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Wondering What Season Five Will Bring For Big Al

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Along with many members of the green faithful, it's fair to label me a booster of Al Jefferson.  When a guy is the future of your beloved franchise for three seasons - and particularly when his development is the one highlight among a season of nearly unmitigated misery - it's hard not to maintain a lingering affection even after he moves on.

It sadly seems worthwhile to preface the rest of this bit of rambling by clarifying that the fact that he has indeed moved on is not - repeat, not - a sore spot here.  That whole bit about acquiring the sort of player who happens to be a future Hall of Famer, former MVP, current MVP candidate and the type of leader who helps turn a team into a champion - even if it costs some youth to do so - that worked for me.  It turns out that watching a favorite team win a championship is a lot of fun.  Considerably more fun than going 24-58 and, yes, likely even more fun than having some of those younger players, being a decent contender  and probably not winning it all. 

So we're not dwelling on Big Al from the standpoint of pining for him to be back in green instead of the team's current power forward (although he would no doubt be a nice piece in the frontcourt next to KG).  It's the fact that he seemed for all intents and purposes to be a likable kid who worked hard and improved quickly that continues to endear him to us, and his break-out season last year in Minnesota was a nice sight to see from afar.

But though Jefferson was one of just four players players to average better than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game last year, there is still plenty of room for him to improve going forward.  It's how much of that growing he'll do as a player that provides much of the intrigue for the season ahead in Minnesota.

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With 21.3 points and 11.3 rebounds per game last year, Jefferson had a very impressive season playing the center spot for a putrid Minnesota team.  He has put in a ton of work on his offensive game over his NBA career thus far, and it has really shown over the last couple of seasons.  His footwork inside has improved greatly, and his refined touch has allowed him to get over the 70 percent mark at the foul line and to begin to develop a mid range game.  He has really started to come into his own with his command of his herky-jerky moves down low, and he is becoming an interior offensive force.

But the hope for this season for Jefferson should be that he will work to get his points more efficiently this time around.  He shot exactly 50 percent from the field last season and put up a mark of just 53.5 percent true shooting.  Not awful, but not wonderful for a center either.  In his defense, Jefferson had to take a lot of shots on a bad team last season.  This year, with a (hopefully) healthy Randy Foye, veteran sharpshooter Mike Miller, draftee Kevin Love and a now-experienced Corey Brewer around him, Jefferson should be part of an offense that is more dangerous overall.  This should prevent defenses from keying on him and thus get him better looks at the basket while not requiring as many field-goal attempts of him. 

But while the surroundings should play a role, Jefferson also has to improve his shot selection.  At times last season, he seemed to fall a bit too far in love with his jumper, which is still getting to the point where it won't betray him regularly.  He also occasionally appeared to suffer from Antoine Walker syndrome: On certain plays, Jefferson had the look of a guy who had decided that he was shooting the basketball, and that's all there was to it.  This of course posed a problem when Jefferson wound up forcing shots up against multiple defenders rather than looking to patiently distribute the ball and wait for his shots in the flow of the offense.  In order to take the next step offensively this season, he'll need to do a better job of recognizing and passing out of double teams as well as cutting down on his two turnovers per game, which placed him ninth among centers last season.

The big focus area of improvement, however, is at the other end of the floor.  For all of the work Jefferson has clearly put in on his offensive game, it's hard to imagine he has done the same on 'D' given how stunningly bad the results there have been.  The guy simply doesn't guard anybody.  He doesn't stick his man, doesn't rotate well, consistently misplays pick-and-rolls, is slow getting to the spot and often winds up completely out of position on that end of the floor.  The numbers back it up: He gave up a less than desirable 50.2 percent effective field goal percentage while playing center last season, and the team was an astounding 12.1 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with him on the court than off it.

Yes, the claim has been made that Jefferson is not playing his natural position at center, but it some point, it needs to be accepted that if that's where he is going to spend the brunt of hs minutes, he needs to be accountable at that position and become less of a defensive liability.  Jefferson played 69 percent of the Timberwolves' total minutes at center last season (compared to three percent at power forward), and with Kevin Love coming to town as a power forward, that doesn't figure to change any time soon.  Jefferson has put in so much work to become a potent offensive player that it's frustrating to imagine him not being able to do the same on the defensive end.

All that said, it's worth remembering that this is just year five coming up for a 24-year-old Al Jefferson.  He's a young player who has already realized a good deal of his vast potential and still has plenty of time for more growth as a player.  Even though he is no longer a Cetic, it is a pleasure to watch him improve, and the hope here is that he'll continue to do so.  Because in order to make the leap toward becoming one of the game's complete interior threats, Big Al will need to take another set of steps forward, particularly as a defender.

Here's hoping the face of the future in Minnesota puts in the work and gets it done.

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For more on Big Al, particularly the issues defensively, be sure to check out this post from early last season by Britt Robson over at The Rake.  Britt could well be my favorite writer in the game today.  He's funny and insightful, and his words are really a pleasure to read.  Definitely worth the time.