CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There’s no hesitation in Al Jefferson’s voice when he says it: No one in the NBA can guard him one-on-one without help.
Dwight Howard? Joakim Noah? No, no one. Howard and Noah are not even the top contenders for being able to do so, either.
“Right now at this point of time in my career, it doesn’t really matter who comes at me because there’s always going to be more than one guy. I don’t really think anyone can guard me one on one but guys do a great job of helping,” Jefferson said. “Tyson Chandler’s probably the only guy who can guard me one on one and he still needs help.”
That’s the hope that the Bobcats are currently building their offense around, too. New coach Steve Clifford largely operates a four-out, one-in system, and they’ll work from the inside out through Jefferson. Clifford had admired Jefferson from a far in previous years and says his “balance, footwork, fakes and touch inside” are even better when they’re yours to utilize, not defend.
With only one preseason game down, Kemba Walker’s already noticed the difference the attention his offseason addition demands but says their spacing has to get better than it’s been so far to get the most out of his skill set.
“We’re pretty much playing the same, just inside out now. We’re still trying to get the ball up the floor, still pushing the tempo, but I think we’re going to have a better halfcourt offense this year,” Walker said. “Al attracts a lot of attention, so we just have to find ways to get him the ball.”
They didn’t do a great job of that in the preseason opener. Jefferson scored 7 points on 3-6 shooting in 26 minutes.
But there’s an adjustment that comes with adding a low post scorer like Jefferson to a team that had no one to score on the block a season ago. Gaining the proper spacing, ball rotation and angles for post entries takes an acclimation period. The ball has to get inside early in the halfcourt sets and then work its way back out when the double comes, which sometimes has been as soon as the possession starts.
“Obviously, if you saw the other night, which is what you’re going to see, is there were actually possessions where they had a guy in front of him and behind him before he caught the ball,” Clifford said. “So we have to be able to use that to our advantage.” Their hope is they will have the perimeter shooting to make it a pick-your-poison scenario for opposing coaches. Want to double Al? OK, a quick ball reversal results in a defender out of position. It’s not only important for guards to knock down shots, but he’s also got to make quick, decisive moves with the ball when he gets it.
“It’s wonderful for my game — four out, one in — because it keeps the floor spread,” he said. “If guys do come down to double and have to help, we can make them pay for it with some of the outside shooting we’ve got.”
It’s a very similar system to the one Dwight Howard operated out of in Orlando for years. Jefferson will still set a lot of high pick and rolls, though, and is working with Walker on their chemistry there. That takes time, but he knows they don’t have that right now.
“We still got a ways to go on my behalf. A lot of things I have to do better — No. 1 set great picks. I think I missed a lot of picks in the first game, get in and get out too quick instead of holding my picks,” he said. “Like I said, it’s a learning process for me.”
The questions around Jefferson have never related to offense though. Scorers thrive in any setting. The skepticism’s always been about defense for him — defending the pick and roll in particular. The Bobcats gave up 102.7 points per game — second worst in the NBA — a season ago, so it raised a lot of eyebrows when the Bobcats committed the kind of offseason money they did to a guy whose notoriously a questionable defender.
Clifford’s spent time this offseason with Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau — one of his best friends — and Thibodeau has turned the Bulls into one of the league’s best defensive teams despite a similar flat-footed defender in Carlos Boozer. The Bulls have had their bigs sagging off the pick and roll — essentially doubling the ball and giving up the long jump shot to the screener on the pick and pop. That might be the answer for the Cats with Jefferson, too.
Clifford wouldn’t say either way but did say he’s been pleased with his improvement on the defensive end so far.
“I’ll be honest, I think he’s working hard at it. He asks a lot of questions. He’s talking to Patrick [Ewing] all the time about post defense, pick and roll defense,” Clifford said. “He has really good just natural instincts of how to play, so he reacts well. So I think that his defense can get better and better.”
The work with Ewing has been especially critical, according to Jefferson. There’s only so much Jefferson can do to improve his lateral quickness defending the pick and roll, but he and Ewing have spent a great deal of time watching film together and pinpointing areas he can improve.
“Being aware of the ball, not over helping. Just knowing when to help, when not to help, boxing out and rebounding,” he said.
All those are correctable and he’s not the only one that has areas for improvement on defense.
There’s a lot to learn for all the Bobcats — a new system, a new coach and a new way to play — and all are tied to Jefferson. For the franchise to take the step forward it’s looking for this season, Jefferson better be able to back up his offensive talk — and guard someone.
Note: It’s never a smart thing to light a fire under LeBron James with the defending champs on the docket for the Bobcats Friday, but Al Jefferson showed no signs of hesitation when asked who would have won the hypothetical one-on-one matchup between James and Bobcats owner Michael Jordan in his prime that Jordan said he would win recently.
“That a trick question? Michael Jordan all day!” Jefferson said. “I’m not just saying that because he’s the owner. I think he’s the best to ever step on a court.”