Many college basketball players come and go before fans can barely learn their names or remember their faces.
The most gifted players are one and done before bolting to the NBA. Those who don’t play early in their careers often aren’t patient enough to wait their turn.
Cory Jefferson is different. He’s the rare fifth-year player who waited for his shot to play, invested the time to develop his skills, and became a force on the Baylor basketball team.
The 2009 Killeen product will play his final regular season game at the Ferrell Center on Tuesday night. Guards Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin will also be honored on Baylor’s senior day against Iowa State at 6 p.m.
“I’m proud of how Cory developed his game, and the leader he’s become, the confidence he has and how he handles himself,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “He’ll be a great representative of Baylor University for many years. You want his last game at the Ferrell Center to be very memorable in a positive way.”
Following last year’s breakout season, Jefferson debated whether to declare for the NBA draft. The 6-9 forward emerged as one of the Big 12’s best big men as he averaged 13.3 points and eight rebounds on the year for Baylor’s NIT championship team.
But Jefferson wanted a shot to finish his career in the NCAA tournament. With the Bears on the bubble at 19-10 overall and 7-9 in the Big 12, Jefferson understands the importance of beating Iowa State.
“It was 50-50 — it was a big decision either way,” Jefferson said. “But I just wanted to play in the NCAA tournament. This game is important because we can punch our ticket to the dance.”
Jefferson has put up senior numbers that are similar to last season as he’s averaged 13 points and 8.4 rebounds. But his leadership has been especially critical in the last three weeks as the Bears have won five of their last six games to move into the NCAA tournament picture.
During the stretch, Jefferson has averaged 15.5 points and 10.3 rebounds, including four double-doubles.
“A lot of it was on the seniors because we’re the ones that have been here and we’re the leaders on this team,” Jefferson said. “We put that on our shoulders. We went through a tough patch, but we knew we still had our chance to do what we want to do. Everybody looks to us to see how we react and to give them direction.”
Jefferson learned how to be a leader from older guys Ekpe Udoh and Quincy Acy. While those players were thriving on the court, Jefferson started just one game in his first three years at Baylor.
After averaging 1.3 points and 1.2 rebounds as a freshman in 2009-10, Jefferson agreed to redshirt the following year. He spent the year developing his post moves and putting some muscle on his wiry frame.
“It wasn’t too hard of a decision, but it was a hard process to go through,” Jefferson said. “I knew it was the best decision, but the hardest part was sitting through games. I learned different things from everybody. Ekpe was a real defensive-minded player. Acy brought energy every day, and I felt that was my role when I came back.”
Jefferson was a reserve on Baylor’s 2011-12 Elite Eight team before emerging as a key player last season. He’s earned the respect of every coach in the Big 12 for the energy he brings to the court and his perseverance.
“There are only a few (fifth-year) players around the country,” Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith said. “Most of them would have transferred and played somewhere else. He’s an older player who has done everything they’ve ask him to do, and that makes him a valuable player and person to the program.”
Jefferson hasn’t just fashioned a memorable career for the Bears, he’s also made the most of his summers by playing for Athletes in Action teams that toured Germany, Poland, Macedonia and Kosovo. Last summer, he played for the USA in the World University Games in Kazan, Russia.
Instead of going far away to college, Jefferson is glad he decided to travel only an hour down the road from his home in Killeen.
“People asked me, ‘Why go to Baylor?’ ” Jefferson said. “I got that from a lot of my family and other people. Now everybody knows Baylor whether you’re talking about football or basketball.”