MINNEAPOLIS -- All the progress the Minnesota Timberwolves have made in the new year came to a crashing halt Monday.
Star center Al Jefferson, the cornerstone of the franchise's rebuilding plan who has emerged as one of the best post players in the league, will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL in his right knee.
It was the most devastating news possible for a team that finally seemed to be turning the corner after a horrendous first season and a half in the post-Kevin Garnett Era.
"Of course we're all a little upset and a little down," forward Ryan Gomes said. "Our guy, our captain, our superstar, is going to be missing for the remainder of our season. Of course our spirits are down."
Coach Kevin McHale said Jefferson will likely have surgery to repair the injury in the next week to 10 days.
The team's leading scorer and rebounder hurt his knee when he landed awkwardly late in Sunday's 101-97 loss to New Orleans. He was examined Monday, when the anterior cruciate ligament tear was discovered.
"We'll miss Al in every aspect, from his personality to his play to his presence to everything else," McHale said. "He's such a good kid. Your heart goes out to the kid."
When the Timberwolves decided to part ways with Garnett after his 12th season in Minnesota ended in 2007, McHale set his sights on a low-post beast to serve as the new building block for the next phase of this organization's existence.
The Wolves shipped Garnett to the Celtics for a package that included two draft picks, Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff, Gerald Green and Jefferson, and the big fella has not disappointed in his first 132 games as a centerpiece.
With averages of 23.1 points and 11 rebounds per game this season, Jefferson is one of only three players, along with Orlando's Dwight Howard and San Antonio's Tim Duncan, to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds a game this season.
"Al's played at such a high level for this team and been such a big part of our team," McHale said. "Everybody around here today is a little bit down in the dumps."
For a young Timberwolves team that has been playing better in 2009 after getting off to a 4-23 start to the season, the deflation at the practice facility on Monday was palpable. With Jefferson the focal point, the Wolves went 10-4 in January, and the 24-year-old center was playing even better early in this month.
He had 36 points and 22 rebounds in a loss at Houston on Saturday night and followed that up with 25 points and 14 boards before getting injured in the final 30 seconds against the Hornets on Sunday.
"I feel terrible for Al. Al's really, right now, devastated by it," McHale said. "It all happens for a reason. It's hard for me to figure out what this reason is. Somehow he's just going to have to make the best of it and rehab and get better and move on from here."
Jefferson's absence will mean more minutes for rookie Kevin Love and likely for veteran center Jason Collins. The Wolves got Love in a draft-night trade with Memphis involving O.J. Mayo, and McHale has tried to keep his minutes down through the first half of the season to ease him into NBA life.
The coach won't have that luxury anymore.
"Unfortunately for us, the season doesn't end," McHale said. "We've got to keep playing. So we're just going to have to find a way. With any kind of adversity like that, new opportunities arise for other people. We're just going to have to go out there and make the best of it."
After a rough start to his rookie season, Love appears to be getting more and more comfortable with the speed and style of play in the NBA. He attributes much of that maturation to Jefferson.
"Al's a leader. He's only 24 years old, but for me, he's been a mentor," Love said. "He's taught me so much stuff and hopefully we'll continue to grow as a team, as a unit.
"It's going to be tough not having him in there, but tomorrow, the lights are still going to come on. We're still going to brush our teeth, put our pants on, put our shoes on, have to lace them up and go out there," Love said. "That's just what we have to do."