Jefferson aiming to fill big shoes in Minnesota

Steve Greenberg for Sporting News - property of Sporting News

Three weeks into his life as a Minnesotan, Al Jefferson (the forgotten man in the seismic Kevin Garnett trade ) had spent roughly 15 days at the Wolves' practice facility.

Already, his bosses and coworkers were convinced he would leave no stone unturned in his pursuit of superstardom. "You take care of your game," Jefferson said after 90 minutes of nonstop drills and scrimmaging, the sweat pouring down from his head to his chest and soaking into his sleeveless black undershirt, "and the game will take care of you."

I was there for an up-close look at a 6-10, 256-pound 22-year-old who was drafted 15th out of high school by the Celtics in 2004, then faded into the relative oblivion that is (or was ) pro basketball in Boston.

A few days prior, Jefferson's ex-teammate Paul Pierce had told me: "Once he gets everything together defensively, he's going to be a monster. He's going to be an All-Star for a lot of years." Three weeks before the start of training camp, Jefferson, who averaged 16.0 points and 11.0 rebounds in his third NBA season, lived up to that billing.

In a 15-minute shooting session with assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff doing the shagging, Jefferson and fellow frontcourt players Ryan Gomes and Chris Richard attempted at least 50 17-footers apiece, from all angles. Gomes is the purest shooter of the three, but Jefferson knocked down shot after shot -- all the while demanding in his booming baritone that Bickerstaff get the drill moving faster and that Richard, a rookie who was struggling to keep up, get with it. Nobody talked back. This is Jefferson's team.

In a drill run by V.P. of basketball operations Kevin McHale, the same three players took turns getting deep in the post, using their hands to disengage from the defender, flaring to the high post and accepting a pass, "ripping" the ball from their right shoulder to their left knee and exploding with a long step toward a lefthanded finish at the goal. Jefferson's every movement displayed an almost violent strength, yet he was quick, balanced and studious. After a perfect rip and step -- leading with his right shoulder and staying low so as not to be bumped off-balance by Bickerstaff -- Jefferson threw down a massive lefthanded dunk. McHale grabbed him under the hoop, slapped his behind and said, "No one's going to stop that."

On his first touch in a five-on-five scrimmage a few minutes later, Jefferson took a pass on the left block, turned on the 6-9, 255-pound Richard and drew an immediate double-team from guard Sebastian Telfair. But with one powerful right shoulder-to-left knee rip of the ball and a long first step toward the basket, he was past the defense for an easy layup. McHale and coach Randy Wittman looked at each other and shook their heads.

What I heard was every bit as impressive as what I saw.
From teammate Randy Foye: "He's a great guy, and he works extremely hard. I saw it right away. He's got a ton of upside."

From strength and conditioning coach Dave Vitel: "He's a phenomenal guy to work with. He's coming in five days a week and doing extra conditioning, working out, lifting, playing -- and all he says about everything is, 'No problem.' Kevin Garnett was always the first one in and the last one to leave, always getting extra work in. I see that in Al.

"Best of all, from Jefferson himself: "After my rookie year, I think the hype went to my head. I didn't work as hard as I should have. I came into my second year feeling like I had it made, but I wasn't in shape. I blew it. So the next offseason, I worked out every day, watched what I ate, lost 30 pounds and had a breakout year. All I am about now is work out every day, no fried food, no sweets, Subway all the time, work on my left hand, shoot 100 free throws a day, be a leader and become an All-Star. That's it, man. Once again, take care of your game and the game takes care of you."


Image courtesy of Yahoo Sports.