Al Jefferson’s 14th NBA season was unlike any other in his long and fruitful career.
Though he played in a career-low 36 games, Big Al was a key contributor to an Indiana Pacers team that exceeded expectations to reach the postseason, doing so as both a valuable fill-in player and a vital leadership component in the Pacers locker room.
Now Al enters the offseason looking for a new home for the sixth time in his NBA career, after Indiana used the stretch provision on his contract, making Big Al a free agent. It was a move that Indiana general manager Kevin Pritchard noted after the season that he was hesitant to make, but one that ultimately became less about player and more about the salary cap.
“You look at him and he’s not playing much but the influence he has on our team is gripping,” Pritchard said after the season, when asked why Al was not moved at the trade deadline. “He really has the team’s ear. I didn’t want to take a player like that off our team and out of our locker room.”
Big Al’s leadership and veteran presence helped the Pacers exceed expectations, even after trading away star Paul George. Indiana earned the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and nearly ended LeBron James’ streak of seven consecutive Finals appearances.
The team’s two acquisitions in the George trade, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, played key roles as well, but to a man, the players in Indiana made note of how Al’s experience and mentorship certainly helped push a young team to new heights.
“He always tells me things like to attack quick,” Sabonis said during the season. “He says I’m a lot quicker than the other guys, so don’t always be banging into someone. If he sees a particular matchup, he’s probably guarded that player a lot more than me, so he tells me what will work.”
As Al now looks to continue his career elsewhere, it’s important to note that when he did get to play, No. 25 more than showed that he still has the skills and ability to perform on the court. Although he didn’t have the volume of minutes he was accustomed to, he was still able to produce.
After a conversation with Pacers management before the season, Big Al accepted and understood his adjusted role with the Pacers, a testament to the character he brought to the locker room. Rather than complain about his playing time, he willfully took a back seat in a professional manner and found other ways to help the franchise succeed, while staying ready to play at a moment’s notice.
“Nate (McMillan) did a great job letting me know my role on this team,” Jefferson said. “And just by me being a professional and understanding it’s a long season, I told him I’m always going to be ready when you call me. Just let me know. I’m going to be ready to go.”
When Al was called upon, he was not only ready, he was fresh and flourished as a result. He showed he has the capacity to provide an instant spark when called upon, off the bench or for a spot start. He posted eight double-digit point performances, highlighted by a vintage 20-point, 12-rebound performance against a Raptors team that also wound up playoff bound.
That performance came during a stretch in March where Al played heavy minutes for the first time all season, including his lone start.
“Two of our centers had ankle injuries within two days and I had to step up and play,” he said. “That was just my role on this team. I was mentally prepared for it.”
Across the entirety of the season, Big Al led the Pacers in field goal percentage, continuing to be the efficient post player he has been known as throughout his career. He also ranked second on the team in points, rebounds and blocked shots on a per-minute basis, making the most of his limited action in a reserve role.
Perhaps just as importantly, he constantly passed along advice to younger big men like Sabonis and Myles Turner, took rookies like Ike Anigbogu and Edmond Sumner under his wing during road trips, and overall provided a steady veteran presence for a young team that lacked experience.
Young players, especially rookies, have plenty to adjust to at the NBA level from the sheer number of games, to travel, to the increase in talent and speed of the game. Al was able to bring valuable advice to those younger players, and proved how important a veteran presence can be.
But as far as Al is concerned, his role was simply a matter of paying it forward in the same way some of his veteran teammates in Boston during his early years did for him. It’s all, he says, a part of being in that NBA brotherhood.
“I remember when I was a rookie, I had the veteran guys who would be there for me and help me through his process. An older guy like myself can come in handy for [rookies] like that. That’s all I try to be and help the young guys understand,” he said. “It meant a lot. I didn’t realize how big of an impact it would be, just being a good guy, being a good veteran, being there for the young guys.”
Coupling his experience with the intensity of the young budding stars of the team propelled the Pacers further than many people expected outside of Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
It’s a message of hope and possibility that he will bring to his new team wherever he may end up.