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.”

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