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The Lure of the Lottery

/ Source: StudentSports

Hes a small town kid from Mississippi who likes to fish, but Al Jefferson could be one of the best catches himself in this years NBA draft. In the latest issue (Nov. 2003) of Student Sports Magazine, we profile the outstanding hoop prospect and feature some of the highlights from the magazine here

Prentiss, Mississippi has been on the map for many, many years. Its just that most folks outside the general vicinity might need either a whole lot of time or a handy magnifying glass to locate it..

Right there in the south central part of the Magnolia State, about 30 miles northwest of Hattiesburg and 60 miles southeast of the state capital in Jackson, lies the sleepy seat of Jefferson Davis County, where the official web site welcomes visitors with an instrumental version of God Bless America.

Highway 84 winds through the town with some 1,500 residents, passing the Triangle Caf, Garraways Hardware and Wards hamburgers. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of communities much like it, sprinkled through the Southeast and the rest of the nation.

All seem to have a stoplight or two, an annual holiday parade and a place where kids gather after Friday night football games. What almost none of those places can claim, however, is a reason for NBA scouts to visit during basketball season.

Such is the case in tiny Prentiss, where hometown hero Al Jefferson is widely recognized as one of Americas best five players in the Class of 2004.

A 6-foot-9, 260-pound force in the low post, Jefferson (or Big Al as hes simply known in Mississippi basketball circles) cemented his national reputation with a standout performance at the Nike All-America Camp in Indianapolis and the Nike Peach Jam in Augusta, Georgia.

But when summer was over, the 18-year-old Jefferson was more than happy to leave his hectic travel schedule and the media spotlight behind for the laid-back life in Prentiss, where his newest hobby couldnt be more relaxing. "I just started fishing again in September," Jefferson said. "I did it goofing off when I was a young kid, but I love fishing. Its quiet for when you have a lot of stuff on your mind. Youve got to be patient, though. They dont want to bite sometimes. Theyve got a mind of their own."

The same can be said for Jefferson, who surprised most basketball fans in Mississippi when he verbally committed to Arkansas in June. Many folks figured or at least hoped hed pick a college in his home state.

Mississippis two McDonalds All-Americans from last season, Travis Outlaw of Starkville and Jackie Butler of McComb, initially cast their lot with Mississippi State before making late detours to the Portland Trail Blazers and Laurinburg Institute, a North Carolina prep school.

"Youve got people who are always going to put in their little negative two cents," Jefferson said. "I got that when I committed to Arkansas. They said, Why Arkansas? Why not Mississippi State? Thats where everybody expected me to go because of Travis and Jackie. I felt like it would have been a crowd. I didnt want to be a follower; I wanted to be a leader. Im not saying what they did was a mistake, but I just wanted to do things my own way. Thats the way Ive always been."

Yet Jeffersons choice of Arkansas doesnt lessen his fondness for his hometown or home state. Its a message Jefferson was eager to share on his summer travels with the Jackson Tigers, who won the AAU 16-and-under national championship in 2002.

"It let people know weve got players from here," Jefferson said.

Indeed, Mississippi has a long history of successful athletes from small cities, smaller towns and even smaller communities.

Football legends Walter Payton (Columbia), Jerry Rice (Crawford) and Brett Favre (Kiln) came from the back roads of the Magnolia State.

So have current NBA players like Antonio McDyess (Quitman) and Clarence Weatherspoon (Crawford) of the New York Knicks, Lorenzen Wright (Oxford) of the Memphis Grizzlies, Erick Dampier (New Hebron) of the Golden State Warriors and Jonathan Bender (Picayune) of the Indiana Pacers.

That was one reason Jefferson felt no urgency to relocate to fulfill his hoop dreams even in a state where football remains king by a country mile. "Thats a strong message Al is sending," said Larry Stamps, Jeffersons coach for the Tigers and a Jackson attorney. "Im from a small town, too. Really, Mississippi is mostly rural. We need to encourage these kids that they can make it from anywhere and achieve what they need to achieve. That goes not only for athletics, but for academics, too.

Al probably could have gone to some academy in Virginia or whatever, but he wanted to be at home with his people. I always said to him, Why do you need to go anyplace else? God has blessed you this far and you were born and raised in Prentiss, Mississippi. "

It was at the local park where Jefferson first displayed his basketball skills. He initially believed his future was in football until his mother, Laura, pulled him off the team as punishment for failing to keep up his grades.

"Id probably still be playing football if it wasnt for my mom, so I guess I should thank her for doing it," said Jefferson, whose father, Alvin Randolph, drowned when Al was less than a year old. His uncle, Ceroy Jefferson, plays a large part in Als life.

Jefferson didnt take long to find his niche on the court. Prentiss coach Lonnie McLemore first heard about "this big kid down the way," when McLemore was coaching at another high school in the area.

Jefferson made an impact on the Prentiss High varsity as an eighth-grader, when his first dunk sent him excitedly sprinting around the gym while the game was still in action. By the time he was a freshman, Jefferson measured 6-8 and was already recognized as one of Mississippis premier players.

As a sophomore and again as a junior, Jefferson earned first-team All-State honors when he led a Prentiss team that was up and down for much of the season to the Class 3A state championship.

In the title game, Jefferson delivered a performance to remember with 45 points (including eight dunks), 15 rebounds and 8 blocked shots as the Bulldogs defeated Corinth 59-52 at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson.

For the season, Jefferson averaged more than 30 points per game with 18 rebounds and five blocked shots for 29-8 Prentiss.

Yet despite his national reputation and dominating performance in three games in the Boys State Tournament, Jefferson was edged out for Mr. Basketball honors in Mississippi not by Butler or Outlaw, but by Charlie White, a 5-10 point guard who led Jackson Provine to the Class 4A state championship and the states overall No. 1 ranking.

White, considered a Top 75 prospect nationally, has committed to Mississippi State.

Some suggested Jeffersons comparatively slow start last season, when he was weighing in the neighborhood of 280 pounds, hurt his chances for the award. Then there was the matter of his head-to-head matchup with Butler when Prentiss played McComb in a tournament last November at Forrest City, Ark. McComb, with likely a superior supporting cast, ripped Prentiss 66-42 as Butler outscored Jefferson 27-12.

While Jefferson was happy for White (his summer circuit teammate with the Tigers) he seems determined to silence all skeptics during his final season of high school basketball.

"I think I quieted a lot of them over the summer," said Jefferson, who gradually shed some 40 pounds in part by steering clear of his beloved Dannys Fried Chicken in Prentiss.

"Some games last year I had 20 or 22 points. People would say, Al whats wrong? But at the same time we won. Theyd look at me like I didnt do much, which would make me mad because I think 22 points with a W, well, thats a good job."

This season, however, there may not be few games when Jefferson is limited to "only" 22 points. McLemore and Stamps both praised Jeffersons off-season workout routine and dedication. Always a powerful inside player with a nose for the basket on offense, Jefferson strived to improve his quickness and perimeter shooting touch. He knows his future in college and beyond is likely at power forward.

"As big as Al is physically, hes even bigger on the inside," Stamps said. "His mental toughness is some of the best Ive ever seen. His desire to win is some of the best Ive seen. I think thats what sets Al apart from some of these other guys across the country who people are talking about. When Als on the court, he wants to put his teammates on his back and carry the load. You do not want to be around him for about 30 minutes after he loses because he really takes it hard."

Its that competitiveness, when combined with his skills that have earned Jefferson a fair share of comparisons to Sacramento Kings star Chris Webber. Jefferson is flattered, although he quickly points to Shaquille ONeal as his basketball role model.

"I love Shaq," Jefferson said. "He doesnt take any mess in that paint. Every team he plays against he lets them know its his area. Hes not going let you do what you want to do in there. Thats what I love about him."

The biggest question or at least the one Jefferson answers far more often than the rest is when hell join ONeal in the NBA. Despite

Jeffersons commitment to Arkansas, many college coaches this summer hinted it was a foregone conclusion Jefferson will skip college for the pros. Jefferson admits the door is open provided hes a good bet to taken in the first 13 picks.

"They (the Arkansas coaches) will be mad at me if I dont go and Im going to be a lottery pick," Jefferson said. "Its all good with them. If Ive got it, Im gone. Im not going to be a fool and turn down being a lottery pick. I had a really good summer. The scouts have Dwight Howard (from the Atlanta area) as the top prospect in the draft. Im thinking Dwight and I are up there together. If hes No.1, I feel like Im a lottery pick."

But if the lottery looks like a longshot, Jefferson insists hell pack his belongings and head to Fayetteville.

"I feel if I had been in Travis shoes (as a late first-round pick), I would have went to college," Jefferson said. "Look at Carmelo Anthony (from Syracuse). He had a chance to go out of high school, but he wouldnt have been the No. 3 pick. He went to college and proved himself, so now hes No. 3."

Those NBA scouts will be flocking to Prentiss this winter, road maps packed right along with their evaluation sheets, to see just where Jefferson might fit in next Junes draft. But Jefferson makes it clear those extra pairs of eyes wont bother him even a little a bit.

"No. Thats one thing about me," he said. "I played in front of Michael Jordan and with Michael Jordan at a camp this summer. Ive never felt pressure about playing in front of people."

Besides after finally winning a state title for Prentiss last year and hanging that championship picture in the schools cozy gymnasium, what pressure can the NBA speculation possibly bring?

"Sometimes I risk getting in trouble because Im late getting back to class," Jefferson said. "I just walk in the gym to look at it. Thats the first thing you see. That was Coach Macs main thing ever since I was in ninth grade. He would fuss at us whenever wed mess up. Hed say, Look at the walls. You dont see any championship pictures or nothing.

Wed go to everybody elses gym and see a (championship) team picture. Everywhere but Prentiss. But we finally put one on that wall and it means a lot to me."

Todd Kelly has covered Mississippi sports since 1989 for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss.