Blogcat’s Take, 12/14
I was going to devote this column to Al Jefferson, but first I have to devote homage—and perhaps a kidney if ever needs it—to Kemba Walker for his spectacular performance Monday night against the Golden State Warriors. So far this year Walker has regressed in just about every statistical category, but like Luther, leader of the Rogues, he was nearly unstoppable against the Warriors. Some crazy dude (not me, I swear) compiled Walker’s game highlights on YouTube, and I haven’t had this much fun picking my favorite moment in a telecast since Karl Rove’s election night meltdown on Fox News. Do you realize the man scored Charlotte’s last 15 points (Kemba Walker, that is, not Karl Rove)? It’s true, and the Isaiah Thomas-style deke on Harrison Barnes for a jumper with 3:28 to go is basically why I still shower and deodorize every day—I want to be clean for moments like those. And yet, I’m still a sucker for a long-range kill-shot out of nowhere, and so seeing Kemba screaming at Jefferson to clear out and then burying a balls-out a 3-pointer with 2 seconds to go on the shot-clock at 5:02 of the fourth quarter…well, for me, that takes the cake like a fat kid on his birthday. Thank you, Kemba from the faraway Bronx, it was an honor and a privilege to watch you.
So besides being shooed away by Kemba, where was Al Jefferson while Walker was playing US government to the Bobcats’ Citigroup? Jefferson spent the Walker bailout shooting 5-for-16, with only 5 of those attempts coming in the paint. A combination of Andrew Bogut and the slowly-decomposing-before-our-eyes Jermaine O’Neal bottled Jefferson up like a Snapple. The following game against the Magic’s Nikola Vusevic was even worse. In the low post, Jefferson tried every trick short of a banana in the tailpipe on Vusevic, who refused to bite, swallowing Jefferson like a Tylenol and allowing just 10 points on 10 shots. (The game itself, by the way, was a nightmare—there’s really nothing more humiliating than having Jameer Nelson rub it in your face; I’d rather receive a wedgie from Urkel.) Jefferson, though, redeemed himself nicely Friday night against Roy Hibbert and the Pacers, hanging 21 points on arguably the league’s stingiest defender. Thus after an up and down week against some of the league’s best competition, and having played 61% of the team’s games, we can start to assess Jefferson’s progress and value.
And despite the criticisms of the previous paragraph, the results are…pretty good! Here’s the biggest, pleasant-est surprise: Jefferson’s defensive rating (97.1) trails only Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeff Adrien among the team’s regulars. And the Bobcats are 1.5 points/100 possessions worse on defense with Jefferson off the court, so he’s not just part of a rising tide. Compare these numbers to last year when Jefferson was with Utah, and the differences couldn’t be sharper than if they sprung from Wolverine’s forearms: Jefferson’s defensive rating was 107.6 with the Jazz and the team was 9.2 points/100 possession better defensively with Jefferson on the bench. At first it’s not obvious how exactly Big Al’s doing this. Search on “Jefferson” for best opponent FG% at the rim on NBA.com/Stats and you hit “Richard” way before you hit “Al” (Al’s allowing 57.6% shooting at the rim; compared to someone like Hibbert, who’s only allowing 40.5%). Meanwhile, Jefferson’s block rate (4.1%) matches that of legendary shot swatter Andrea Bargnani and his defensive rebounding rate (23.5%) is solid but not abnormally so. But according to Synergy, Jefferson is ranked 6th in individual defense—not on the team, in the league. He’s allowing just .6 points/play against him, and a plurality (44.4%) of those are post-ups…which have to be coming from outside of the key, as the Bobcats are allowing the second-smallest percentage of shots within 5-feet (53.5%) in the NBA. Big Al’s opponent PER (through November 27th, per 82games.com) is a miniscule 12.7, compared to 17.3 last year. Jefferson spoke repeatedly during the offseason about working on his defense, but at the time I took his rhetoric about as seriously as the sign language gestures at Mandela’s funeral. It turns out, though, that Jefferson was telling the truth. Like an opera singer’s sphincter during a high note, Jefferson’s individual defense has tightened up when it matters most.
Offensively, Jefferson could use a little work, but he’s basically in line with his career averages. He’s shooting 55% at the rim, which is only about average against the league and down slightly from last year. The big difference is his performance immediately outside the key—I have him shooting 33.8% this year, while last year he was at 43.6%. As a result of this and his paltry free throw-rate, Jefferson’s TS% is a pretty heinous 47.9%. I’ll forgive him this, though, because Jefferson’s kept his remarkably low turnover percentage down—best in the league among qualified centers, in fact, and something all Bobcats fans are especially appreciative of after watching two years of Bismack Biyombo attempt to donate every pass his way to charity (and don’t think I didn’t notice Mack’s three impromptu juggling sessions against Indiana last night, plus a pinpoint pass straight to Paul George early in the fourth to put us down 5; watching Biz on offense continues to be like watching Chewbacca try to figure skate).
Net-net, Big Al’s 20.1 PER is leading the team and his 1.3 win-shares are second behind (you guessed it) Josh McRoberts. He’s only good for 2.1 wins above a replacement player, but a) that’s best on the team, and b) it’s tied with Chris Bosh. I’m not sure if that’s good news or a shot at Chris Bosh, but I’d actually be happier with either. Jefferson is the proverbial big fish in a small pond so far, and now it’s up to the rest of the guys to expand the pond, preferably not by peeing in it.
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