Heading into Monday night’s game against the Charlotte Bobcats there was an obvious storyline: Big Al Jefferson’s big return. Just over a week ago the Jazz made the trip to visit Al and the ‘Cats and Enes Kanter made sure the former Jazzman knew what was coming from last year’s teammates with a note promising to pump fake him all night and warning him that Jeremy Evans was going to dunk on him.
The dunk may not have happened but behind eight points from Kanter, 14 from Derrick Favors, and the two combining for 11 rebounds the Jazz got out of Charlotte with three point win. So upon his return to Salt Lake everybody wanted to know how the two young bigs would do against Big Al this time around. Before the game Jefferson didn’t sound too nervous.
“I taught them everything they know,” Jefferson said with a chuckle. “Favors and Enes really stepped their post game up to another level. They got a lot smarter and understand what it takes to score.”
And therein lies the true storyline from Monday’s match-up: Favors’ opportunity. When Jefferson cashed in in Charlotte, Favors got his chance to show Jazz fans what they’ll have in the paint for at least four more seasons.
Before tipoff, shortly after Jefferson received a well-deserved ovation from the 19,000 plus Jazz faithful in attendance, Favors hovered on one free throw line pacing and Jefferson did the same on the opposite end of the court. Each man stoic and focused. Maybe Jefferson did teach Favors a lot of what the youngster knows.
Whatever the case, Favors’ play has helped the Jazz this season recover from the drastic drop in performance they experienced early in the year. Favors is playing an average of 31.5 minutes a night this year, that’s up from 23.2 last season. The substantial boost in minutes have come in a starting role he’s never known with such consistency in the NBA. Last year with Jefferson at the helm in the paint for Utah, Favors started seven times, this year he’s started all 32 games he’s played.
With a huge bump in minutes, his shooting hasn’t suffered one iota – knocking down 51.2 percent of his looks, bumping it up 2.3 percent on more attempts. He’s also been careful to keep himself available for head coach Tyrone Corbin picking up just 3.9 fouls per 36 minutes, last year that number was scary-high at 5 fouls per 36.
“He’s been huge all year long,” Corbin said after the game Monday. “We need him to continue to get better… He comes across and makes tremendous plays for us. We need him to continue to anchor our defense.”
As far as the matchup everybody wanted to see, Corbin was happy with the effort that Favors and Kanter put into stopping their former mentor.
“They made him work for everything he got. He took a lot more shots and he didn’t make a high percentage of them tonight,” Corbin said. “I thought we did a decent job on him.”
While coach may have been happy with the performance and the win, Favors was pleased overall but mentioned he still fell for Jefferson’s lethal shot fake once or twice.
“It’s always tough going against Al, even when he was here in practice and stuff it was always tough,” Favors said. “He’s one of those players that’s going to get his points… The only thing you can do is just try and make it tough. (HIs pump fake) is probably the best in NBA history. I don’t know how I fall for it, I know it’s coming.”
For 2013, Favors and Kanter won the battle against Big Al. Statistically the two young guns combine to just about equal Jefferson. In the two head-to-head matchups Jefferson has pulled in 21 rebounds and scored 37 points, Utah’s duo has grabbed 24 boards and outscored Jefferson by two with 39 points. Granted, the two played a lot more minutes than the individual in this scenario, but Jefferson collects a lot more money for his daily effort than even that of the combined salary of Favors and Kanter this year.
Really though, the biggest thing to glean from Jefferson’s first return to Salt Lake City wasn’t that the Jazz are just as good without him, the record proves just the opposite. It wasn’t that the Jazz let a big fish in a small pond escape. It was that the future in Utah is bright with Favors at the helm of the defense.
Most people believe, and I agree, Favors will never have the scoring ability of Big Al, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be just as valuable an asset in the coming years. Getting paid half as much as Jefferson this year, even if those numbers will get a little closer in the near future, Favors’ upside is tremendous. Since taking over the paint in Utah from Jefferson he has shined defensively and been very adequate on offense.
Besides a three point win for the Jazz, the story from Monday was that Favors is the right player to anchor the Jazz inside for years to come.
How did you feel about seeing Big Al back in Salt Lake? Were you part of the 90 percent cheering his return or the 10 percent booing?