PATIENCE PAYS OFF: Fifth-Year Senior Getting Shot at NCAA TourneyMarch 20, 2014
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
Looking back on the rail-thin 6-foot-9, 170-pound freshman that enrolled at Baylor nearly five years ago, Cory Jefferson can't even imagine how that scrawny little kid even made it through high school.
"I think my freshman year, after we got around to the Big 12, I was 185, maybe 190," he said. "I really don't know how I did it, to tell you the truth."
Now, at a chiseled 225 pounds, he looks more like a prototype NBA power forward that can bang with the big boys in the low post. The fifth-year senior is a poster boy - no, make that poster man - for the benefits of staying in college and doing the work in the weight room.
"Working with (Baylor strength and conditioning coach Charlie Melton), he's helped me tremendously," said Jefferson, who is averaging a team-best 13.5 points and 8.4 rebounds for the 23rd-ranked Bears (24-11) going into Friday's NCAA tournament matchup against Nebraska (19-12). "I know when I first got here, I was thinking maybe I needed to change some things. But he's been able to put a lot of weight on me. Because I know when I first got here, I really couldn't do too much down low. I had to depend a lot on my shooting."
An all-state pick from an hour down the road in Killeen, Texas, Jefferson had scholarship offers from the likes of Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas State, Marquette and Texas A&M. But he committed to Baylor the summer after his junior year and never wavered.
Revered in Killeen the way LeBron James is in Akron, Ohio, Jefferson said he has embraced his local celebrity status and just loves "being able to play in front of my family and friends.
"I think especially from where I came from and my story, it just shows you have to stick with it," he said. "Whatever you want to do, you can do it."
More than anything, Jefferson just wanted to play basketball. But as a much-to-skinny freshman, he averaged just 1.3 points, 1.2 rebounds and 4.6 minutes per game for a Baylor team that made it to the NCAA tournament Elite Eight.
And even though he now realizes it was the best thing, it was perhaps even more humbling when the coaches came to him after that season and talked to him about redshirting the next year. Here he was, coming off a trip to the Elite Eight and the opportunity to maybe get some quality playing time, and they ask him to sit out.
"We didn't make him sit out," said Baylor head coach Scott Drew. "We just gave him the information. As coaches, that's what we need to do is give all the information and then let our players make decisions based on going pro, redshirting or whatever they're thinking. I think it helped Cory to talk to other players like Ekpe Udoh."
Udoh had to sit out a year after transferring from Michigan and came back to lead the Bears to the Elite Eight before being taken with the sixth pick overall by the Golden State Warriors in the 2010 NBA Draft. Using that as motivation, Jefferson wanted a piece of that pie.
Jefferson admits there were some pretty dark days during that redshirt season, when the Bears finished 18-13 and didn't get a postseason invite.
"I guess that made it even worse that we were losing," he said. "I felt like I could do something to maybe help the team if I was able to get out there on the floor. And then, just knowing that I had to go through all the practices and I wasn't able to play, that was tough, too."
That was also the year, though, where he began to reshape his body and game. The skinny boy was being replaced by a well-toned man.
"It helps a lot for freshmen and sophomores and anyone who has redshirted," Drew said, "because he can tell them to work hard, your time is coming."
However, with the emergence of younger players like Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller, Jefferson once again played a limited role in another Elite Eight run. His averages went up to 3.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and 10.5 minutes per game, but he got in for just one minute combined in the team's four NCAA tournament games in 2012.
It wasn't really until last year when Jefferson's patience finally began to pay off. With PJ3, Miller and Quincy Acy all going in the NBA Draft, he started all 37 games and averaged 13.3 points and 8.0 rebounds for the 2013 NIT champions.
Jefferson was at his best in the Bears' NIT run, when he averaged 21.2 points, 6.0 boards and 1.6 blocks while shooting a phenomenal 71.9 percent from the floor (41-of-57) and made the NIT all-tournament team.
Faced with what he described as "one of the biggest decisions of my life," Jefferson opted to return for his fifth year at Baylor and put aside his professional aspirations.
"It was, honestly, a 50-50 split from the day the season ended until the day I made my decision," he said. "One of my main reasons for coming back was to actually play in an NCAA tournament. Obviously, we missed the NCAA tournament last year, so I just wanted to make sure we got to one this year."
That was especially true down the stretch, averaging 16.3 points and 9.7 rebounds and posting seven double-doubles in the last 11 games. His emergence coincided with the Bears peaking at the right time, winning 10 of the last 12 games and reaching the finals of last weekend's Big 12 Championship.
"Since we were 2-8 (at the start of conference), the pressure to win was like playoff basketball," Drew said, "because our backs were against the wall and we didn't have much margin for error. Hopefully, because we had to put so much into it, it will help us in the tournament."
This is exactly why Jefferson came back, the way he wanted to go out.
"Winning the NIT championship was good, but I wanted to be in the NCAA this year, and I'm glad we made it."
Most NBA mock drafts have Jefferson projected in the middle of the second round, but he could possibly climb into the late first round with a good showing in the tournament.
"I haven't even looked at it. Last year, I waited till end of the year to look at it. And I'm doing the same thing this year," he said. As far as where he might fit in, he said, "A team that likes to get out and run, someone that can use an athletic big man that can maybe hit an outside jumper and play down low as well."
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