He was a man among boys in high school. He has, according to his new bosses, a body ready-made for the NBA. His new coach likens him to Ben Wallace, except that unlike Big Ben, this kid can actually score.
But everyone was predictably preaching caution last night when the Celtics announced that Al Jefferson was their first selection in the 2004 NBA Draft. Baloney. If Al Jefferson can't crack the starting lineup of a team that was among the worst rebounding teams in the NBA last season, then something has to be wrong.
Neither Danny Ainge nor Doc Rivers wanted to put any draft night pressure on the 6-foot-10-inch, 265-pound Jefferson, who put up mind-boggling numbers at Prentiss High in Mississippi. As Ainge noted, when you're averaging 42 points, 18 rebounds, and 7 blocked shots a game, you have to be doing something right. As of now, Jefferson has to be the starting No. 4 man on this team. I've seen what they have and he can't be any worse.
Who else is out there? Walter McCarty? Chris Mihm? Please. Maybe Ainge will get some strong 4-man in free agency (Washington's Etan Thomas has been mentioned) but if he doesn't, or even if he does, then this kid has to be given every opportunity to start. The Celtics are a work-in-progress anyway and, we cannot stress enough, they need a rebounder. In the
And you know who's a big fan of Jefferson? One Larry Joe Bird, who was raving about the kid last April.
"He's a very special player," Ainge said of the 19-year-old Jefferson. "He has a ways to go. He's not ready to step in yet."
Maybe conceptually he isn't. If we heard it once last night, we heard it a thousand times. "You're going to have to wait a couple of years." The Orlando Magic heard it when they made Dwight Howard, a high school kid, the No. 1 overall pick. You heard it when the Clippers selected high schooler Shaun Livingston at No. 4. But the NBA is getting younger and younger and unless the Celtics go out and get Wallace, what are their current options at power forward? Re-sign Vin Baker?
The Celtics went into the draft hoping that either Jefferson or Bakersfield High School center Robert Swift, to whom they had made a commitment, would be available. Swift, who worked out for no one, ended up going 12th to Seattle, which was somewhat of a surprise given the Sonics' plethora of overpaid, underachieving centers (Calvin Booth, Jerome James, Vitaly Potapenko).
Jefferson is more athletic than Swift, if less skilled. Ainge said Jefferson's fundamentals are somewhat weak, which didn't speak well for the coaching staff at Prentiss. But what Jefferson apparently has is something that can't be coached -- an insatiable desire for playing basketball and rebounding -- and, this cannot be overstated -- an affinity for what Ainge called the "give and take." In other words, he loves to bang.
Said Rivers, "We needed toughness. We needed size. We needed athleticism. And we needed a rebounder."
Toughness was a prerequisite for any Celtics pick. Both Ainge and Rivers talked about that incessantly in their media availability session Wednesday. Jefferson certainly fits the bill. Oklahoma State's Tony Allen, the Celtics' third pick in the first round, also fits the bill. And Saint Joseph's Delonte West has been compared to Cuttino Mobley all season -- and Mobley plays tough.
Jefferson was described by Ainge as doing a lot of his dirty work on instinct only. That's a good sign. But Rivers threw out the obligatory caution flag -- again.
"I think he will be tough," the coach said. "But even if he wanted to be a tough guy, the officials wouldn't let a rookie be a tough guy."
Jefferson was available in part because of a couple of strange picks ahead of the Celtics. The first one came when the Toronto Raptors, with new general manager Rob Babcock calling the shots, selected Brigham Young center Rafael Araujo. No one thought Araujo would go that high. The Raptors needed size, and Araujo was the most experienced of the big men available, so the pick made sense in that regard. Then, the Portland Trail Blazers, who had a deal with New York City point guard Sebastian Telfair, selected the Sports Illustrated cover boy with the first of their three first-rounders at No. 13. Most figured the Blazers would wait until Nos. 22 or 23 for Telfair; maybe they were informed he wouldn't be there.
Either way, those two picks pretty much guaranteed that Swift or Jefferson would be there. And with Ainge unafraid to roll the dice -- that's two high school players in successive years with first-round picks -- and still talk wistfully about the future, Jefferson made a lot of sense. He was Mr. Basketball in Mississippi; does it get any more authoritative -- or better -- than that?
Jefferson was one of eight high school players selected in the first round -- equaling the total of the last three years. And all eight were selected in the first 19 selections when the Miami Heat took Dorell Wright. The others: Howard (No. 1), Livingston (No. 4), Swift (No. 12), Telfair (No. 13), Josh Smith (No. 17), J.R. Smith (No. 18).