Richard Jefferson joined the Jazz after a trade from the Golden State Warriors who were simply clearing payroll so they could fit Andre Iquodala under the salary cap. Jefferson brought Andris Biedrins, Brandon Rush, a hefty salary and five draft picks with him.
During his last season in Golden State he started only one game and played in just 56, and his stats took a hit across the board. It was just the previous season that he was traded from the Spurs to the Warriors and played less than 30 minutes a game for the first time since his rookie season.
Jefferson went from being a borderline superstar, to a player that would start just one game in the 2012-2013 season. He averaged just 3.1 points and shot his worst three-point percentage since his second year in the league.
Given the recent history, many Jazz fans may have looked at Jefferson and assumed he was here to grab a few more NBA checks for before hanging up the sneakers and spending the rest of his days barefoot on a beach somewhere. Jazz head coach Tyrone Corbin looked at it a little differently.
“I spoke with him after we made the trade and told him, ‘it’s an open book, it’s a new start. Come in in the best shape you can get in and try to compete and contribute to the team and we’ll see what happens.’ And he did a great job,” Corbin said after being asked what his expectations were for Jefferson heading into the season.
He went on to praise the work ethic that Jefferson showed during training camp and the preseason saying that the veteran didn’t take any drills off even though a lot of guys his age would have.
With that determination Jefferson has become one of – if not the most – consistent player on the Jazz. His numbers have returned to their pre-Warriors level and he’s started all 72 games for Utah. His scoring clip is even at it’s best since his first season in San Antonio dropping .38 points per minute.
“He wanted to be involved in everything and as a result he’s having the year he’s having,” Corbin said of Jefferson’s success.
As the Jazz most experienced player this season he has learned to look at the big picture more than his teammates and often talks to the press like he’s a coach – not a player.
“There’s a lot of fight in this team,” Jefferson said. “I’ve said it to a few fans and reporters; Alec Burks has never played this type of minutes, Trey Burke has never played this many games, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward have never played this many minutes. It’s not that guys aren’t playing hard, they’re just running out of steam.”
While Jefferson surely knows he’s showcasing his talents for one more lucrative NBA contract, he seems set on not running out of steam. Along with his personal expectations, he clearly sees the value in helping his younger teammates along their way in the NBA.
Speaking about his team, and the Jazz franchise, Jefferson was pretty upfront that the team this year is trying to win, emphasizing that’s exactly how it should be. While after every close win this season, Twitter has been littered with fans condemning the franchise for not being more dedicated to next year’s draft, Jefferson believes winning is more important. He even said losing was the “worst thing” for a young team.
“You don’t just learn how to win,” Jefferson said. “Learning how to win is something that takes years. It takes a long time to understand what it takes to get there. If you’re just going to take a year off and say, ‘oh no we’re not trying to win games,’ that’s not good for your franchise.”
While the wins have been sparse this season, it’s clear the Utah Jazz young players haven’t taken the year off. While fans say they’d be happy with a record more like the Bucks (13-58), it’s worth considering that even more losses could have set the franchise even further back than sliding two positions in the draft.
It’s not surprising that Jefferson is willing to share similar sentiments with the press and fans. On March 12 after a 108-101 loss to the Dallas Mavericks Jefferson spent 15-20 minutes in the tunnels of EnergySolutions Arena answering questions for a group of young men.
At first, the group was hesitant to just fire away at the former star but then the questions started rolling. As he answered anything they could throw at him the questions began to run dry so he prodded them for more trying to figure out what he could tell the kids that would benefit them.
That was a night that Jefferson went 1-5 from three and scored 12 points. He wasn’t obligated to drag questions out of the youngsters but he did because he loves sharing his knowledge of basketball. It’s that love that has helped bolster the Jazz this year in a way that his play just can’t anymore.
Jefferson’s legacy in Utah is something more than just a salary dump. It’s worth noting that Jefferson wasn’t here just to play but he was here to teach a young team the importance of winning.