Al Jefferson had what might have been the best game of his career last night. And I can't help but feel bad for him.
Jefferson went for 32 points and 20 boards as the Wolves upset the Suns. These are both very encouraging facts. What isn't so encouraging is the fact that last night was the eighth day of December, and Al's team very likely secured its biggest win of the season.
Of course, as a Celtics fan, my concern for the well-being of the fellows employed by the league's other 29 teams tends to be fairly minimal. But as the Celtics nabbed another win and improved to 17-2 last night, seeing Jefferson's statline at the bottom of the screen made an already fairly evident message all the more clear: He is, sadly, the one who got left behind.
A lot of people did a lot wrong in Boston last season.
By and large, Al Jefferson wasn't one of them. If you're reading this page, you probably know this already. Or at least you knew it, and that is exactly the point. Sometimes a little refresher course never hurts, especially for those of us who have moved on to greener pastures.
Jefferson spent the better part of two seasons battling injuries, weight and the belief that he would never amount to much more than unused potential. Last year, he was the embodiment of what made this team worth watching. After returning from injury early in the season, he was the rock we could count on. Especially throughout the prolonged absence of Paul Pierce, Big Al was the one guy who would show up to play -- and in his eyes to win, for those out there less comfortable with the business of tanking -- every night. He was the developing low-post scorer. He was the already capable rebounder. He was growing defensively.
But most of all, he was learning, and he was learning willingly. Yes, there was a lot of likable potential on last year's squad, but Jefferson wasn't just the team's face because he had made the most physical progress. He was the team's face largely for that but also very much for the fact that he had made that progress the right way. He had gotten in shape, and he had worked hard to learn the nuances of the game. There wasn't a more overused word around Big Al last season than "herky-jerky." As in, "He is finally getting those herky-jerky moves down around the basket. That can make all the difference." Except that the term wasn't that overused, since Al really had begun to get it. He played hard every night, and he took his lumps as well as the lumps that came with playing on a 24-win team, but he did it with the smile and the poise of a young man who knew he had earned the right to be the centerpiece of future glory for his franchise. At the rate he was developing, hey, that future might not even be so distant anymore. Because we had Al, we had hope.
In some senses, that future wasn't so distant after all. The Celts of 2007-08 certainly don't have any real glory to their names yet, but the 17-2 start has certainly been promising. Meanwhile, Jefferson is still the centerpiece of a franchise, only it's a different franchise, a franchise in even deeper trouble than the one he began to lead last year. Big Al is taking his lumps again, only this team he is taking them for a team that might not even win the 24 games his team did last year.
He is averaging 19.4 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. He has broken 20 points nine times in his first 18 games this season and put together three 30-plus-point efforts to boot. He is once again a leader. But he is a leader for a team with a general manager and owner who are catching far more enmity than the ones back in Boston are. Playoff games aren't anywhere on the horizon.
Those who have followed the Celts have managed to lose Al while certainly keeping the hope he engendered. One would be hard-pressed to say that he has been so fortunate.
So, while we're certainly not pushing for too many wins for any of those other 29 teams across the Association, here's to a few more for Big Al every now and then. Because he has done nothing not to deserve them.