Will Big Al make it to Fayetteville?

For his weekly column for Hawgs Illustrated and The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas, Hawg Illustrated's Dudley E. Dawson talks to Arkansas signee and NBA prospect Al Jefferson and those around him as he tries to size up the chances of the player ever donning a Razorback jersey.

Al Jefferson is very aware how University of Arkansas basketball fans - and coaches and future teammates for that matter - would very much appreciate him donning a Razorback jersey for at least one season if not a pair.

Jefferson also keenly aware of how almost every citizen of his home state of Mississippi - and many in Arkansas for that matter - who have an opinion on the subject thinks that he is headed straight to the NBA instead.

Such is the life of a 6-10, 255-pound big fella averaging 41 points, 16 rebounds and six blocks per game (headed into last night's regional tournament contest) with the world at his feet.

"I can't say for sure that I won't (go straight to the NBA), but all those people are just guessing," Jefferson said Friday night before leading his team to a district title. "Right now I am planning on going to Arkansas and joining with the rest of our great recruiting class and just getting it on up there. That sounds like a lot of fun to me, I know I can get better and the NBA will always be there."

Most mock NBA drafts have Jefferson, a man-child from Prentiss High who is one of 10 candidates for the Naismith High School Player of the Year award, slotted as a late first-round selection should he decide to make the leap.

Of course that could change since he has already been picked to play in both the McDonald's All-American game on March 31 in Oklahoma City and the Nike Hoop Summit on April 4 in San Antonio.

"I am probably the only one who doesn't think about it that much," Jefferson said. "I'm just trying to be a kid, enjoy my last year of high school and have fun with my teammates as we try to win the state title again. After the all-star games, I'll sit down and think about it, but only God knows what is going to happen. All I can tell you right now is I've sign with Arkansas and right now that is where I plan to be next season. If people don't believe me, there's nothing I can do about it."

The Nike event, featuring a squad of US players against one made up of international players, will happen during the festivities of Final Four weekend in San Antonio.

Arkansas head coach Stan Heath thinks he'll know soon after those two games whether he'll get to coach Jefferson - who has until May 10th to declare his intentions - or will just be watching him play in the NBA.

"I really think we will know something pretty soon after those two games," Heath said. "I don't think he will string it out. He tells us right now that he's coming and I guess we'll just see how it plays itself out."

Heath admits to recruiting with both an eye on Jefferson being here and another on him not.

"We treated Al differently in that if he comes to Arkansas, in some degree he has to be treated as senior," Heath said. "Because of that we decided we were going to add more size to the recruiting class rather than a perimeter player. With Al we will go to a different level, but even if he doesn't come, we still feel very confident and comfortable with the ones we do have coming and we expect to be much better anyway because of what the entire class brings to the table."

One NBA official who has been to see Jefferson this season - and speaking on the condition of anonymity - says the best case scenario for Jefferson would be "top 15 to top 20" right now.

"That's because while the young man can score, we are not sure if he could defend anyone in our league the way he would need to right now," the NBA official said. "He's not big enough to guard NBA centers and he's got a long way to go to defend our power forwards because of their mobility and his current footwork. He would be best served to go to college, work on that and come out as a lottery pick, but rest assured someone would take him if he comes right now."

Just maybe not as high as he would and others around like according to Ceroy Jefferson, Al's uncle and the assistant superintendent at Prentiss, would like.

"I've been surprised at where these mock drafts have him ranked, there at the end of the first round, but I guess that is just someone's opinion and you have to take everything with a grain of salt" Ceroy Jefferson said. "I will tell you that trying to get information out of these NBA guys is very hard. Nobody wants to tell you too much so really we don't know anything for sure and that sure makes you wary about making a mistake and going too early."

Certainly Jefferson has all the offensive skills anyone could want, something that was evident once again when I watched him play Friday night in his team's 80-77 district championship win over Crystal Springs.

Even with one player camped in front of him and another behind him constantly, Jefferson scored in 56 points, officially grabbed 21 rebounds and did his part on the defensive end with 11 blocks. Jefferson was 22-of-28 from the field and 12-of-19 from the free throw line.

Just another typical night for Jefferson according to Larry Stamps, who has coached both Jefferson and fellow Arkansas signee Charles Thomas - a 6-8, 235-pound forward from Jackson Callaway averaging 28.9 points and 12 rebounds per game - during the past few summers.

"Sure he puts up the numbers, but the thing with Big Al is he hates to lose and he puts the team on his back to make sure it doesn't happen," Stamps said. "Arkansas signed two great players. If Al makes it there to play with Charles, then they will take a major step forward very quickly. These two are men who get things done on the court - tough kids who don't accept losing."

Watching him bring his team from 17 down in a very calm businesslike manner and then erupt in sheer joy was impressive.

""I knew I had to come out and lift my teammates up and I did and they all played great. When I step it up, they all step up and I love them for that."

Al knows his potential UA future teammates are willing to do the same if he decides to come to Fayetteville.

"We are going to be something to watch next season at Arkansas," Jefferson said. "I know there is a lot of people thinking I will never make it there, but that's my plan and unless something drastically changes, that is where I will be."

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