Cory Jefferson leads the Big 12 in field goal percentage, ranks second in blocks, third in rebounding and sixth in scoring.
Jan. 13, 2013
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
Note: This feature was published in Saturday's Baylor Bear Insider Report. Fans can join the Baylor Bear Foundation and receive these reports via e-mail by visiting www.BaylorBearFoundation.com.
When you're 19 years old, the last thing you want to do is sit out. After all, didn't "time-out" sessions end in kindergarten?
One of the worst days in Cory Jefferson's young life was when Baylor coach Scott Drew came to him two years ago and talked to the 6-foot-9 power forward about redshirting. The thought was that he would use the year to gain weight, get stronger and become a more physical player that could take the nightly poundings in the Big 12 Conference.
"You know that it's going to help you," he said. "And I knew that when they were saying it, but the difficult part was knowing that you would have to sit out the entire year. Especially after not really playing that much my freshman year, I was ready to go out there and try to show everybody that I've gotten better."
Here's a guy that was the TABC Class 4A Player of the Year in Texas in 2009, when he averaged 19.5 points and 6.2 rebounds at Killeen High School, and came in ranked as the 33rd-best prospect nationally and the No. 11 power forward by Rivals.com. And you want him to do what?
"It was tough, but it just speaks volumes about his character for him to take a year off during the middle of his career," said senior point guard A.J. Walton, who came in with Jefferson four years ago. "Too many times, I saw him get frustrated . . . but playing behind Ekpe Udoh, Quincy Acy, Josh Lomers, that just helped prepare him for this year."
Without question, the redshirt year helped. Jefferson, who came in at a little over 170 pounds, is up to 215 and looks chiseled compared to the rail-thin 18-year-old freshman that couldn't come close to filling out his Baylor uniform.
"The main thing is try to get him in a body that can hold a post position," associated strength and conditioning coach Charlie Melton said at the time. "He's buying in, because he wants to get bigger. . . . Cory's never slipped, he's never regressed. And that's encouraging. Usually you have guys gain, lose, gain, lose. And Cory continues to climb."
But in some ways, last season was nearly as painful. While he scored in double figures three times and averaged 7.0 points and 6.8 rebounds during Perry Jones III's five-game suspension, Jefferson averaged just 3.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and 10.5 minutes for the season and didn't see the floor in three of the team's four NCAA Tournament games on the road to the Bears' second Elite Eight in three years.
"That was pretty tough," he said, "The first few games with Perry being out, I was able to go out there and show everybody what I could then. And then having my minutes decrease, that was tough. But I knew to just keep on working, because there were some pretty good players."
With last year's front line of Acy, PJ3 and Quincy Miller all taken in the NBA Draft, though, suddenly the door was swung wide open. After three years of sitting and waiting, it was finally Cory Time.
"Since I've been here, we've had some of the best athletes in the country," Jefferson said. "My freshman year, it was Josh Lomers and Ekpe Udoh, Quincy Acy and event Ant Jones; and then Perry Jones and Quincy Miller. Just going against them every day has gotten me ready. That's helped me be a more physical player down low."
Through the first 14 games of the season, Jefferson has arguably been one of the Big 12's best big men, averaging 14.3 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks and shooting a league-best 65.8 percent from the field.
"There are not enough young men out there who are willing to go through the process to develop themselves to become the player that they're capable of being," said Baylor assistant Jerome Tang, who filled in as the interim head coach during Drew's two-game suspension for NCAA violations. "Too many guys are into that instant gratification; the microwave society, warm it up quick. Cory Jefferson has bought into it, and he is reaping what he's sowed. He's sowed hard work for three years, and it's paying off for him."
With the success that he had in high school - "I don't know how, but I managed to make it through" - Jefferson said he didn't even realize how light he was until he got to Baylor. Since he dropped football after middle school, he rarely even made it into the weight room. "We lifted a little, but nothing serious."
As a freshman at Baylor, he remembers doing the 225-pound bench-press drill, "and I might have got it once, maybe twice, no more than that." Now he can do 18 repetitions.
During that redshirt year, he learned to love the grueling weight-room sessions with Melton.
"Those were tough, but I learned to love them," he said. "Now I'm always in the weight room. You'd never see me in the weight room before that, not at all."
Other than not playing in the games, the hardest part was the extra workouts on the floor with Tang. Even on game days, while the other players were going home after shoot-around, Jefferson was back on the floor for another half hour or longer to work on post moves.
Every day got him a day closer, but "it bothered me a lot of times, especially when we'd lose and I'd think I'd be able to help my team out."
"And then just going through the practices and having to fight through it and get beat up every day, and not being able to go through the games with them," he said. "I even came to coach Drew a few times during the season and told him I didn't think I was going to be able to do it. I wanted to be out there with the team. But I never wanted to leave. I knew the redshirting year was going to help me and make me a better player."
While he could see the light at the end of a long tunnel, "I didn't want to do it at the time."
Coming into this season, especially with the only other inside options all being freshmen, Jefferson said his focus was on defense and rebounding.
"I wasn't too worried about the offense," he said. "I just wanted to make sure I got better defending and rebounding the ball. I knew that if I just kept rebounding, then offense would come."
And it definitely has. Jefferson has scored in double figures in 11 of the first 14 games, including a career-high 26 in the season opener against Lehigh, and posted a double-double with 25 points and 10 rebounds in last Saturday's 86-79 overtime win against Texas.
"He does it all - he rebounds, he scores," said senior point guard Pierre Jackson. "And when he's aggressive, he's pretty hard to guard and keep off the glass. He's a big piece of this team, and we probably wouldn't have half of the wins without him."
In that opener against Lehigh, Jefferson came up one shy of Acy's school record with nine slam dunks. The dunk champion at this year's "Moonlight Madness," Jefferson has become the favorite alley-oop recipient from Jackson and Walton.
"We always ask them where they like the ball," Walton said. "Any way we can, we're going to get it to them. That's just the easiest way to do it." Particularly with Jackson, who ranks second in the Big 12 and 19th nationally with 6.3 assists per game, Jefferson knows, "You've just got to be ready."
"Sometimes we'll give them a look or just some kind of gesture to tell them to throw it to the rim," Jefferson said. "But sometimes, they'll just throw it up there. We don't even see it coming. They just know that if they throw it up there, we're going to go get it."
After a 2-0 start in conference play without Drew, the Bears (10-4, 2-0) will have their head coach back on the sidelines for Saturday's 5 p.m. matchup at home against TCU (9-6, 0-2).
"I'm very excited to get back," said Drew, who couldn't even have any contact with the team until after they got back from Tuesday's 82-48 road win at Texas Tech. "Any conference win is a great win, and you could see the players continue to get better. I know how good our staff is, but it was an opportunity for everyone to see just how good coach Tang, coach (Paul) Mills and coach (Grant) McCasland) are with everyone working together."
TCU has struggled in its first trip through the Big 12, losing at home to Texas Tech, 62-53, before getting blown out at Oklahoma State, 63-45. But the Horned Frogs lead the league and rank 11th nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 55.6 points per game.
"Really, every possession, every game matters," Walton said. "But in this game, we have to take better care of the ball, because they like to slow it down and make us play 30 to 35 seconds of defense. We just have to take good shots, work inside-out like we have been doing, and just play defense."
The Horned Frogs' leading scorers are 5-11 sophomore guard Kyan Anderson (12.3 ppg) and 6-7 senior forward Garlon Green (12.1 ppg, 4.7 rebounds).
"They're similar to College of Charleston and Northwestern in that they mil the clock and really work the ball," Drew said, comparing TCU to two teams that have beaten the Bears this season. "So hopefully those games will help prepare us for a game like this. Garlon Green has really been on a roll. He's one of those guys that we have to make it hard for, because he can make tough shots even when you're guarding him."