Wolves’ Othyus Jeffers no stranger to adversity

MINNEAPOLIS — The fellow they call “O” gives up a good half-foot to Alexander Kaun.

But within seconds of receiving his first pro action in more than two years, Othyus Jeffers challenges the lumbering, 6-foot-11 CSKA Moscow center. 

Drive. Layup. Swat. 

Next chance: Drive. Pull-up. Swat.

When Jeffers gets a good look at the basket again, he doesn’t back down — not even after Kaun has twice made him look foolish during the shooting guard’s opening audition with the Timberwolves.

Triple-threat. Baseline. One-handed throw-down.

Kaun’s not in the way this time, as Rick Adelman’s motion-based offense has cleared out the lane. But there’s no timidity, no hesitancy as Jeffers glides in and ties Minnesota’s preseason opener at 84.

To Jeffers, fear is a mostly-foreign concept.

“I always play with conviction,” Jeffers said.

Lives with it, too.

Very little deters Jeffers as he scraps and claws for the final slot on the Timberwolves’ 15-man roster. An existence rife with gun violence, the most untimely of injuries and an annual battle for his basketball life haven’t quelled the zeal with which he attacks, defends and interacts with his newfound teammates and coaches.

“You always want them type of players,” starting two-guard Kevin Martin said, “just not afraid to get up and get to anybody.”

And to think Jeffers didn’t even grow up with the hoops aspirations germane to his West Side-Chicago neighborhood.

Jeffers’ mother drag-raced cars in her spare time. His father was a mechanic.

Young Othyus didn’t want to be the next Michael Jordan. He wanted to be the next Jeff Gordon.

“I grew up a car guy,” Jeffers said.

But his three older brothers — Henry Allen, Gerome Allen and Edmund Allen — had other ideas. The trio coerced him into their pickup games and forced him to take part in their family’s basketball legacy. According to Jeffers, all of his siblings and several other relatives won a state or city championship during their respective prep careers.

All except Othyus.

“Me playing basketball was never really something I really loved to do,” he said. “I was forced. My older brothers, there was always a basketball around, and even though I loved cars, they forced me to go run, they forced me to work on my ballhandling, forced me to work on moves and things like that. It just got to the point where it came natural and easy.”

So much so that Jeffers became the first member of his family to have his or her jersey number retired. Hubbard High School bestowed the honor upon him after he averaged 28 points and 16 rebounds his senior season.

His truest calling card, though always has been defense — you don’t earn respect on the summer-league lots of Chicago without stopping addition to scoring.

“I had to find my way to get noticed,” Jeffers said.

From a young age, his siblings pushed him to that end. They made him play all five positions, worked him over physically and refused to let him focus on any other pastime.

By Jeffers’ 18th birthday, two of them were gone.

In 1993, Gerome was shot to death outside a grocery store near the family’s housing project. He was 16. Jeffers was 8. 

Nine years later, a gunman killed Edmund, 24 at the time, mere blocks away from the development.

Shootings were commonplace in Jeffers’ part of town, a neighborhood comprised of four Chicago Housing Authority projects not far from the United Center.

Neither tragedy stopped Jeffers from pursuing basketball — if anything, it focused him. He and half-brother Standell King returned to practice at Hubbard a day after Edmund was shot.

King told USA Today in 2008 that Jeffers strove to “keep their legacy going.”

He’s done that, and more. But not without taking a bullet himself.

After graduating from Hubbard as its all-time leading rebounder, Jeffers failed to meet NCAA academic qualification standards and spent a year at Los Angeles Southwest College. Working on his grades and improving his game, he notched 22.3 points and 10.7 rebounds per game during his freshman season.

That earned him the opportunity to return close to home and nab a scholarship from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Jeffers reportedly spurned offers from Big East and Big 12 schools to ensure he could live near his family.

He sat out the 2004-05 campaign to establish academic eligibility, then starred at UIC for two seasons. His sophomore year brought Horizon League newcomer of the year accolades, and he averaged 15.4 points, 8.6 boards and 2.6 assists as a junior.

That performance drew a few NBA scouting eyes. One evening in April 2007, he headed to work out before a few of them at a gym near his old stomping grounds, hoping to come to a decision regarding finishing college or declaring himself for the draft.

On the way there, he got a phone call from his sister. Her boyfriend, Andre Childs, had allegedly beaten her. Jeffers hurried back to her home — in the same neighborhood they grew up in — and confronted Childs. The two engaged in a fistfight, and Childs limped away uttering what amounted to death threats.

Not long after, he returned and made good on them, brandishing a firearm and shooting in the direction of Jeffers, his sister and her nearly 1-year-old daughter. 

Most of the bullets hit the small row home behind them. One caught Jeffers in the left thigh as he carried the stroller containing his niece to safety. Another hit his sister in the left calf.

The next thing Jeffers knew, “I was on my way to the hospital.”

The bullet missed all of Jeffers’ major arteries, but doctors instructed him to get around on crutches for three weeks. He used them for three days and was back playing five-on-five within a month.

His sister survived, too, and Childs was later arrested and charged with attempted murder.

Concerned for his personal safety — UIC is close to the shooting site — and having clashed with Flames coach Jimmy Collins, Jeffers transferred to Robert Morris University, located in downtown Chicago. He scored 21.5 points per game his senior year en route to NAIA player of the year honors and a Final Four appearance for his team.

“I had the grasp, I had the whispers of the NBA in my hand,” Jeffers said. “They paid me some attention. So with that, I felt I was right there.

“I had a monster year.”

No NBA team took a chance on him in the 2008 NBA Draft, but the Iowa Energy of the NBA Developmental League snagged him in their entry draft. The D-League named him its rookie of the year that season, and NBA stints with Utah (14 games, 2009-10), San Antonio (one game, 2010-11) and Washington (16, 2010-11) ensued.

Jeffers bounced back and forth between the NBA and the D-League and even spent part of 2009-10 in the Greek League.

He finished out the 2010-11 season with the Wizards under Flip Saunders, now the Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations. Washington extended him a qualifying offer that offseason, but the lockout that year prevented him from signing it.

Then, during a workout in July 2011, Jeffers tore the ACL in his right knee during a cone dribbling workout. Not sure at first how serious the injury was — he finished out the drill and even dunked on it, he says — he saw the Wizards’ offer withdrawn and missed the entire 2011-12 season.

He returned to full health hungrier than ever.

“When I got hurt, at that time, I accomplished everything I wanted to do,” he said. “I had touched an NBA floor. That was just something I’d set out to do. So when I hurt myself, I felt that it wouldn’t be complete until I finished on my own terms, not an injury.

“That taste of the NBA is like no other taste.”

So he rehabbed his knee, earned a training camp invite from the Phoenix Suns and spent another year with the Energy last season, shooting 48.6 percent and scoring 14.7 points per game. That re-attracted Saunders’ attention, and Minnesota added him to its NBA Summer League roster.

Jeffers had one of the team’s best Las Vegas showings while exemplifying his tenacious on-ball defense and connecting on 53.3 percent of his field goals. The Timberwolves added Martin this summer to bolster their offensive prowess and invited Jeffers to camp along with Robbie Hummel, Lorenzo Brown and A.J. Price.

The race between those four remains wide open as Minnesota gets into its preseason games, Adelman has said, but a defensive-minded shooting guard would certainly fill areas of need.

Behind Martin, the Timberwolves don’t possess a true two. And besides Corey Brewer, there’s not a noted wing defender on this team.

Except Jeffers, for the moment.

“He’s really a good defender,” said Adelman, who has until Oct. 28 to decide how to fill his last roster spot. “He’s very aggressive, very physical, really goes out and plays people hard. That’s what we knew about him. Flip had had him in Washington, and that’s what he said about him. He’s proven it here.”

But men who have endured as much as Jeffers bring something else to the table, something almost as important, Adelman said.

A lack of entitlement.

“I think they know how special it is and what an opportunity they have and take advantage of it,” Adelman said. “Don’t be complacent in what you’re doing.”

Friendly in the locker room and fierce when he steps on the hardwood, Jeffers is a lot of things. Complacent isn’t one of them.

But he’s not bitter, either.

A conversation with Jeffers doesn’t reveal the ferocity with which he dunked the ball against CSKA on Monday night.

It manifests a man who’s happy to still be fighting.

“I’m blessed,” he’ll tell anyone who will listen.

“I’m going to keep saying it: I’m blessed. … God’s always brought me to a point or to the area that people are gonna remember me. Every place I’ve been, I’m always smiling, I’m always glad. Whoever you talk to about me, they’re gonna say the exact same thing. Wherever I go, people are gonna remember ‘O.'”

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