MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -Hours after signing a five-year, $65 million contract extension in November, Al Jefferson was asked why he didn't go for more money.
Under the NBA's salary cap structure, a ``max deal'' would have paid him about $2 million more per year than the deal he signed, but Jefferson didn't want to hold out any longer.
``I didn't even think I was worth max (money) this year anyway,'' Jefferson said then.
Less than three months later, that statement seems more eye-popping than ever. Back then, it was Jefferson's refreshing humility that had jaws dropping and heads shaking.
Now, it's his play.
In his first year in Minnesota since coming over from Boston in the Kevin Garnett trade, Jefferson is one of only two players in the NBA who is averaging at least 20 points and 12 rebounds per game. He was simply unstoppable last week, when his Timberwolves finally started showing some signs of progress in what has been a painful start to the rebuilding process.
The Wolves (8-35) have won three of four. In those three victories - at Golden State and against Phoenix and New Jersey - Jefferson averaged 33.3 points and 15.3 rebounds to earn Western Conference Player of the Week honors.
``Man, I knew Al was a good player and I knew he was going to become a great player,'' said point guard Sebastian Telfair, who played one year in Boston with Jefferson before coming to Minnesota with him in the trade. ``But seeing his growth right now, the way he's playing defense a lot better, he's rebounding the ball, becoming a leader on the court. He's just becoming a superstar right now.''
Which begs the question: Can a player on the team with the worst record in the league be an All-Star?
``I feel like the only thing that might keep me from making it is that we've only won eight games,'' Jefferson said with a shrug of his broad shoulders. ``But if I don't make it this year, I'll make it next year.''
Jefferson certainly is making a strong push for a trip to New Orleans. He is averaging 27 points and 13.5 rebounds in the last six games, and his Timberwolves have improved right along with him.
After losing 31 of their first 36 games, the Wolves are four points away from riding a five-game winning streak into Tuesday night's game at Chicago. They lost by three at Denver on Jan. 19 and by one to Garnett's Celtics in Boston on Friday, when Jefferson had his only ``quiet'' game of the stretch - 15 points and five rebounds.
He had 39 points and 15 rebounds in the win over the Suns on Wednesday, then topped that career high while fighting through double- and triple-teams against the Nets on Sunday. The 6-foot-10, 265-pounder had 40 points and 19 rebounds, and hit the game-clinching free throws, as the Wolves rallied from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat New Jersey.
``He's come a long way this year,'' coach Randy Wittman said. ``It's not easy coming from a situation where you might be the second or third option and now you're wanting to carry some of the load. He's handled that pretty good.''
And it's easy to forget that he's only 23 years old. In his fourth full season out of Prentiss High School in Mississippi, Jefferson's low-post game already rivals that of most players in the league.
Pair that with a voice so deep it makes Barry White sound like a soprano, and Telfair is left to wonder if Jefferson really is as young as he says he is.
``He's an alien. Al might be about 31,'' Telfair said playfully. ``I have to talk to his parents about that. That's why he don't carry a driver's license all the time. Al might be 31. He went to college in Mexico.''
Jefferson responds with a big chuckle that starts in his belly, rises through his shoulders and bellows out of his mouth as he tips his head back.
``I get that a lot. I got that a lot growing up, too,'' he said. ``You have to grow up fast in this league. Look at what LeBron James is doing at 23. You have to grow up real fast.''
Wittman is quick to point out that Jefferson still has a lot to learn, especially defensively. Yet it only seems like a matter of time before Jefferson becomes a fixture at the midseason showcase - right there with LeBron - and helps validate the trade that sent the beloved KG to Boston.
It could come sooner rather than later, when the All-Star reserves are chosen by the coaches later this week.
``It's up to the coaches,'' Jefferson said. ``If they get me in, I'll be happy. If not, I'll use that as motivation.''

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