Richard Jefferson no longer thinks about elephants
AT&T CENTER–It was the stuff of Bruce Bowen. With the Spurs clinging to a three-point lead in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter Tony Parker slipped through an opening in the defense and before it could close on him skipped a pass to the corner for Richard Jefferson.
Sensing the moment the crowd roared in anticipation as the ball made its way to an open shooter, without hesitation Jefferson let the shot fly and suddenly it was 2007 again. What a difference a year makes.
Lost in the frustrations of a Game 1 loss and overshadowed by the spectacle that was the return of Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson has quietly put together two solid, if unspectacular, playoff games. His last three-pointer of a 3-for-6 night from long range was the biggest, a momentum killer for the Grizzlies in typical San Antonio Spurs small forward fashion.
This time a year ago the biggest elephant in the room was the performance of the one person who was told not to think about elephantsÂ (via Pro Basketball Talk):
He wasn’t. Duncan told Jefferson not to think about elephants, so RJ did nothing but think about elephants. He told Jefferson not to suck, so RJ did nothing but, well, suck. Jefferson managed to fall short of the one goal the Spurs’ captain placed before him. A 13.1 PER? Ick. 31.6% from three? Yikes. A career-low in FTAs per 36 minutes? Oy vey.
Though he may not be the fourth star many unrealistically expected when the Spurs traded for him in their big offseason gambit two summers ago Jefferson has finally found his niche with the Spurs by expanding his comfort zones.
In last year’s playoffs Tony Parker never would have made that pass because Jefferson never would have been in that corner. Accurate from the baseline if given a few steps in from the 3-point line, Richard Jefferson almost completely abandoned the three-point line in the 2010 playoffs. It’s not that he was missing the shots that he was taking, it’s that those shots were coming from much closer to the rim than the Spurs were accustomed to and killing the spacing for the rest of the offense.
Looking at Jefferson’s shot chart from 2009-2010, as Timothy Varner did a year ago, Richard never would have gotten that shot off from his previously preferred spots against this Memphis Grizzlies team.
A decrease in points per game with an overall field goal percentage that has held steady from last year did not stir up much conversation for Richard Jefferson in Kevin Love’s Most Improved Player of the Year race, but the transformation of the crowd’s reaction from terrified silence to eager murmurs — they now expect the shot to go in — more than suffices. It is how 11 ppg easily trumps 12 ppg.
Keith Bogans jokes aside, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has long considered the small forward position a “œcenterpiece” of sorts for his system. A better term would be glue guy. Someone who can defend competently and score efficiently within the limited context of what the Spurs ask their small forwards to do.
The job description and its lack of touches do not lend themselves toward All-Star games but given the Spurs propensity for deep playoff runs over the years and the coinciding number of open shots from the corner in late clock situations playing alongside Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker provides, it does offer opportunities to create legacies or iconic moments.
In each of the San Antonio Spurs previous four championship seasons they have relied on these 3-and-D centerpieces, building a fraternity of small forwards with big moments along the way. Sean Elliott, Bruce Bowen, Stephen Jackson, Michael Finley. Wednesday night represented the first of such moments for Richard Jefferson, who famously worked hard over the summer with Popovich and the coaching staff to remake himself as a player.
The shooting percentages only hold half the story because Richard Jefferson no longer is limited to just half the court. The improvements in his shot go far beyond just the corner three, though this remains his strength. Limited to the right corner a year ago, according to NBA.com Jefferson’s shot locations are much more varied as they are more accurate. His range has extended beyond the top of the key, where he has now improved from 29% to 41%, an important stat to keep in mind against a Memphis team adamant about not giving up corner threes.
More importantly the increased range has resulted in increased confidence. Jefferson might be doing less than he has at any point in his career, but he is doing less with much more purpose. There is no longer a moment of hesitation as the ball swings to him, which is important.
Because Richard Jefferson will have more opportunities for big shots and he has no time to be thinking about elephants.