Last year was a tough year for Richard Jefferson. In his first year with the Spurs, he put up career lows in points, assists, steals, field goal and free throw attempts. He turned thirty over the off-season and could easily have begun the long, slow slog out of basketball – except that Gregg Popovich was his coach.
Baseball and basketball both have their proven pre-season stories. In baseball, the pitcher has learned a new pitch and the position player is in the best shape of his life - or so those stories go. In basketball, they’ve worked on their jump shot or upped their defense. It’s hard to take much from them.
Except perhaps in this case. Gregg Popovich gave his small forward a choice: enjoy your summer, continue to put money in the bank, and I’ll probably trade you as soon as I can. Or: work with our trainers, our coaching staff, and me personally to fulfill your potential and be the best you can be. Jefferson took the hard way, worked all summer, and spawned plenty of pre-season stories about his cut physique.
It’s a terrible sample, this early-season “n” of two, but maybe we can see something in the numbers that bode well for Jefferson to continue this resurgence. We know we can ignore some numbers based on the small sample, though. For example, his field goal percentage (64.7%) and PER (24.18) won’t continue. And we can retain our skepticism about the rest of the numbers, too. But there are good signs.
For example, his assist rate is at a five-year high at this point (16.34, 13.75 previous five-year high), which could come from learning the Spurs offense better. His percentage of long twos (the least efficient shot in basketball) is down to a career low (11.7%), which hopefully came straight from the coach’s mouth. Though his rebound rate is down slightly (7.0 after ranging from 6.2 to 8.3 the last four years), it’s about in line with his career numbers and it’s nothing a few more minutes a game (27 this year, 31 last year) couldn’t fix.
So far so good, but really the best news comes in one place and one place alone. Jefferson’s free-throw rate has jumped precipitously this year – it’s up to .88 from a five-year low last year (.37). He’s averaging 7.5 free throws a game so far, compared to 5.5 field goals. Last year, that was 3.5 free throws against 9.6 field goals. He’s getting to the line more often right now – that free throw rate has him at 16th in the league (9th in the league among players with 20+ MPG).
The sample size is small, and right now his free throw percentage is low (66.7%). But once he gets it back to his career level (77.7%), all those free throws will be an asset to his team. And once he’s shown he can be an asset to his team, he’ll get more minutes and more time with the ball – all things that will help his fantasy value. Jefferson’s not elite in any category, but as a final player on the bench, he does have fantasy value. And we know Popovich cares about his game, which looks like it's a good thing.