Utah Jazz players are embracing physicality on the court and friendliness off of it

The team’s players say their habit of “beating each other up all practice and then we play ‘Call of Duty’ all night” accomplishes building both toughness and camaraderie.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Guard Jordan Clarkson speaks to media at Utah Jazz media day at Vivint Arena, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021 in Salt Lake City.

Most of the Utah Jazz’s primary rotation players sat out of the team’s preseason game in Dallas. A few of them didn’t play two days before in San Antonio, either.

Which isn’t to say the team has been taking it easy heading into Monday night’s penultimate preseason matchup against New Orleans at Vivint Arena.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

“I’d say our practices have been super-intense. … Right now, the competition level is super-high. We ain’t got grade A-1 refs, so we’re in there beating each other up,” Jordan Clarkson noted after Saturday’s session. “There’s people coming out with bloody lips and scratches and stuff.”

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Really? Who’s gotten bloody lips?

“Hassan [Whiteside] yesterday, Rudy [Gobert] one day — them two dudes been battling it out! Royce [O’Neale] got one, [Eric Paschall], the young guys. I got scratch marks everywhere where my tattoos ain’t covering!” Clarkson said, lifting his shirt to show the proof. “We’re going hard.”

Gobert, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, denied getting busted in the mouth, but did grin while conceding he’s been dishing it out.

His fierce battles with Whiteside are nothing more than them wanting to “really push one another,” he said.

Lest it sound like an out-of-control free-for-all, though, Gobert’s new backup and apparent practice foil quickly cleared that up. Yes, the physicality has been ratcheted up; no, there aren’t any lingering hard feelings about it in the aftermath.

“It’s been really intense. It’s been really intense, you know, just me and Rudy beating each other up all practice,” Whiteside said Sunday. “And then we play ‘Call of Duty’ all night. That’s pretty much how our days go.”

Once the apparent onetime rivals are done beating the hell out of one another on the court, they downshift their competitiveness into no-less-spirited but fewer-bruises-producing 3-point contests: “I’ve been winning ‘em!” said Whiteside. “But if you talk to Rudy … he’s so competitive! ‘All right, let’s do it again!’”

Then, when they’re done with those, they finally set their rivalry toward one another aside completely and actually team up in video game co-op sessions, trying to earn wins together against the likes of, say, Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley. Whiteside even went so far as to call Gobert “one of the closest people [to me] on the team.”

Heads are surely spinning within the fanbase at that revelation.

The thing is, this Jazz team believes the juxtaposition of not-quite-violence on the court followed by hangouts off it make all the sense in the world.

For starters, the physicality is a pretty inevitable byproduct of driven, passionate athletes who aren’t afraid to let people know what they’re capable of.

“We’ve got a bunch, a lot of s--- talkers this year,” Mitchell noted with a laugh. “I think, for me personally, Eric [Paschall] brings that side out of me more than anybody. I think Eric brings it out of himself. Then you’ve got Joe [Ingles], who always [talks], but he’s talking a little more this year; Hassan, Rudy Gay is talking. So you’ve got a bunch of guys that talk. Royce is talking; the competitive juice, the competitive edge — he brings that.

“But then also, the championship aspirations, I think that’s what [plays] into it, as well — everybody is raising their level to be what we want, to get where we want to get to. That’s where a lot of it comes from, where a lot of it stems from, from us being the competitors that we are,” Mitchell added. “You have that, and that’s where you get those practices that have really been the most physical and the most intense since I’ve been here.”

Beyond that, the intensity has been purposeful, with both Clarkson and Gobert suggesting it will serve to give the Jazz needed calluses for when things inevitably get tough.

“We don’t take any shortcuts in practices. We know that we’re not going to have any shortcuts when it gets hard in the playoffs, or even during the season — it’s a long season — so we try to really push each other,” said Gobert. “… We really understand that it’s about making each other better. And when it’s game time, hopefully everything is easier.”

Whiteside, meanwhile, posited that the more light-hearted aftermath will prove useful, too.

The group video game sessions, the text chains, the evening get-togethers — they’re actually not at all common on NBA teams, in his experience. And while teammates liking each other is no ultimate guarantee of success, it certainly can’t hurt, in his mind.

“It’s so cool how close this team is. I haven’t been on a team this close,” he said. “You know, a lot of people say, ‘Hey, we’re a close team. Hey, we do this together.’ This really is like a close-knit group. It’s pretty great. I love it.

“… I came here, and obviously they were winning [before] — but I started seeing why. Guys trust each other and guys like each other,” he added. “My past years in the NBA, everybody came into work and then everybody’s going their own way, and the only time you see them is … I call them ‘employee friends’ — you only see them at work. But here, it’s like, ‘Hey man, come over here, man. Let’s hang out.’ Or, ‘Hey man, get on a game.’ Or, ‘Hey man, anybody on? We’re chilling tonight.’ So it’s crazy, it’s way different. You’re going to look at guys differently, hanging around them all the time.”

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