Leaping at the Chance

The Sky's No Limit—Yet—For Nets' Jefferson

"Does that guy have a credential?" quipped the security guard.

A tall young man had sauntered unmolested into the pressroom at the Brendan Byrne Arena. It was Richard Jefferson, the forward on whose shoulders the New Jersey Nets' near, and distant, future squarely lies.

"Where's the chili dogs?" Jefferson joked as he surveyed the motley spread of chicken enchiladas and a mélange à trois of vegetables.

R-Jeff was fresh from a pre-game shoot-around and an impromptu autograph session. On his way back to the locker room, he and the very pale Brian Scalabrine stopped to sign for a couple dozen early-arriving kids, and instead of scrawling the way most vets do, Jefferson carefully inscribed each ball as if he were signing his sig for the first time.

"I came in here especially for chili dogs," he said to the pressroom foodies with mock disappointment, as he strode over to the dessert tray, picked up a piece of yellow cake with chocolate frosting, took a measured bite, then stuffed the rest in his mouth. Tracy McGrady and the Magic were in town, so a growing boy needed his energy. Jefferson sauntered out as casually as he sauntered in, attracting little attention, even though it's the first time I'd ever seen a player enter a pressroom by choice. It was a classic sophomore move. A rookie wouldn't dare do it for the hell he'd catch from the vets, while a veteran wouldn't do it because, well, vets don't eat sportswriter food. Welcome to Richard's World.

Make no mistake about it: GM Rod "He Who Drafted Michael" Thorn is betting the proverbial farm on Richard Jefferson. It started on Draft Day 2001, when Thorn traded Rutgers star Eddie Griffin for Jefferson, who was a role player at the University of Arizona, and center Jason Collins of Stanford. Right now the deal—two starters for a bench player—seems like a no-brainer. But it didn't at the time, and it might not a year from now, if the erratic Griffin can ever find a head to match his Duncan-esque body.

Thorn doubled down that gamble when he traded the Nets' original Mr. Softee, Keith Van Horn, for Dikembe Mutombo. It was a classic case of addition by subtraction, with Van Horn's departure freeing up minutes for Jefferson.

And Jefferson has responded. Although he's been in the starting lineup for only a couple dozen games, his numbers are solid and improving—14.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists. Look behind the numbers and it gets more impressive. Jefferson's .514 shooting percentage is among the best in the league. While his jumper is hardly a thing of beauty—he still uses a two-handed over-the-head heave that he no doubt learned in his family's driveway in Phoenix before his first growth spurt—it's no longer a liability, thanks in part to a million games of HORSE this summer.

Jefferson's recent rebounding spurt was the result of an epiphany. In a game against Phoenix, his assignment was to hit the boards against Shawn Marion. He did, the Nets won, and a light bulb went on. "I saw how easy it was," he recalls. "Just making yourself available, picking your spots. Seven, eight, nine, I can do that consistently, I believe, and the nights where I get 15, the ball's just bouncing my way."

As he answers questions, in clear, calculated phrases, delivered in a surprisingly high-pitched nasal tone, Jefferson would be an easy target for, say, the Wayans brothers. He's got playground hops, but he might be the only player in the league who'll cop to listening to Fleetwood Mac. And while he sports a de rigueur tattoo, the sentiments surrounding his initials are strictly Hallmark—Parents, God, Family, Brothers. He's about as much of a gangsta as Scalabrine, and that's OK. Like the Nets themselves, Jefferson lives on the suburban fringe of hip.

On the court is something else. In a recent game against the Magic, as the first half was coming to an end, Jason Kidd made a steal in traffic, and before the All-World point guard could even put the ball on the floor, Jefferson was streaking up the left side on the break. Kidd flipped a bounce pass, Jefferson stutter-stepped waiting for the ball, then launched over Darrell Armstrong. You could measure his hang time with a sundial, and RJ threw down a one-handed tomahawk, with, as the sportswriters like to say, authority.

There's no coincidence that Jefferson lockers next to Kidd. If he's not Jerry Rice to Kidd's Joe Montana, he is at least his Freddie Solomon. With his above-the-rim game and run-and-gun mentality, Jefferson is arguably the most exciting—if not the best—player to don a Net uniform since Julius Erving—or at least since that one night back in 1994 when Chris Morris came to play.

But NBA players—even defense-less ones like the Magic—don't like to be on the short end of SportsCenter replays. So late in the third, when Kidd threw an alley-oop to Jefferson, Pat Garrity timed it, and laid a body on the airborne Jefferson, sending him sprawling into a clutch of photographers. Message delivered, no harm done, and with a 27-point lead, Byron Scott took his starters out of frustration's way.

Before Friday night's game against the Wizards, Jefferson answered questions about another typical assignment: guarding the guy whose poster he had on his bedroom wall in high school.

"You can say you scored 20 on Michael," a reporter suggested.

"He scored 40 on me," laughed Jefferson, remembering how Jordan torched him in his first-ever NBA start. "And if I did score 20, people would say, hey, he was 49 years old, so it doesn't mean anything."

But what a difference a year makes. In an almost supernaturally sloppy game, Jefferson was the only one who could find the hole, grooving his medium-range jumpers and notching a dozen in the first quarter. Jefferson harassed his onetime idol into a why-did-I-come-back-again night, holding him to five for 20 shooting on a night when the Wiz scored a franchise-low 65.

Normally Byron Scott is Mr. Tough Love, but he positively gushed about Jefferson after the game: "You have to give him credit. The young fellow is playing great."

But the real seal of approval came in the opponents' locker room. Never a good loser, the greatest player of all time wasn't a happy camper. Asked if Jefferson was an All-Star, Michael praised him with faint damnation. "It's tough for me to determine that," he grumbled. "I've only seen him twice. That's something the coaches are going to have to decide."

Steve Adamek of the Bergen Record got right to the point: "Richard said if you're 22 and he's 22, you'll kick his ass." His Airness cracked his first and only smile of the evening and said, "That's a good assessment."

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