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Jefferson exceeding early expectations
by Marc Narducci / April 4, 2005

Around this time a year ago, Al Jefferson was competing in the McDonald's high school all-American all-star game and mulling his future options. The 6-foot-10, 265-pound Jefferson was stronger and quicker than his high school peers, even the ones in the all-star affair.

When he decided to bypass a scholarship to the University of Arkansas and make the leap directly from high school to the NBA, there were many who questioned his decision. The thinking went among personnel people that Jefferson needed at least a few years in college to hone his considerable, but raw skills.

Jefferson felt otherwise and his play this season suggests that he made a prudent decision. While other rookies who came directly from their high school prom to the NBA such as Orlando's Dwight Howard, Atlanta's Josh Smith and New Orleans' JR Smith have statistically made a much bigger immediate splash, Jefferson has more than held his own during his first year in Beantown.

The difference between Jefferson and the rest of his high school brethren is that he is playing for a team leading its division, where earning minutes isn't a given. While Howard is also competing for a playoff contender in Orlando, the other high school players such as both Smiths, Portland's Sebastian Telfair and Shaun Livingston of the Los Angeles Clippers, are piling up minutes for teams that appear light years away from postseason contention.

Jefferson is averaging nearly 15 minutes, along with just over 6.5 points and 4.3 rebounds. He was actually seeing even more time before the Celtics reacquired Antoine Walker in a Feb. 24 trade deadline deal. Despite cutting into his minutes, he has embraced the idea of having a former All-Star such as Walker to lean on.

"He's been great for us," Jefferson said about Walker. "It's my first year and I have a long time in this league and my time will come."

And while the grind of the marathon NBA season is admittedly wearing on the 20-year-old Jefferson, he realizes how much he has progressed in one short season that right now feels awfully long.

"I feel real good about what I've done, but I also feel I have a long way to go," Jefferson said. "I have surprised a lot of people who thought I wouldn't get off injured reserve list all season."

Among the most surprised has been Doc Rivers, the Celtics' first-year coach.

"He has exceeded our expectations early on," Rivers said. "But I don't think he has exceeded our expectations as far as where he wants to go some day."

Jefferson isn't a flashy player. He won't overwhelm teams with his athleticism, but is a relentless worker inside, who is strong enough to hold his ground, and quick enough to get by many of the power forwards in the NBA.

"You look at him and he's not a great athlete, but he is a quick athlete, a quick jumper and that's what allows him to get that shot off and to block shots and rebound," Rivers said. "I think that is something we all missed."

Then referring to Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, Rivers added, "Danny didn't miss it but everybody else did."

Ainge came under fire for taking Jefferson with the 15th selection in the NBA draft. Yet it has proven to be a wise gamble. In fact Ainge should earn points for his other first round picks, starting guard Tony Allen, already a
defensive stopper and point guard Delonte West, who despite an up and down season, has also shown flashes of potential.

Yet it's Jefferson who has grown the most. Allen was a four-year college player from Oklahoma State and West played three seasons for Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

Without the benefit of college tutelage, Jefferson has had to learn the game on the fly. Every day in practice is like an advanced course of Basketball 101 for Jefferson.

"Practice is really intense, with guys going hard at each other," he said. "I have learned a lot from my teammates."

Jefferson is also learning about pacing himself through the rigors of an 82-game grind.

"It's a big process and I'm feeling it a little," he said about the long schedule. "My body is getting tired, but I have to keep on going and can't give up now."

Jefferson still shows his inexperience at times. For instance in a recent 97-93 loss to the visiting Philadelphia 76ers, he was a force down low with 10 points and four rebounds in 13 minutes, but he also fouled out of the
game.

"He has a great confidence about him, down the stretch of games," Rivers said. "Offensively he is extremely good, while defensively he still has a ways to go, but he works at it."

Jefferson says he has no regrets about bypassing college for the NBA.

"The whole idea of going to college anyway is to go here," he said about the NBA. "If you can skip that and go on, it's to your benefit."

How much work Jefferson put in during the offseason will go a long way in aiding his development in the NBA. He didn't enter the league with the type of hype associated with his other high school counterparts, but his upside is intriguing.

"He is a very good offensive player and better than I thought he would be this quickly," Rivers said. "He just has composure that most youngsters his age don't have."

Of all he has learned, the biggest lesson is that in the NBA, a player is only as good as his next game.

"I made big progress, but I knew I had to get better," Jefferson said. "Guys are always working on their game and getting better and knew I had to step up my game."

It's those potential steps that he takes in the future that have everybody in the Celtics organization justifiably excited.

Marc Narducci covers the NBA for the Philadelphia Inquirer and is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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