Richard Jefferson 2.0. Depending on which camp you’re in, he’s either been a prime example of the Spurs coaching staff’s mystical powers of transformation, or he’s been the Spurs front office’s biggest misstep since giving away Luis Scola. Me? I was in the former camp, blinded by RJ’s dedication and the feel-good nature of the story. A 9-year NBA veteran devoted his entire off-season to basic shooting fundamentals? Love me some RJ! What else would he be doing, organizing pool parties with Luke Walton?
Charting The Ups And Downs:
In the beginning of the season, RJ paraded a newly re-modeled shooting stroke and an aggressive mentality which was lacking in 2009. He put together an extended run of efficient scoring games, racking up points north of 20 in more than half of the first 7 games and cementing his place in San Antonio’s Corner 3 Pointer Hall of Fame.
Since then, he’s been in an extended ‘slump’ through the next 60 games or so. I call it a ‘slump’ when it is more of a regression to means of sort, as his hot shooting slowly tapered off. Numbers wise, Jefferson’s production -– points, assists, rebounds — has dipped across the board. More disconcertingly, his post All-Star scoring has dipped precipitously from 12.0 to 8.7 points per game. He hasn’t fared any better in advanced metrics either where his PER is below league average and his rebounding rate (always a better gauge of rebounding ability than rebounds per game) has been abysmal. The one redeeming factor is that Jefferson has taken fewer shots, but is making more of them. This translates to a significant uptick in his shooting efficiency, which has been vital for San Antonio’s offense this season.
However, when Jefferson is not involved in the early going, many a time, he has fallen back to his old habits of being passive and ‘floating’ through extended periods of the game. This happens a lot to many lesser (mentally) players in the league, and is especially painful for Wizards fans. Think Javale McGee leaping for a monstrous block in the first, leading fans to shake their head in disbelief. Then he proceeds to walk around like a zombie on court for the next three, still thinking, “Wow, I have some serious hops!” leading fans to, once again, shake their head in disbelief. (Okay, maybe RJ’s not that bad.)
Jefferson’s disengagement on offense is as much of an indictment on his lack of initiative as it is on the Spurs’ facilitators overlooking him and looking for their own shot. Then again, with Tony having a career year in assists and Manu’s masterful orchestration in the pick-and-roll, I can’t really fault them for too much.
The Gamble That Hasn’t Paid Off:
Was all the hoopla over Jefferson’s improvement really just that, hoopla? What of him understanding the Spurs system and embracing his role as an opportunistic finisher?
Here’s my take: In a rigid system like that of the Spurs, players need to be of a certain mold to flourish. Richard Jefferson, for the most part, does not fit the mold. Nonetheless, he has done a tremendous job of convincing skeptics otherwise.
Integrating RJ into the Spurs system is like fitting a square peg into a round hole. You can shave off the corners, smoothen the edges and make it round, but in doing so you’re losing the very edges that made the square peg square in the first place.
Put baby RJ in the corner and you are removing his greatest comfort: Motion. Jefferson is at his most lethal when he’s on the move and gathering a full head of steam. RJ, as he so often states, is a product of the Princeton offense. The Princeton offense advocates, amongst others, constant motion. This movement keeps the defense on their toes, creating openings for cutters.
Making sharp cuts and finishing is, and has always been, RJ’s greatest strength. Despite his waning hops, he still has a great first step and the requisite upper-body strength to barrel his way to the rim. Sadly, the Spurs system doesn’t value cutting as much as long range shooting in their small forwards. A quick glance at the 3s of years past shows the Spurs’ preference for efficient spot-up shooting; anything else is a bonus. Once again: Sean Elliot, Bruce Bowen, Square Peg.
Richard Jefferson, The Scorer (Or, Jason Kidd makes people rich):
Contrary to media perception, Richard Jefferson is not a legit scorer. Instead, he is an extremely capable finisher. The most RJ-esque sequence goes something like this: Catch in motion, one hard dribble and a finish at the rim. Unfortunately, apart from that, his arsenal is very limited.
- Off the dribble moves are non-existent
- Clueless in running the pick-and-roll
- Ball handling (i.e. anything beyond 2 dribbles or use of his off-hand) is shockingly bad
- His pull-up jumper is a move used as last resort when defenders chase him off the arc (Seriously, Matt Bonner inspires more confidence in his pull up jumper)
There’s a reason why Jefferson plays hot potato with the ball when he is tightly guarded: He cannot break down his man off the dribble.
Nonetheless, he has managed to hide his myriad flaws by being an elite 3 point gunner and acquiring an inordinate amount of ‘corporate knowledge’. The famed ‘corporate knowledge’, as cited by Pop, has led to less hesitation on the ball and quicker decision making on offense. RJ has also grasped the concept of spacing and its importance to the team’s offensive execution. You won’t see him drifting inside the arc like he did in the playoff series against the Mavericks. He fans out to the corners, patiently waiting for the catch-and-shoot opportunity. He takes what the defense gives him.
But therein lies the problem. He’s a 10million per year spot-up shooter. Granted, his efficiency of output has been great, but the ceiling of his output could be so much greater. You don’t just resign a quality slasher and utilize him like a James Jones, much like how you wouldn’t employ Joel Anthony to be a primary pick-and-roll partner with anybody (On that note, be sure to check this out).
Gregg Popovich and Richard Jefferson both have demonstrated utmost dedication to the sport in their efforts in the off-season. The holes in Jefferson’s repertoire — his initial hesitation, lack of ‘corporate knowledge’ -– have been remedied. However, perhaps what they have managed to mask, is not the flaws in Jefferson’s game, but rather, a far greater mistake; the error of signing Jefferson in the first place.