In the summer of 2017, all that Jazz fans wanted out of free agency was for Gordon Hayward to re-sign with the team and remain in Utah.
One morning of leaked departure rumors, one round of unconvincing denials, one hastily written decision announcement, and one ruined Fourth of July later, and that dream was over.
What Jazz fans wound up getting in free agency instead was veteran defensive wing Thabo Sefolosha and journeyman big man-turned-EuroLeague Final Four MVP Ekpe Udoh.
Now, in the summer of 2019, both of those players are free agents, and seemingly likely to play elsewhere next season. And if no one is exactly staking their holiday happiness on the duo returning, their departures won’t go unnoticed either.
For while their on-court production these past two seasons may have been modest, their locker room presence was invaluable.
Over the course of the 2018-19 season, teammates would, without fail, unprompted, unsolicited, discuss their importance to the team, the benefit of having them around to run ideas by, to discuss situations with.
“It’s very helpful for our young players to see [Sefolosha] work, because he’s a true professional,” said Jae Crowder. “It’s been good for us to have him around — he’s a voice in the locker room through the ups and downs of the season.”
“Ekpe taught me a lot just by how he handles himself, on and off the court,” said two-way player Tyler Cavanaugh, whose locker was right next to the center’s at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Sometimes the vets themselves even made it a point to single out the other. On one occasion this season, Udoh, a 2010 lottery pick, said of Sefolosha, who’s now played 14 seasons in the NBA, “He’s been around, he’s seen a lot of players come and go, and he’s still here. He definitely shares his knowledge with the guys, through the good times and the times that pose a lesson.”
Former Jazzmen Alec Burks and Rodney Hood, in their first return to Utah since being traded from the team, both said they made it a point to stay in contact with some former teammates, including Udoh.
While Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh are highly regarded in the locker room, neither wound up making the on-court impact they wanted over the past two seasons:
While some fans may look at their numbers and be quick to shrug off their likely impending departures, the people in the locker room know well the benefits of having around guys who’ve gone through every conceivable situation.
Now, with two such guys figuring to leave, Burks having been jettisoned this past fall, and veteran big man Derrick Favors’ status unsettled as the team looks to chase a max-level free agent, the team dynamic could well be very different next year.
Of course, beyond being the sage voices of reason, those guys had their moments on the court, too.
In a late-October victory in Dallas, with the Jazz bleeding away a lead, Udoh anchored a third-quarter lineup that helped expand the advantage and ultimately enabled the win.
In an early-April slog against the Hornets, the Jazz’s short-handed bench got a lift from Sefolosha, who played almost 23 minutes and hit 5 of 6 shots — including 4 of 5 from deep — for a season-high 14 points in the win.
Given the opportunity to play in the regular-season finale vs. the Clippers (with the regulars all held out in a meaningless contest), Udoh shot 7 for 9 and totaled season-highs of 14 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, and four blocks.
Still, they undoubtedly wish there had been a few more on-court highlights, apparently not yet content solely with the role of wizened voice of experience.
In his two seasons with the Jazz, Udoh appeared in just 114 games and averaged only 2.5 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 0.9 blocks per game. After getting 12.9 minutes per game in 2017-18, that was more than cut in half a season later, when he played just 6.3 minutes per game. The Clippers game was the only time he topped 20 minutes all season, stuck, as he was, behind Favors and All-NBA Third Team selection Rudy Gobert.
At the team’s locker-room cleanout meeting with the media, he praised the organization and his teammates, but conceded, “I didn’t get the opportunities that I wanted.” He is now reportedly considering several lucrative offers to continue his career back in Europe.
Sefolosha, meanwhile, took the court only 88 times for Utah in his two years. He, too, saw his opportunities decline, as he went from 8.2 points and 3.5 rebounds in 21.2 minutes in 2017-18 to 3.8 points and 2.5 rebounds in 12.2 minutes this season.
While he expressed a willingness to potentially return, he seemed to indicate he did not consider it likely: “I’m gonna keep my options open and see what makes sense,” Sefolosha said. “I had a great experience here for two years.”
Still though, while Udoh was a defensive presence and Sefolosha worked to become a proficient deep shooter, they were both best-known for being great teammates — something that continued right until the end of their time with the team.
At that aforementioned meeting with the media, one reporter asked Udoh what the Jazz needed to take the next step, to which he quickly replied, in response to a perceived shot at teammates still raw from having been eliminated the night before, “Well, what do you think, sir, before I answer this question? What’s your take?” When the reporter, caught off-guard, stammered, “I don’t know … better players?” in response, a grin crept across Udoh’s face.
“‘Better players,’” he repeated slowly, for effect. “… Yeah, we all need them.”