For Al Jefferson, at least, it was a special delivery. During a summer-league game in Las Vegas last July, the 20-year-old power forward drove across the paint and effortlessly dropped in a jump hook--with his left hand. "The joke last year was that Al should cut off his left hand because he never uses it," says Boston coach Doc Rivers. "He's a fast learner who has a chance to be a big-time player."
The Celtics are asking a lot of the No. 15 pick in the 2004 draft, who was attending Prentiss (Miss.) High just 16 months ago. Not only must Jefferson develop into their star of the future, but he must also immediately fill in for the departed Antoine Walker. To pull all that off, the 6'10", 265-pound Jefferson will first have to stay on the floor longer than the 14.8 minutes he averaged as a rookie. "I could have played more, but I wasn't in good enough shape," says Jefferson, who believes he has improved his conditioning enough to average at least 30 minutes. "Coming into last year, I knew I could play. It was just a matter of me learning the game, and Doc and all the coaches were hard on me because they knew I could do it."
Jefferson's ability as an old-school low-post player will complement Boston's wealth of transition and perimeter scorers, especially in the fourth quarter when the young Celtics are learning how to win close games. "My bread and butter is in the paint. I love to be inside," says Jefferson, who was a second-team All-Rookie selection after averaging 6.7 points and 4.4 rebounds. "Doc also asked me to work on my face-up jumper, and I'm feeling a lot more comfortable with it. It's going to be really exciting to watch me this year." --I.T.
Enemy Lines An opposing team's scout sizes up the Celtics
"By letting go of Antoine Walker and Gary Payton, they gave up two leaders and big-time competitors. I don't see anybody capable of filling those voids on a roster that has at least 10 guys with two years or less of NBA experience.... If Paul Pierce hasn't been a leader in the past, then what makes them think he'll become one this season? He's saying all the right things now, but when they start to lose tough games, that's when it's going to start hitting the fan. They don't want to wait too long to unload him, because when the player dictates a trade by complaining and setting a bad example, the team gets much less value in return--like Toronto did last year with Vince Carter.... I'm a Delonte West fan. He busts his butt. He's their least experienced point guard because he was a scorer at St. Joseph's, but he's always had the skills and the feel. He never forces anything.... Tony Allen is their best perimeter defender. He can make shots from inside 20 feet if his feet are set, but he's far better as a slasher than as a shooter. He also really gets to the offensive glass, but that's not an issue for this team. More than anything these young guys need to get back on defense if they don't want to get burned playing at an up-and-down pace.... Brian Scalabrine is a high-energy guy who has a nose for the ball. He's a vocal leader and a good passer."
In 2004--05 the Celtics won the 25th division title in franchise history--but it was their first crown since Larry Bird's final season (1991--92).
Projected Starting Lineup with 2004--05 statistics
Record: 45--37 (4th in East)
Points scored: 101.3 (5th in NBA)
Points allowed: 100.4 (22nd)
Coach: Doc Rivers (second season with the Celtics)
NEW ACQUISITION (R) Rookie (college stats) * Injured