Game 1.

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