Monson: Jazz are in the right place, even if it’s last place
Nearly halfway through the season, the kids are all right.
Published: January 15, 2014 09:43AM
Updated: January 14, 2014 11:10PM
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Gordon Monson. Tribune Mug. -(This is Gordon Monson's first choice for column mug)- Photo by Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune 6/20/2006

Just two games shy of the midway point of their season, the Jazz are in a good place, even if it’s last place. And it has nothing to do with draft order.

Their spirits, their self-esteems, their attitudes are ascending, despite the fact that they’ve won only a third of their games. It’s all relative: Not so long ago, they were winning one-fourteenth of their games. How you like me now?

That’s a question nobody’s going to hear from anyone on this roster — unless it’s Alec Burks, he of the ever-present 34-point-a-night body language, after his point total equaled his swagger against the Nuggets en route to a blistering Jazz win on Monday night.

Asked, in so many words, how he elasticizes his athletic form around the rim the way he did so often in that victory, hitting 13 of 19 shots, helping the Jazz win a game they wouldn’t have won without him, Burks dropped a classic it’s-kind-of-what-I-do comment in the postgame.

It’s what the Jazz hope he does more often in the future, considering he’s shooting 44 percent and averaging 12.8 points, even with his monster numbers from his monster night mixed in.

Thing is, Burks’ performance against the Nugs is a proper emblem for the Jazz’s season. There were three major objectives they had for 2013-14, one of which was more just kind of a reality: losing. It was losing with a purpose. Purposes. Those included gaining a premium draft pick, but equally as important was the youngsters bumping and skidding and soaring as they learned how to play. Tyrone Corbin has said it a thousand times: “We have to develop the young guys to move forward.”

That’s happening faster than almost anyone expected.

On the nights the Jazz win, those young guys study the good things they did to achieve it and repeat it. On the nights they lose, they review what they did wrong and how to avoid it.

Diante Garrett says the losing sucks, but that his teammates look at defeats like minor explosions in a classroom lab. They live and learn — and they laugh: “Everyone’s spirits are up, the confidence is up. And we laugh a lot. Sometimes we act childish, everybody cracking jokes on each other. But we work hard, too. Everyone’s getting better every day.”

Yeah, the kids are all right.

Trey Burke, who scored 18 points with eight assists Monday night, personifies that progress, despite a bad finger that kept him out during the season’s first month. Not only has he grown into his role as the Jazz’s future and present at point guard, the rookie is flourishing as the team’s leader on the floor. His shooting percentages undulate from game to game, but his overall presence is unmistakably positive.

So is his outlook.

“I’ve continued to learn each and every day,” he said. “I’m trying to stay aggressive and get better at both ends of the court. And the team is responding well. Every game, win or lose, we understand it’s a long season. We get it. We’re just trying to learn from our mistakes. The toughest thing is bouncing back from losses, but we’re learning to be mentally prepared to move past that. It’s just one of the lessons.

“Our chemistry has continued to come along. We’ve had a couple injuries, guys getting sick, but as a team we’re jelling. Everybody is coming together. Everything is working out.”

Halfway through, the Jazz are partway there.

Derrick Favors is grooming his game at both ends, with his offense, which mostly lagged behind his defense, coming around. He averages nearly 14 points and nine boards. For much of the season, he’s been the team’s best player.

Gordon Hayward needs more consistency — and good health. He hasn’t shot the ball efficiently — 41 percent — but his dexterous game is multifaceted, and if he can level the ride, the Jazz might see more of what he provided in their thrill-a-minute win over Oklahoma City, in which Hayward scored 37 points on 13-for-16 shooting, had 11 rebounds and seven assists.

Enes Kanter needs and deserves more minutes, averaging just 25, but he’s boosted the Jazz in recent games, hitting double figures in each of the last five. He’s averaging 11 points and six boards, and despite looking bulky and awkward, at times, the big man has skills.

So, the Junior Jazz are all growing up and coming on and such. Since losing four straight early in December, the team has won nine of 16. Not that the Jazz hierarchy wants to pump their fledgling heads full of praise. When Dennis Lindsey was recently asked who was his team’s best player, he pretty much blew off the improving play of his young ones and answered with this bit of misdirection: Marvin Williams.

When that was brought to Williams’ attention, the vet laughed. He also assured Lindsey that he shouldn’t worry about the kids getting fatheaded.

“The thing about this team is it’s full of good guys with good attitudes who are working to get better,” he said. “After a loss, they look at themselves individually and hold themselves accountable. You’re happy to be around guys like that. The losses hurt, but you show up to practice the next day ready to work. In pro sports, it’s not always like that. Here, on this team, it is.”

Two games from the halfway mark, the Jazz now are 13-26.

But as Garrett pointed out, the players are in the right place, even if it is last place.

“We don’t focus on losing,” he said. “We focus on improving.”

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.