Utah Jazz: Unselfish Al Jefferson becoming triple threat
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For the first part of the season, Earl Watson joked that he was Jeremy Evans' dunk agent. On Monday, the Utah Jazz point guard announced that he's added somebody new to his agency.
"I'm trying to get Al Jefferson in the skills challenge," Watson said, smiling. "Did you see him out there? That's why he's my client. I'm going viral with the campaign."
Posting highlights of Big Al's big assist night on the Internet might be the first step to getting the Jazz center into the All-Star Weekend event. If it goes as well as it did for Evans, the reigning NBA dunk champion, Gov. Herbert will need to write an official ode for an Al Jefferson Day in Utah.
Or the guv might call it Triple Threat Day.
That's the new nickname Watson came up with for Jefferson, who had game-highs in scoring (25), rebounding (13) and assists (a career-high seven) in the Jazz's 109-100 win at Cleveland.
Jefferson became just the fourth Jazz player in franchise history to lead both teams in those three statistical categories outright in a game, according to Elias Sports Bureau. (Pete Maravich, Karl Malone and Andre Kirilenko also did it.)
While the scoring and rebounding parts weren't unusual for Jefferson — he leads Utah with 19 double-doubles — being the team's top distributor was a rarity.
Dishing out dimes isn't quite as uncommon for Big Al as it used to be. He's established season-highs in two of the past three games, and he's on track to having the best assists season of his eight-year NBA career (2.2 apg compared to 1.8 apg last year).
Not bad for a guy who used to jokingly called himself a "Black Hole," playing off a somewhat-deserved reputation that the basketball didn't see the light of day (or his teammates' hands) after he consumed it.
"When I was in Minnesota when I had that reputation of not passing the ball, it was kind of like if I didn't (shoot) it nobody was going to do it," Jefferson admitted. "Now I've got guys around me. It's common sense. Double team, pass it out."
Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin believes the 27-year-old has turned a corner when it comes to passing, especially when he receives extra attention from defenders. That helped the Jazz beat the Heat on Friday, when Jefferson recognized an oncoming double-team situation and assisted on Devin Harris' game-winning three-point play. There were times earlier this season when Big Al tried to shoot his way out of triple-teams.
Now, Corbin said, "He's a willing passer."
Or at least a transforming one.
"If you look at the last few weeks, he's been dropping a lot of dimes. He's been passing the ball well," said Jazz forward Paul Millsap, who added five assists Monday. "It starts with him. He knows that. When he's passing the ball out and getting other guys involved, we're a much better team."
Indeed. The Jazz offense works much more efficiently when guys are moving and cutting instead of just observing Jefferson do his thing against a defender or two.
"Guys are doing a better job of moving because we used to just get stuck, me with the ball and guys kind of sitting, waiting, watching, and that forced me to go make a move or whatever," Jefferson said. "Now guys is cutting because teams is just watching me."
That opens things up for everybody because defenders are either drawn away from Jefferson, allowing him to do his push shots or spin moves, or opponents can get burned if Watson's skill challenge candidate passes to an open cutter or shooter on the perimeter.
Jefferson can also reset his post after passing out and start from scratch.
"It's just a lot of options. That's why the passes is there," Jefferson said, referring to teammates cutting. "It's a lot easier. It keep the other team honest because then what's really going to happen is teams are going to stop doubling me then it's going to make me go one-on-one."
Corbin lauded the center and his teammates, especially small forward Josh Howard, for understanding that concept.
"He's doing a really good job for us," Corbin said. "We're going to need him to continue to do that. We're going to need the guys to continue to cut and read where the openings are so he can make the right passes."
Not only does that take some pressure off of Jefferson, but he said it makes opponents "play us honest," meaning straight up man-to-man.
"We think he can score on most big guys in this league. That's why teams are starting to come down and double him now," Corbin said. "As long as our guys continue to cut and make hard, right, smart cuts away from him so they can pull the other guys and keep them occupied so everybody can't lock in on him, then we're all more effective."
"Teams are going to stop doubling," Watson added, "because now you have to pick your poison."
Watson admitted it's not easy for big men to learn how to pass. That's not usually their job. Even so, he commends his client for learning how to find teammates.
"It gives you a different talent that most teams don't possess," Watson said. "To have a playmaker so low out of the post, it makes it hard to guard."
Watson also credited Jefferson's improved passing for being an "infectious" good example on the team's young NBA bigs, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.
"It helps," Watson said. "The thing is, he's still scoring his points and getting his assists, so it's going to make him a more efficient player also."
And he got the rebounds, too.
"That's what he does," Watson replied. "Triple threat."
As for that skills challenge campaign?
Watson envisions Jefferson dribbling, passing and shooting in the dark a la Paul George's dunk. Watch out Tony Parker and Deron Williams, here comes Big Al.
"You laugh now," Watson said.
Jefferson chuckled about the whole skills challenge concept. "Earl want me to go out there and embarrass myself."
If he keeps dishing out assists, they'll all keep smiling.
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