Jazz: Young centers waiting turn for Jazz
The evaluations take place out of the public eye, mornings on the Jazz's practice court and afternoons at EnergySolutions Arena, where Kyrylo Fesenko and Kosta Koufos work out with assistant coaches and play games of one-on-one up to three hours before tipoff.
As they approach the midpoint of the season, the Jazz's young 7-footers remain largely a mystery to all but the most ardent fans, having played a combined 287 minutes this season, though coach Jerry Sloan believes Fesenko and Koufos have made progress.
"I think they've improved," Sloan said. "The only thing is it's hard to get them the kind of minutes they need to play. It's been difficult. They've just got to continue to work, try to make themselves better. It's just young players sometimes take a little longer."
It's been the story for both throughout their time in Utah -- 21/2 years for Fesenko, 11/2 years for Koufos. Fesenko has played ahead of Koufos this season, but on a team with Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Paul Millsap, his opportunities have been limited.
"My game is like getting better, but to progress like faster, I need to practice it in a game, like in a game situation," Fesenko said, noting the differences in dealing with everything from foul trouble to crowds to refereeing in games as opposed to practice.
"I'm still like don't have like full confidence when I'm on the court and I think when it's going to come, I will became a better player, coming through at a higher level."
Fesenko has averaged 2.7 points and 1.8 rebounds while seeing action in 26 games, compared to 30 games combined his first two seasons. He has shined at times, scoring 11 points Nov. 30 against Memphis and battling Brook Lopez on Dec. 16 in New Jersey.
In addition, according to the Web site 82games.com, the lineup of Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, Ronnie Brewer, Boozer and Fesenko has been one of the most productive not only for the Jazz but in the entire league this season.
That lineup has outscored opponents by 32 points in the 58.4 minutes it has been used, by far the best plus/minus figure among of the Jazz's 10 most frequently used lineups. They are numbers Fesenko's supporters regularly cite.
Fesenko will be a free agent at season's end, with the Jazz facing a decision about re-signing the 23-year-old, a former second-round draft pick from Ukraine. For his part, Fesenko insists he is not frustrated despite the lack of a consistent role.
"It's the league," Fesenko said. "It's like everything happens so fast. You just need to be ready like all 82 games, plus playoffs. You just need to stay ready, keep your head up. You don't know where your chance is going to come, so I'm just waiting for my chance."
After the Jazz voiced concerns, Fesenko took steps to work on his weight and conditioning as well as his professionalism. At the same time, his stall was conspicuously moved to a far corner of the Jazz's locker room before Monday's game.
Fesenko equates professionalism with consistency. "It's getting definitely better," he said. "Like at least right now I have some consistency. Even when coach puts me in the game, like no matter how long it is, like 50 seconds or 10 minutes."
Koufos, meanwhile, has played just 67 minutes in 19 games and is on pace to play only a quarter of the minutes this season he did as a 19-year-old rookie from Ohio State.
"We've got a great team and we've got great big men in front of us," Koufos said, adding, "It's great to learn from those guys. I'm just taking it a day at a time and just learning every day. I feel confident in my game and I've shown I can play at the NBA level."
The Jazz already have exercised a $1.3 million option to bring back Koufos -- who won't turn 21 until Feb. 24 -- for next season. Koufos has impressed Sloan with his work ethic.
Both Sloan and general manager Kevin O'Connor acknowledge that they have discussed sending Koufos to the NBA Development League's Utah Flash, but are reluctant to do so at the expense of being short-handed for games and practices due to injuries.
Sloan said Fesenko was ahead of Koufos largely because of his better recognition on the court, with the benefit of an extra season to become familiar with the Jazz's plays.
"I played myself; it took me three years to understand an offense," Sloan said. "And I thought I was fairly intelligent. Trying to learn the different things you have to do and then defend, be able to do all those things, it takes a little while."
Sloan was asked if he makes a point of telling the young centers the organization likes the progress they are making, even if they haven't been able to get into games.
"I mention it to them," Sloan said, "but I don't go around with a handful of candy."
Young centers Kyrylo Fesenko and Kosta Koufos have seen a combined 287 minutes of action this season: