The veterans may tease, and the young guys may clam up when the cameras are on, but with the NBA’s regular season fast approaching, it’s becoming increasingly evident that the Utah Jazz may be the nicest team in the league.
"I thought last year was a great team," center Al Jefferson said, "everybody got along on and off the court. But this year tops it."
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It’s still the preseason, and the byproducts of an 82-game season — personality clashes, dissatisfaction over minutes — haven’t yet hit. But the Jazz have been carefully constructed to be a team of high-character players who won’t create off-court distractions or be locker room disturbances.
"They [Jazz executives] do a great job of doing background checks on guys and making sure the character fits what we do here," coach Tyrone Corbin said, "along with their ability to play. They’ve done a tremendous job of finding people here that fit what we’re trying to do."
First-year general manager Dennis Lindsey gives credit to predecessor Kevin O’Connor for targeting quality guys, and said the process of building a high-character team is "not easy. It’s my expectation because of the places I’ve been before that you can in fact build an NBA team that is made of good guys and guys with character who are unselfish."
Lindsey said it started with last year’s team that went 36-30 in a lockout-shortened season.
Gordon Hayward and Jeremy Evans are known to be close friends, while Jefferson has famously taken Enes Kanter under his wing. But relationships like these exist up and down the roster, from the chirpy Mo Williams softly offering words of encouragement to Chris Quinn in the moments after Quinn was waived, to Alec Burks publicly challenging Evans for a spot in the NBA’s dunk contest.
Has this team really only been together for one month?
"It has been pretty quick," Paul Millsap said, "especially with the new guys we got, Mo, Marvin [Williams] and the rookie [Kevin Martin] and Randy [Foye]. Those guys have fit in are coming along and fit in fast. They came in fast and did a great job of getting used to the system
The only player on the Jazz roster who presented a concern, Raja Bell, was asked to stay home this fall after the two sides failed to reach a buyout agreement in the offseason.
Jefferson, entering his third season with the Jazz, is the glue of the team’s chemistry. Before the Williamses and Foye were added to the Jazz roster, Jefferson already had relationships with all of them. He and Mo Williams are both from Mississippi and run a camp together; he and Marvin Williams were in the same high school class and competed against each other in numerous all-star games; and Foye and Jefferson were teammates for two seasons in Minnesota. Perhaps most significantly for the Jazz, however, is how Jefferson has made himself a mentor to Kanter and Derrick Favors.
"I’ve been on teams where the older guys hang together, and the young guys hang together," Jefferson said, "but never together. Everybody is just hanging in one crew."
While compassion and courtesies aren’t as easily tied to on-court production as, say, assist-to-turnover ratio or field goal percentage, the Jazz could be a lot worse off. The Jazz don’t sign guys whose character-to-ability quotient is risk-reward.
"I think it’s just how the team is," Foye said. "I think that they know what they’re doing. The organization, general mangers, they know what they’re looking for. That’s the type of things that I think they scout."
Jazz players know all about the maladies other teams face. Mo Williams played in Cleveland with troubled guard Delonte West, who was indefinitely suspended by the Mavericks last week. In 2009, Foye was a teammate of Gilbert Arenas in Washington, when Arenas and Javaris Crittenton were both found to have kept unloaded firearms in their lockers.
"This team is the exception as far as just having good guys," Foye said.
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