It doesn’t matter to Al Jefferson that the Charlotte Bobcats are a small market team that has struggled to find success in recent years.
What matters to Jefferson is the Bobcats made him feel wanted.
The 6-foot-10 center said he was blown away after meeting with team officials last week during a free agent visit, saying he ”couldn’t sleep a wink” in anticipation of signing with Charlotte.
”I can’t express how happy I am to be here,” said Jefferson, who was introduced at a press conference on Wednesday. ”The Charlotte Bobcats did a great job coming at me (in free agency) and made me feel like they were a team that really respected my game and made me feel like a part of the family.”
The Bobcats also announced they signed first-round draft pick Cody Zeller and waived forward Tyrus Thomas, designating him their amnesty player.
By waiving Thomas, the Bobcats will save $18.1 million in salary cap space over the next two seasons.
Bobcats president of basketball operations Rod Higgins also said he was scheduled to talk Wednesday with the agent for restricted free agent guard Gerald Henderson in hopes of ensuring his return next season.
Higgins said Jefferson gives the Bobcats a low-post scoring presence they haven’t had in recent years.
Charlotte ranked 24th in the league in points scored in the paint last season.
The 28-year-old Jefferson is a back-to-the-basket type of scorer who led all NBA centers last season in field goals, ranked second in scoring average and ranked fourth in defensive rebounds. Jefferson and Dwight Howard are the only centers in the league to average at least 17 points and nine rebounds in each of the last six seasons.
Jefferson said he is comfortable in a small market like Charlotte after growing up in the tiny Mississippi town of Prentiss.
”My whole town is not bigger than this room,” Jefferson said with a laugh.” And if they had an NBA town in Prentiss I would go there. I don’t think about the city. All of that other stuff doesn’t matter to me. I figure when a team wants you to come play in the NBA, do it.”
Jefferson said the Bobcats, who are 28-120 over the past two seasons, have more talent than most people realize.
He said he can’t wait to ”pick the brain” of Bobcats associate head coach Patrick Ewing, a Hall of Fame center who played for the New York Knicks.
Jefferson said he began thinking about playing for Charlotte after he bumped into Bobcats point guard Kemba Walker two months ago in New York.
Walker joked with him at the time that they’d be teammates soon.
It turns out Walker wasn’t kidding.
”About two weeks after that my agent asked me if I wanted to go down to Charlotte for visit and I was like, `Sure,”’ Jefferson said. ”When I got here they won me over. They have been studying my game and showed me how my game will fit into their system. … They wanted me here and it was just a no-brainer.”
Walker is equally ecstatic.
”Was I excited? I almost shed a tear,” Walker said. ”That’s what we need: A guy we always can go to to get a bucket.”
Jefferson said Charlotte was his only visit, although Dallas and New Orleans also expressed interest in signing him.
Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said Jefferson gives the Bobcats a proven veteran who can mentor young big men Bismack Biyombo and Zeller and take pressure off the team’s shooting guards.
”The toughest thing to do is execute in the half-court offense, but when you have a guy like Al it makes it a lot easier,” Clifford said.
The one knock on Jefferson over the years has been his defense, particularly in the pick and roll.
But Clifford doesn’t see it as a liability.
”If you watch him I don’t think he’s nearly as bad as people are saying at all,” Clifford said. ”His defensive rebounding numbers are pretty good and it’s not like he’s immobile. There are challenges with everybody, but it’s not like I’m watching him on film and saying he can’t do it.”
Jefferson, a nine-year NBA veteran, led the Utah Jazz in scoring in each of the last three seasons, averaging 18.5 points per game. He also averaged 9.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.6 blocks while playing in 221 of 230 possible games.
Despite those numbers, he entered free agency knowing he probably wouldn’t be returning to Salt Lake City.
”We came to an understanding that they wanted to go with their young bigs and that makes a lot of sense,” Jefferson said, referring to the Jazz’s young frontcourt duo of Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors. ”I think both of them will be superstars in this league. So I couldn’t be mad at that.”