Williams sounding like Sloan
TORONTO - What the Jazz intend someday to be revered as the Deron Williams Era begins tonight, and if you prefer to believe the formal launch doesn't really come until the regular-season opener next month, know this: The rookie is treating this game exactly as he will that one.
"Every time you step on the court, you should want to win," Williams said on the eve of his preseason debut against the Raptors (5:30 p.m. MDT, no TV). "That's got to be your attitude. I don't think you take games off because they don't [count] on your record."
Wow. Rookie or not, this guy couldn't channel Jerry Sloan more convincingly if he were wearing a John Deere cap and screaming at Greg Ostertag.
And the parallel is especially striking this year, given that Williams' new mentor regards this preseason with more urgency than ever. Habits become ingrained during a crash-landing season like the Jazz endured a year ago, and attitudes linger. With a whole new crop of impressionable minds ready to be programmed, Sloan figures he can't afford to waste a second in eradicating the why-bother mentality he detected in his locker room last March and April.
"I'm concerned about our ability to think about winning ballgames," Sloan said, refusing to
discount the importance of a practice game that figures to be contested in part by soon-to-be-released camp invitees. "We lost 56 games. . . . We've got to find some guys who want to compete to win."
He seems to have found a few in his backcourt. Williams is eager to start justifying the Jazz's faith in drafting him third last June - "I don't know what to expect. I'm just going to go out and play hard," he said - while his fellow point guards, Keith McLeod and Milt Palacio, echo the more-than-an-exhibition sentiment.
"Here, one thing I like is we're not looking at this like the preseason," said Palacio, whose debut for his sixth NBA team comes against his fifth one. "We're trying to win like regular season games because last year, we didn't do too well."
Palacio played here in the Air Canada Centre last year, yet he refers to the disappointing 2004-05 Jazz as "we." That's the sort of commitment to his new employer that Sloan likes to see as he evaluates which of his point-guard contenders deserves to start, a decision he had not made as of Tuesday.
"He's a guy who seems concerned about making his teammates better," Sloan said of Palacio, a six-year veteran. "He's not thinking, 'I've got to shoot the ball. I've got to get my points.' That's how you win games."
And winning matters to Sloan, even when rosters are bloated with tryouts, even when Opening Night is still 21 days away. Maybe that's why the Jazz have not had a losing preseason record since 1990, Sloan's second training camp as Utah's coach. Even last year's 26-56 underachievers managed a 4-3 exhibition showing.
This is all a little new to Devin Brown, who spent last season helping win a championship in San Antonio. "It's a different atmosphere. [With the Spurs], you kind of coast through the season to get ready for the playoffs. This year, we've got to work for everything," Brown said. "We've been at it pretty hard for a week. Now we get to apply all that to a game situation. I'm excited. It's time to roll."
Sloan will still experiment with different combinations, shuffle players to various positions and provide non-guaranteed players a chance to impress him with cuts looming.
"You get to playing against other teams, doing different things, trying to make adjustments, going through all that stuff - we'll see how they handle it," the coach said. "Sometimes guys who don't play real well in practice, they get in games and it's completely different."
But amid all the uncertainty of playing a game with 18 players in uniform, Sloan doesn't want to lose sight of why they are here: To hand the Raptors a loss.
"There are [other] things we've got to do, but we've still got to try to win. Hopefully that's the thing that's foremost on our minds, trying to win, regardless of who's on the floor," Sloan said. "If they can't compete now, [when they have a chance] to try to see where they are and who they are, how am I going to expect them to compete [later]? When you have some problems, injuries, guys say 'Well, let's pack it in.' I want to see how they compete here. So far, I think they've done a good job."
He can't be certain, though. Until tonight.