Jefferson transitions to 3-point sniper

MILWAUKEE — When Richard Jefferson arrived in San Antonio in July of 2009, spoils of a trade that remains the boldest gamble of the Spurs’ championship era, coach Gregg Popovich thought he knew what he was getting.

In Jefferson, Popovich envisioned then, the Spurs finally had a do-it-all scoring weapon at small forward.

“His old game was what we wanted,” Popovich said. “He was more of a ‘scorer’ scorer.”

It has taken the better part of two mercurial seasons, and the offseason threat of amnesty, but Jefferson appears to have finally found his niche with the Spurs.

As a 3-point marksman.

Once one of Jason Kidd’s favorite alley-oop targets in New Jersey, Jefferson at age 31 has reinvented himself as the second coming of Steve Kerr.

Heading into tonight’s game at Milwaukee, Jefferson is tied for the NBA lead in 3-pointers made (29) and ranks third in accuracy (58 percent). He is averaging 14.1 points, a big reason the Spurs have gone 3-1 since losing All-Star guard Manu Ginobili to a broken hand Jan. 2.

So far this season, Jefferson has hit multiple 3-pointers in every game but one. He has made at least three in five consecutive games.

“It’s such a long season,” Jefferson said, perhaps trying not to jinx himself. “You look at it, and you don’t want to get too high or too low.”

To those with a passing familiarity of Jefferson’s high-flying past, his newfound proficiency with the 3-ball is like watching Jimi Hendrix take up the cowbell or Van Gogh dabble in finger paints.

Before joining the Spurs this season, point guard T.J. Ford spent his career in the Eastern Conference, facing the old Jefferson.

“He’s made an adjustment,” Ford said. “He was one of the key offensive players in Jersey at one time. The offense was going through him. He came here, and his role changed.”

Jefferson’s success from long range is no fluke. He shot a career-best 44 percent last season, fifth-best in the NBA.

The evolution, from alley-ooper to gunner, did not happen overnight. It was slow, and it was painstaking.

It began here in Milwaukee, where Jefferson set then-career highs in 3-pointers attempted (292) and made (116) the season before he came to San Antonio. That transition only accelerated after he joined the Spurs.

“He’s worked really hard on it with (Spurs shooting coach) Chip Engelland,” Popovich said. “He deserves a lot of credit for spending the time, and Chip deserves a lot of credit for doing the teaching.”

Admittedly, this is not how Popovich imagined Jefferson would contribute when the Spurs traded Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas for him three summers ago.

The first season in San Antonio was a struggle for Jefferson, and for his coaches. Picturing an adaptable, get-to-the-rim scorer along the lines of Sean Elliott, Popovich added new wrinkles to the offense to take advantage of Jefferson’s expected strengths.

There were intricately designed lob plays and calls for him to post up on the block. None of it quite worked.

Unable to mold a new offense around Jefferson, Popovich last season decided to blend Jefferson into the old offense.

The result: Jefferson hit 135 of 307 3-pointers, by any measure his best season from beyond the arc.

“My first year here, I struggled just with the type of shots I was getting, how they were coming,” Jefferson said. “During the summer, I just worked extremely hard on the types of shots that I was getting. And you saw the evolution.”

The goal for Jefferson this season is to continue to evolve.

He began last season almost as hot, averaging nearly 14 points over the first two months before tailing off. Opposing teams had gotten wise to his 3-point act.

“The better you shoot it, the tougher your shots are going to be because teams are going to stop leaving you open,” Jefferson said. “The better you shoot, the harder the game actually gets.”

For now, the Spurs will enjoy Jefferson’s latest scorching streak for what it is — a masterpiece in finger paint.

“You get older, you don’t do the things you used to do,” Ford said. “He’s still a hell of a player.”

Spurs don’t want just anybody at center

By Jeff McDonald

When Spurs coach Gregg Popovich looks at his roster as constituted, he sees what most analysts, scouts and fans in the stands do.

A giant question mark in the middle where the starting center should be.

Unlike many of those armchair pundits, however, Popovich seems to differ on the urgency with which that deficiency need be addressed.

“We probably could use another big in the rotation,” Popovich said. “But I don’t want to put someone there just to have a body there.”

Popovich has called the hunt for a reliable big man to plug next to an aging Tim Duncan the team’s No. 1 personnel goal.

Ten days into training camp, that search is still ongoing.

With the free-agent market for budget big men reduced to crumbs, and the trade market soft, the Spurs have so far been unable to lure outside reinforcements.

With the Dec. 26 opener against Memphis fast approaching, the Spurs appear prepared to start the season with the same frontline last seen getting skid-marked by the Grizzlies in April’s playoffs — minus Antonio McDyess, who appears intent on retirement.

The roll call of available free-agent centers who might fit the Spurs’ price range doesn’t exactly have the front office fumbling for its checkbook. As luxury tax payers, the most the Spurs can offer is a deal starting at $3 million.

That list, highlighted by the likes of Utah’s Kyrylo Fesenko and Toronto’s Alexis Ajinca, “won’t keep you up reading at night, like a good book,” Popovich said.

“I want that person to at least be able to help us when we put him in the game, instead of just take up minutes.”

Instead of rushing to fill a void with a player they don’t really want, the Spurs appear content to see what shakes out during the season, up until the March 15 trade deadline.

McDyess’ contract — worth $5.22 million but guaranteed for only $2.64 million until the end of the day today — appears to be the team’s most worthwhile trade chip.

Even at full price, McDyess’ expiring deal would likely interest a team looking to shed salary to chase a bumper crop of free agents this summer.

“We’re going to be patient and just take our time and see what develops,” Popovich said.

In the meantime, the Spurs’ search for a center will cycle through a familiar list of in-house candidates, each of them incomplete in some way.

Matt Bonner was the NBA’s leading 3-point shooter last season at 45.7 percent, but will never be confused with Bill Russell on defense. DeJuan Blair is undersized at 6-foot-7, has battled weight issues and, at 22, is still developing.

Tiago Splitter is a Brazilian mystery, limited to 60 games of mostly mop-up duty during an injury-speckled rookie year. In a sense, Popovich views Splitter as this season’s de facto free-agent signee.

“We haven’t really seen Tiago much, so he’s kind of a new player this year,” Popovich said. “He’s going to give us a lot of minutes we have to have, because of the quick schedule.”

With Duncan held out of Saturday’s preseason-opening loss at Houston, Splitter started at center next to Blair and scored 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting.

“I want to grow my game,” Splitter said. “I know how to play. I just want to help the team win games.”

Once upon a time, with Duncan in his two-time MVP prime, the Spurs were able to win championships with the likes of Rasho Nesterovic and Fabricio Oberto flanking him.

With Duncan’s 36th birthday approaching, the Spurs now require more from their starting center than to just be tall and ambulatory.

Popovich believes the Spurs can afford to remain patient in finding that person. For now, at least.

Spurs slowly getting business in order

The Spurs unlocked the doors to their practice complex Thursday morning, but players didn’t exactly barge through.

Maybe they knew members of the team’s medical staff were waiting inside, ready to give each player the requisite preseason physical exam.

Who likes an ice-cold stethoscope pressed against bare skin anyway?

Only three Spurs showed up for physicals Thursday: team captain Tim Duncan, second-year guard James Anderson and first-round draft pick Cory Joseph.

Most other members of the team aren’t expected to arrive until the weekend, and authorized offseason workouts won’t begin for another day or two.

According to one eyewitness, Duncan looked fit and trim.

All-Star point guard Tony Parker is scheduled to take a flight from Paris today and is expected at the practice facility Saturday or Sunday.

All-Star guard Manu Ginobili — who had been in San Antonio for a few weeks before the Nov. 10 breakdown in labor negotiations — will be in town Wednesday, according to his agent, Herb Rudoy.

Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and his staff continued talking to representatives of free agents so the club can be prepared for the opening of free agency, scheduled for Dec. 9.

A report in the Argentine sports publication Ole! on Thursday quoted former Spurs center Fabricio Oberto expressing hope that he might return to the Spurs for one more season.

According to that report, the Spurs had talked with Oberto’s Argentina-based agent before the lockout and showed interest in bringing the 36-year-old center back to the team.

Buford would neither confirm nor deny the team’s interest in the big man.

Traded by the Spurs in the 2008 deal that acquired forward Richard Jefferson, Oberto retired from the Portland Trail Blazers last season after suffering a recurrence of atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that twice sidelined him during his four seasons with the Spurs.

Cleared in July to play for Argentina in the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament in Mar del Plata, Argentina, Oberto was a solid contributor to his national team winning the gold medal in that grueling tournament. He is expected to play for Argentina during the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

Meanwhile, a significant hurdle on the path to a new collective bargaining agreement has been cleared. The players union will be reconstituted after receiving recertification cards from more than 260 player members. This will allow bargaining to continue with the NBA in an effort to complete a collective bargaining agreement in time for the planned Christmas Day opening of the 2011-12 season.