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Checking in with the new Richard Jefferson

Nov 1, 2010, 7:30 PM EDT

Richard Jefferson

Though Tiago Splitter was San Antonio’s big off-season addition, it’s an improved Richard Jefferson that could really give the ’10-’11 Spurs some teeth. San Antonio was a fine team last season, but with Splitter bolstering the Spurs’ depth and Jefferson revamping his approach, Duncan and company could conceivably improve enough to sniff the West’s top tier.

That master plan very much depends on Jefferson’s improvement, though. San Antonio could really use a more efficient and productive RJ this year, as opposed to the inferior ill-fitting model we saw with the Spurs last season. Jefferson put in a ton of work this summer with Gregg Popovich and his staff trying to better understand the offense and work on the fundamentals of his game, and so far, it’s paying off. Eno Sarris of HoopData expounds on which statistical areas of improvement have been the most significant thus far for Jefferson:

For example, his assist rate is at a five-year high at this point (16.34, 13.75 previous five-year high), which could come from learning the Spurs offense better. His percentage of long twos (the least efficient shot in basketball) is down to a career low (11.7%), which hopefully came straight from the coach’s mouth. Though his rebound rate is down slightly (7.0 after ranging from 6.2 to 8.3 the last four years), it’s about in line with his career numbers and it’s nothing a few more minutes a game (27 this year, 31 last year) couldn’t fix.

So far so good, but really the best news comes in one place and one place alone. Jefferson’s free-throw rate has jumped precipitously this year – it’s up to .88 from a five-year low last year (.37). He’s averaging 7.5 free throws a game so far, compared to 5.5 field goals. Last year, that was 3.5 free throws against 9.6 field goals. He’s getting to the line more often right now – that free throw rate has him at 16th in the league (9th in the league among players with 20+ MPG).

We know: sample size, sample size, sample size. But Jefferson’s style of play is what’s leading to his increase in free throw rate, not merely the frequency of beneficial calls. Numbers can tell truths even two games into the season, and while an entire statistical profile will mislead at this stage, there’s sill plenty to be learned.

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