Othyus Jeffers tried to chase down Miami Heat reserve guard Eddie House, but when House flipped the ball back to the trailer, all Jeffers could see was a 6-foot-9, 260-pound locomotive charging at him. When LeBron James caught House’s pass, Jeffers had little time to think, so he just threw both hands in the air, hoping the officials would call James for an offensive foul.
“My instincts tried to kick in. I was like, ‘Should I foul him? Nah, he might take me up with him. Let’s try to take a charge,’ ” said Jeffers, not realizing that he was standing inside the restrictive circle.
James dunked, sending Jeffers crashing backward near the basket support. But as James hung on the rim, swinging around as if he were on a jungle gym, and Dwyane Wade howled at the fallen victim, Jeffers reacted the only way he knew how. He grinned.
“I’m on ESPN one way or another,” Jeffers said with a laugh.
How Jeffers could find humor from an embarrassing situation says a lot about the swingman the Washington Wizards signed to his first 10-day contract on March 17. But for a player who has overcome so many personal and professional obstacles just to be in the NBA, Jeffers doesn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t keep a smile on his face.
By the time he was a senior in high school, Jeffers had already lost two brothers to gun violence on Chicago’s West Side, where the 25-year-old grew up a few blocks from United Center. And while in college, Jeffers came to the defense of his sister during a dispute with her boyfriend and wound up getting shot in the left thigh. Luckily for Jeffers, the bullet took a strange path in and out of his leg, avoiding any major arteries, and he said he was back on the court playing basketball a week later.
“So many things could’ve took me the wrong way,” Jeffers said. “My family prepared me for bad situations, I went through bad situations at an early age. I knew how to channel things in certain ways, so that it wouldn’t keep me from doing things in the future.”
Jeffers has channeled those hardships into the way he plays. He goes hard the moment he steps onto the floor — playing dogged defense, relentlessly going after rebounds and fighting for extra possessions despite being generously listed at 6-5, a height the compact and chiseled Jeffers doesn’t deny is inflated. He has played nine games with the Wizards, averaging 4.6 points and 3.3 rebounds in 17.2 minutes per game.
A two-time NBA Development League all-star from the Iowa Energy, Jeffers earned Coach Flip Saunders’s trust when he harassed Golden State’s Monta Ellis in the fourth quarter of a loss. He then helped the Wizards get their second road win of the season the next night when he grabbed five offensive rebounds against his former team, the Utah Jazz. And on Wednesday, he helped the Wizards stay competitive with the Heat by defending both Wade and James and adding career highs with 15 points and eight rebounds, snatching a few rebounds over the 6-foot-11 Chris Bosh.
Jeffers’s tenacity didn’t go unnoticed by Wade, a fellow Chicago native, who walked up to him after the game to give him a hug and some encouraging words. “It’s all about respect. At the end of the game, they gave me handshakes,” Jeffers said of the Heat. “That’s my job. I did my job. Job well done. That’s what they pay me for. That’s what I go out there and do.
“It’s basketball. It’s nothing hard. I’ve been doing it my whole life,” said Jeffers, who went undrafted out of Robert Morris (Ill.). “I always played against taller people. That had nothing to do with it. Get in the right position. Beat him to the spot. Jump and grab. Confidence wasn’t ever an issue with me. It was finding the right spot and it presented itself with the Washington Wizards and the coaches giving me a chance.”
With John Wall serving a one-game suspension for swinging at Heat center Zydrunas Ilguakas, Jeffers made his first career start Friday against Cleveland and responded with 13 points and four rebounds. He’ll go back to the bench when Wall returns on Sunday for the Wizards’ game at Charlotte, but Saunders will continue to give Jeffers significant time on the floor because of his infectious energy.
“I love his competitiveness. I love how hard he plays,” Saunders said. “He’s not playing like there’s someone behind him. He’s playing like he’s chasing somebody, like he’s hungry. I think our guys are playing like that right now, and I think that’s a positive.”
Saunders found it amusing that Nick Nurse, Jeffers’s coach with the Iowa Energy, called all weekend to see if the Wizards would release Jeffers, with the D-League playoffs underway.
“Do I miss it?” Jeffers said of the D-League. “I miss the faces. I’m in the best place in the world right now. They’ll forgive me. This is the NBA. Who am I? Who am I? I’m Othyus Jeffers.”