CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Al Jefferson stood up from the podium in his navy suit, dime-sized diamond earrings in both ears — the type only a man who just signed a three-year, $41 million deal could afford.
His light-blue dress shirt hung untucked from the biggest free agent this city’s ever seen. General manager Rich Cho and president Rod Higgins stood to his left and right beaming as the interior scorer they had searched for for years held up his new No. 25 jersey.
“Low-post scoring, that’s a premium in our business,” Higgins said. “If you can find a guy who can score in the low post with his back to the basket, normally those guys aren’t available and so we’re fortunate to have him.”
It came at a premium, too — a deal critics say was too high for a 28-year-old whose defense, especially against the pick and roll, is questionable.
But big names like Jefferson need opportunity and exorbitant contracts to consider small markets in free agency. Jefferson got both with Charlotte — the only team he visited — after the Utah Jazz told him they wanted to go with their young big men, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.
“I can’t express how happy I am to be here. I think the Bobcats did a great job coming at me and just made me feel that they were a team out there that really respected my game, and wanted me to be a part of their family,” Jefferson said. “Very happy to be here and represent the city of Charlotte.”
Jefferson joked that his hometown of Prentiss, Miss. wasn’t any bigger than the press conference room he sat in. Charlotte’s far from tiny, but as one of the smallest markets in the NBA, it’s no surprise Jefferson chose opportunity and a big payday over the bright lights of potential suitors.
Jefferson hadn’t pondered the Bobcats as viable suitors until he saw Kemba Walker two months ago in New York City, with Walker joking to him about coming to Charlott.
The big man thought it was just a joke until his agent called to schedule a meeting in Charlotte. He’d watched the team forever, remembering the Larry Johnson Hornets days and always knew Charlotte was a passionate basketball city, but it was more about the fit and just how much they needed him and wanted him.
“I’ve just always been a great fan of this city, and I’m closer to home in Mississippi. It was just a no-brainer,” Jefferson said. “And just to know they wanted me, they wanted me to be a part of their family, and I did have other options, but no one stood out like Charlotte.”
Those options — namely the New Orleans Pelicans and Dallas Mavericks — had their merits, but Jefferson wanted to embrace the challenge of revivng the Bobcats. As a seventh-grader, he stated a goal of making the giant leap to the NBA out of high school.
He did that in 2004.
He got the big contract, too, in the form of a three-year deal that allows a player option for his third year.
Jefferson also gets another chance to learn from a Hall of Fame big man, Bobcats assistant Patrick Ewing, after spending time with Kevin McHale during his days in Minnesota. Jefferson admits that improving on the defensive end is a major point of emphasis.
“Mad respect for him, and I can’t wait to pick his brain like I did Kevin McHale,” Jefferson said. “I think he can really help me as far as my defense and being a defensive-minded player.”
People forget that Jefferson is the only active NBA player, aside from Dwight Howard, to average at least 17 points and nine rebounds the last six seasons. Those guys never come cheap and Jefferson offers post flexibility. He played center in Utah and power forward with Boston and Minnesota, meaning he could line up with Cody Zeller, Bismack Biyombo or Josh McRoberts in the post.
“When you talk about a guy that can score in the low post and the high post, a guy that can draw a double team, so if he’s going to draw a double team on the strong side, someone’s probably going to be open for a corner three on the weak side,” Higgins said.
“Some of those things just enhance the talents that we have,” Higgins says. “I’d imagine that some of our young kids, adding a veteran of Al’s capabilities and talents, I think they’re going to get better from having him here.”
With Jefferson’s presence, it’s imperative that Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Jeff Taylor and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist bounce back from being one of the league’s worst perimeter shooting teams last season. Bobcats management has continually talked about interior scoring, rebounding and shooting as their biggest needs, and they have addressed the former.
On the flip side, they’d done nothing with the latter — even if Henderson re-signs as a restricted free agent.
Jefferson improves the Bobcats immediately, and that had to be the offseason action item, 2014 free agency and draft aside. Bringing back The Buzz and the signature teal uniforms are essential to rebranding and rejuvenating pro basketball in Charlotte, but so much of that excitement and interest was generated from playoff basketball of years past.
The Bobcats likely won’t make the playoffs in the 2013-14 campaign, but they don’t really need to, either.
There are benefits to showing improvement, but staying in lottery range next spring, with the hope of landing a potential superstar in next year’s deep draft.