During Al Jefferson's final season with Minnesota, he was known as a great back-to-the-basket player. Jefferson was traded to Utah last year and his post game subsequently declined, as evidenced by his points per possession (PPP) on the block drop from .921 two years ago to .893 last season. Despite a dip in the aspect of the game for which Jefferson is best known, he still managed to improve his overall output.
Not only did Jefferson see his scoring increase from 17.1 to 18.6 and his True Shooting Percentage improve slightly to 52.8 percent, he was able to cut down his turnovers. After posting a turnover rate of 9.9 percent two seasons ago, Jefferson cut his turnovers all the way down to 6.8, the lowest of his career.
Why did this happen? Jefferson diversified on the offensive end, putting himself in positions and situations where he better able to protect the ball. In his final season with the Timberwolves, Jefferson posted up 56.3 percent of the time and even though he was putting up good numbers, too much holding onto the basketball proved costly when it came to turnovers. This past season, Jefferson posted up 38.2 percent of the time, a number that still takes advantage of his strong post game, but allows him to take advantage of other skills. For example, Jefferson was able to start cutting off of the basketball a little more, a feature of the offensive system employed in Utah by Jerry Sloan and his replacement, Tyron Corbin. Jefferson's cut percentage jumped from 6.8 two years ago to 17.9 last year:
It wasn't like the Jazz were askinig Jefferson do something with which he wasn't comfortable. Jefferson is very good at moving without the ball, making the catch, and going up quickly for shot. At 6'11", this is a pretty tough skillset to stop, and the numbers beat that out-- Jefferson posted a PPP 1.258 on his cuts, putting him in the top half of the league.
In addition to letting Jefferson work off the ball, cutting into and finding open space, Jefferson was used in the pick-and-roll as well, becoming the roll man on screens 7.3 percent of the time. In Minnesota, Jefferson wasn't an elite pick-and-roll player, but that changed when he got to Utah. His PPP of 1.156 placed Jefferson in the top 13 percent among NBA players. Jefferson was especially effective setting high ball screens (which were run 42.2 percent of the time), scoring 1.457 points per possession, a number that places him in the top 5 percent among NBA players. He shot 70.9 percent from the field on those high ball screens:
When watching the tape, it is pretty easy to see why Jefferson had success with the high ball screen, something that was run just 22 percent of his time with Minnesota. Jefferson is a mobile big who can set a screen up high and quickly dive to the rim while his defender hedges. Jefferson's mobility makes it tough for the defense to show and recover, allowing for Jefferson to find himself in favorable positions.
The Jazz put Jefferson in more positions where he could just catch while diving to the rim and quickly go up with the basketball. It's easy to understand why Jefferson's turnover percentage improved so much. Instead of dumping the ball to him in the post and forcing him to create own his own more than half of the time, which is what was happening in Minnesota, Utah was allowing Jefferson to use a more full range of his skills, making the game easier for him.
Sebastian Pruiti is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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