2014-15 in Review: Cory Jefferson
Selected with the last pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, Cory Jefferson has already shown the potential and flashes of big play ability in his rookie season that could lead to an expanded role for the Brooklyn Nets in 2015-16. His five-year career at Baylor University ended with him ranked fifth in the Big 12’s history in defensive rebounds, eighth in offensive rebounds, and 12th in Player Efficiency Rating, but a shaky jumper and some stagnant development in his senior season caused him to slip to the 60th pick in the draft. While the organization’s philosophy on draft picks in recent seasons has been to use them as currency or assets by which to acquire experienced NBA talent, Nets general manager Billy King instead used actual currency to trade into the second round of the 2014 Draft on three separate occasions to add experienced college talent to the back end of the roster. Jefferson (and Markel Brown, a senior from Oklahoma State) promptly signed with the organization and began working his way in (and then out) of head coach Lionel Hollins’s rotation.
Playing time initially came sporadically for Cory Jefferson in his first month in the NBA. With center Brook Lopez out against the Boston Celtics on opening night, Jefferson saw just under nine minutes of action (scoring eight points on two field goal attempts) in his professional debut, and then 23 seconds in three appearances over the next few weeks. His lone start came in mid-December and with Kevin Garnett out of the lineup for the road portion of a back-to-back, in which he scored 11 points with five rebounds, two assists, a block, and a +25 plus/minus-differential in a 27-point win in Charlotte. He would return to the bench again and into 2015, before playing in 11-consecutive games in late January/February and then another 12-game streak in March. The team’s signing of Earl Clark on March 27th basically relegated Jefferson to blowout duty to close the season, and he spent the six-game playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks on the bench and inactive for the final four games.
Cory Jefferson appeared in 50 total games in his rookie season, and averaged 3.7 points and 2.9 rebounds per game (or 12.4, 9.8, and 1.4 blocks per 36 minutes) for the Nets on 48/13.3/57.4 percentages on two-point field goals, threes, and free throws. His 101 individual offensive rating wasn’t quite as high as his 106 on defense (per 100 possessions), but his 13.2 PER and 32.3 free-throw attempt rate were both solid for a rookie. Jefferson was slightly below average in shooting percentages around the rim and from long distance, yet excels in the mid-range area, from which he’s attempted just 27 shots this season. He should be able to extend his range consistently from beyond the arc (just 2/15 last season), and he possesses some of the skills and physical attributes necessary to become a devastating pick-and-roll big man.
Jefferson’s athleticism is of the “insane”-variety. Fully capable of Vine-ing his defender (or himself) at any given moment due to his 37.5-inch vertical, he’ll have plenty of open opportunities to take the jumper as the defenses prevent his rolls to the rim and work to keep him out of the paint. Though already 24 years old due to a redshirt freshman season at Baylor, Cory Jefferson attacks the rim with an almost youthful exuberance, as if his only intent is to out-athletic (and destroy) the opposition.
Outside of that (hilarious) air-ball against the Chicago Bulls, he’s quite capable on the catch-and-shoot; his issues begin once he puts the ball on the floor and has to rely on his athleticism to get himself out of tough situations. He’ll play with too much energy at times but is pretty skilled and has good instincts, once he slows down and doesn’t try to do too much by going for the highlight play. The high release point on his jumper will be tough for defenders to bother, combined with his 7’0.5” wingspan, and once he begins increasing his volume from the mid-range and beyond, it’ll only open up driving lanes for more Vine-ing opportunities.
Cory Jefferson’s flaws are even more pronounced on the defensive end, as are his strengths. As with most rookie bigs he’ll often over-help or struggle to stay with his man, and use his physical skills to cover up for sloppy positioning or technique. He has the leaping ability to spare, but also has good timing on some of his blocked shots and the requisite length to bother shot attempts. Unlike most rookie bigs, though, he hasn’t been hampered much by fouling issues, save for an early April game against the Washington Wizards where he picked up five fouls in under 12 minutes. His limited minutes certainly contribute, but Jefferson has the potential to be a strong defender down the line and has already had a positive effect upon the Brooklyn defense in ‘14-15.
As a second-round pick, Cory Jefferson has one more year remaining on his rookie contract that is only partially guaranteed for 2015-16. According to Basketball Reference, if he remains on the Brooklyn roster through July 15, 2015 then he’s guaranteed $150k next season, but his salary won’t become fully guaranteed until September 29th. The Nets could certainly cut Jefferson, Brown, and Clark and save themselves nearly three million this summer to use towards re-signing or replacing Lopez and Thaddeus Young, but more likely is that the two sophomores survive and are soon joined by a new crop of Nets second-round draft picks (and even a first rounder!) in training camp.
For Jefferson, an offseason spent adding muscle and increasing the range on his jumper should help him to increase his role in Brooklyn’s rotation in 2015-16. The team should look largely the same next season, unless Young or Lopez exercise their player options and enter free agency, which will put pressure on younger players like Markel Brown and Cory Jefferson to develop and not only contribute to another playoff run but also to hit free agency in the summer of 2016. With another offseason in an NBA system and some continued physical development, Cory Jefferson should have every opportunity to lock down the back-up power forward position next season for the Brooklyn Nets.