The NBA’s prep-to-pro generation peaked in 2004 when eight high school players were taken in the first 19 picks of the draft. The Boston Celtics plucked Al Jefferson 15th, where he was sandwiched between fellow high schoolers Sebastian Telfair and Josh Smith. The following is a Q and A with Jefferson, who now plays for the Charlotte Hornets. The conversation is lightly edited for clarity.
What was it like being a part of a draft class that featured so many high schoolers?
Jefferson: The 2004 high school class was just an amazing high school class overall. Even the guys who didn’t go out of high school were still great players and wound up coming to the league. So, I just think when it’s all said and done – when we look back on it – I just think that the 2004 high school class was one of the best classes that probably came through. And that draft class – being one of the ones selected out of high school – it was just amazing. It was a special year or something that they can never take away.
What went into your decision to go into the draft and bypass attending the University of Arkansas?
Jefferson: To be honest with you, man, I made that decision when I was in the seventh grade, when I found out [about] Shawn Kemp, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant – some of those other guys who came out of high and became top stars in the league. When I heard about it then, I made up in my mind that I was going to come out of high school. But my mom and my uncle and people who were in my circle – they wanted me to prepare myself to go to college just in case my dream didn’t come true. That’s why I said, if I wanted to go to college – if I had to go to any college – it’d be Arkansas, because they were the one who really recruited me in and that was something I wanted to be a part of. But my main goal was to go out of high school.
You played with Michael Jordan in one of his camps as a high schooler. What was that experience like?
Jefferson: Oh, man, that was so amazing. It’s like a dream. When I think about it now, it seems like a dream I had, instead of looking at it like it really happened. It was like the first time I ever met him – and Michael Jordan, in my opinion, is the best player to ever step on the hardwood floor. I had a chance to scrimmage with him – I was on his team – and I remember he called me “Young fella.” He said, “young fella, when we get the rebound, I want you to run as fast as you can down the court.’ And, you know, if Michael Jordan tells you to run through a brick wall, you’re going to try and do it. I remember once we got the rebound, I took off full speed. When I looked up, the ball was coming over my head. He made a perfect pass to the point all I had to do was catch and dunk. It was just an amazing feeling. I’ve had great games on a high level, but no feeling ever matched that feeling right there that I had catching that pass from Michael Jordan and dunking the ball.
At one point did you realize that you could jump from high school to the NBA? Because saying it in seventh grade and then actually doing it is a big difference.
Jefferson: I’m with you, man, and you might think I’m crazy, but when I said it in the seventh grade, I meant it. That was something that I knew I wanted to do. I knew that there was really a great chance when I got introduced into the AAU in the ninth grade. I went from the ninth grade, never playing AAU ball in my life, to one tournament – I’ll never forget it – that already had me ranked the number one ninth grader in the country.
What contributed to allow you to be successful with this jump?
Jefferson: I knew that I was going to have to start at the bottom and work my way up. That’s what I told myself, because I didn’t want to go thinking I was a superstar in high school and think I was going to come and continue this thing over here, which is possible – but I wanted to learn. I wanted to come in and just learn – and learn from the best, these professional athletes.
Do you think that mentality is the biggest thing that separates the players who made it versus the guys who didn’t?
Jefferson: I have seen guys come in thinking they were more than what they are. I keep telling myself every year – this is what I tell myself every offseason: “There’s always going to be an NBA draft, [and] there’s always going to be new guys who want to come in and try to take your spot.” It’s one thing getting into the NBA, but it’s another thing staying in the NBA. Because getting to the NBA – yeah, that’s a great goal. But it’s also another big goal to stay in the NBA. To me, that’s the way I look at it.
How did you develop that mentality?
Jefferson: I was raised by my two grandmothers and my mom. My dad died when I was two, so I didn’t know him. I was raised by positive people. My two grandmothers really taught me to be humble. And I remember when I had those 60-point games [in high school] and my grandmother [would be] at the game. I could have 60 points, and she could look at me and get mad at me over something I didn’t do – [not going] for that rebound or missing a block shot that she felt I could have got. Stuff like that just kept me hungry, so that way I couldn’t be satisfied going out there [scoring] 60 points and thinking I had done something. When I know that was just the beginning of this journey that I was on.