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HBTJ newsletter: The fun of seeing Utah Jazz players figure it out in Summer League

Kofi Cockburn and Johnny Juzang have both some on-court success and some endearing moments postgame as they navigate their early days of professional basketball.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Kofi Cockburn (26) guards Philadelphia 76ers guard Grant Riller (26), in Jazz Summer League action, between the Utah Jazz and the Philadelphia 76ers, at Vivint Arena, on Wednesday, July 6, 2022.

For this being the “offseason,” it’s been a busy time.

SLC Summer League ended, the Jazz front office explained the Rudy Gobert trade, some of the guys who came over in return got introduced (like Walker Kessler and Malik Beasley), Vegas Summer League play began, and renewed speculation of an impending Donovan Mitchell trade caught fire after those same front office guys acknowledged the All-Star guard isn’t “untouchable,” and a report came out that the team is listening to offers.

In the middle of all that, Mrs. TribJazz and I decided to take a quick vacation, drive down to Vegas, and yes, catch some Summer League basketball and do some interviews, but also hang out with friends, indulge in some pricier-than-usual dinners, and have a drink or three.

As I sat in the Cox Pavilion next to Thomas & Mack Arena, watching the Jazz play the Mavericks, it occurred to me that I was being entirely too cynical about the Summer League games I’d been watching in both SLC and Vegas.

It’s easy to get caught up in Jared Butler’s shooting woes, or the struggles of new and young Leandro Bolmaro. Or to think, OK, maybe this isn’t technically the highest level of basketball. Maybe most of these guys won’t have professional hoops careers, and maybe of those who do will see them take place overseas.

But even among all the poor shooting, and defensive miscues, and rampant turnovers, there was still something pure and fun about watching guys chase their dreams. It was even more fun when you saw individual guys have their moments, see the light come on, and have it all fall into place, if only just for a bit.

Among the past week’s highlights for me:

Kofi Cockburn’s nerves turn into bragging on his defense

First off, if you don’t know (like Jared Butler doesn’t!), the “ck” in his surname is silent. It’s pronounced “Co-burn.” Anyway … When the Jazz signed him to an Exhibit 10 deal, I’ll admit my first thought was, “Oh good, another big, immobile, traditional center.”

By the end of the SLC Summer League, though, he’d won people (including me) over with both his play and his earnest personality. After struggling in the opener, he was much better in the finale. Hearing him verbalize the nerves involved in being an undrafted guy trying to impress a team by threading the needle between how he’s played before and how they want him to play now made me feel for him a bit.

“I definitely felt it the first couple days. New environment, new people, new challenge, new level,” he said. “I was a little bit, not nervous, but not as assertive as I usually am.”

He spoke about the necessity of transitioning from being “the man” to being a role player, going from the high-usage, ball-dominant guy he was at Illinois to someone focusing on moving without the ball, rebounding, setting screens, making the extra pass, and playing high-energy defense. And when I asked him a follow-up about the latter, specifically, what’s tougher about NBA defense than college defense, he made me laugh with his answer.

“Defensively, I thought it would be worse! I think I’ll be able to do very well,” Kofi said. “… It’s definitely not as hard as I thought it would be; it’s been way easier.”

Johnny Juzang’s swag

Another bit of enjoyment is watching the guys who absolutely believe they belong, whether actually they do or not. I don’t know if two-way signee Johnny Juzang has any nerves, especially in the wake of missing time due to a car crash, but he certainly isn’t showing it.

After a rough game vs. the Hawks, it was all on display against the Mavs. He went 3-for-3 on 3s, and his last one was big. With Utah up by one and about half a minute to go, Jared drove the lane, drew the defense, and kicked it back to Johnny. He pump-faked and side-stepped the onrushing defender, and calmly nailed what would prove to be the pivotal bucket.

“Man, JB found me, and I had a great look — but it would have felt a little rushed,” he explained. “I saw [the defender] closing out pretty hard, so I just got him up in the air, got a little more time, and stuck it.”

Just like that. When I asked him how he was dealing with the step up in competition, well, it was another just-like-that scenario.

“I guess everything just elevates, right? But you’re still the same competitor, you still play with the same fire, the same passion, so nothing really feels different in that aspect.”