‘The Jet,’ Jason Terry, is helping to lift the Utah Jazz higher

In his first year as an assistant coach on Will Hardy’s staff, Terry is contributing to the team’s culture, thanks to the hoops knowledge and locker-room insights gleaned from 19 years as a player in the NBA.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Assistant coach Jason Terry as the Utah Jazz host the Sacramento Kings, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 20, 2023.

To whatever extent the Utah Jazz have overachieved this season, a portion of the credit must go to a certain former University of Arizona star who never quite forgot about that time years ago that he very nearly wound up playing basketball in Utah, only to get pulled in a different direction at the last minute.

Lauri … who? No, sorry, we’re talking about Jason Terry.

About two decades after attempting to join the Jazz in free agency as a sharp-shooting combo guard, he’s finally getting the chance to contribute to the organization, this time as an assistant coach on Will Hardy’s staff.

He’s brought to the table years of basketball knowledge, skills and strategy acumen, locker-room insight, and a boisterous personality which helps him connect with players and coaches alike.

As a result, Terry has played an integral role in Hardy’s mission to establish an organizational culture that is serious and competitive … and enjoyable.

He contributes to that environment by maintaining a decidedly simple philosophy.

“When I played the game, I had tons of fun, and I didn’t want it to be anything different as a coach,” Terry said.

Finally landing ‘The Jet’

Much like Markkanen, who famously nearly signed with the University of Utah before ultimately choosing Arizona, Terry once was very nearly Utah-bound. Back in 2003, the combo guard thought he was set to play for the Jazz, having signed a three-year, $22.5 million offer sheet as a restricted free agent.

It wasn’t a case, either, of a player using another team as leverage to get the team he really wants to play for to open its wallet and pay him his desired salary. “The Jet” (a nickname born from the initials of his full name — Jason Eugene Terry) was all-in on bringing his wife and daughters (there are five of them now) to the Beehive State.

(Douglas C. Pizac | AP file photo) Atlanta Hawks guard Jason Terry drives on Utah Jazz guard John Stockton on Nov. 8, 2002, in Salt Lake City. Months later, Terry signed an offer sheet with the Jazz as a restricted free agent.

Not long after, however, that deal was matched by the Hawks.

“We thought we were coming. We were looking for homes and trying to figure out [where we’d live] as a family,” he said. “I never quite got to come and play, but every time I’ve come here as a player and now in my post-playing career, it’s been a great experience.”

Ironically, the Hawks wound up trading him to Dallas just a year later. Still, Terry would go on to have a long and prolific NBA career, including a Sixth Man of the Year award in 2009, and scoring a game-high 27 points in the Mavericks’ NBA championship-clinching Game 6 win in 2011.

He laments to this day Dallas owner Mark Cuban’s decision to break up the core of that team to clear salary cap space for an ultimately failed attempt to pair a second superstar alongside Dirk Nowitzki, arguing that specific group had more title runs in them.

“No doubt — I’m like LeBron: Not one, but two, three, four!” he said, laughing at the absurdity.

Since retiring after the 2017-18 season, Terry has remained active in basketball in a few different capacities. He’s done some broadcasting analysis. In September 2019, he was named assistant general manager of the G League’s Texas Legends. Just a few months later, he became an assistant coach for his old college program at Arizona. After a year with the Wildcats, he landed a head coaching job in the G League, with the Grand Rapids Gold, the affiliate of the Denver Nuggets.

And then, in the summer of 2022, he scored an interview to succeed Quin Snyder as the Jazz’s head coach, ultimately settling for joining Hardy’s staff as an assistant.

Asked why he doesn’t just take his earnings from his 19-season pro career, kick back, and relax, he replied that he still has something to offer the game.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz assistant coach Jason Terry gives an interview to The Tribune in Salt Lake City, Friday, Feb. 17, 2023.

“It just goes back to just being able to mentor and inspire people. I’ve ran my girls’ AAU program in Dallas for 15 years, so my offseasons were about coaching and about teaching the game of basketball and the game of life. And so being able to continue to do that after my playing career is something that was an easy transition for me,” Terry said. “… I’ve done a variety of things. But I get the most joy and excitement out of being on the front lines, being in the fire with the guys — film sessions, training, and then in-game, just trying to manage the game and put them in a position to be successful out there on the floor.”

Which made his fit with the Jazz a good one.

He got an interview for the top job in part owing to relationships established with Jazz CEO Danny Ainge in Boston in 2012-13, and with Utah general manager Justin Zanik while in Milwaukee in 2016-17.

The head coaching gig, of course, wound up going to Hardy, but when the pair crossed paths at the NBA Summer League event in Las Vegas, they got to talking. Each apparently liked what the other had to say — though their respective characterizations of the feeling-out process were recalled a bit differently.

“I didn’t know Jet personally until I got the job, and then had the opportunity to spend a bunch of time with him this summer during a sort of interview process, and [got] to know him,” Hardy said.

“I met up with Will in Las Vegas at Summer League, we had a quick conversation, and it was just like, ‘Hey, we’d love to have you in whatever capacity,’” Terry countered. “And so I went back and talked to my family, and we thought it would be the next step in my journey as my coaching career takes off.”

Regardless of the circumstances, the former guard has proven to be an excellent addition, joining and augmenting a staff that includes Alex Jensen, Lamar Skeeter, Bryan Bailey, Evan Bradds, Irv Roland, and Sean Sheldon, plus player development coaches Chris Jones and Sanjay Lumpkin.

“He’s a basketball junkie in the sense that he just wants to be around the game, and he loves to coach, he loves to teach, he loves to be in the gym,” said Hardy. “… He brings a ton of knowledge, he’s one of the funniest people that I’ve ever met in my life, he gives a lot of joy to our staff and to our team every day. He’s been a very integral part of our staff to this point. Very good on the court with the players. I could take 10 more minutes talking about Jet, but I’ll leave it at that. He’s been fantastic. I’m very, very fortunate to have him on the staff.”

Flying the friendly skies

Shortly after Markkanen arrived at the Jazz’s training camp last September following Finland’s elimination in the quarterfinals at the EuroBasket tournament, he took off again. Terry did, too.

The pair headed off to Tucson to take part in the University of Arizona’s Alumni Weekend, which included the basketball program’s annual Red-Blue Game at the McKale Center.

It also provided an opportunity for two organizational newbies to spend some time together and discover what makes the other tick.

“He and I traveled to Arizona, went to the game, and then flew back, so it was probably about four or five hours we spent together just talking,” Terry recalled. “We were talking about his career, and what his goals and aspirations were for this season and on into the future, and you could hear it right then that he was going to have a great, great season.”

(Rebecca Sasnett | Arizona Daily Star) Utah Jazz assistant coach Jason Terry and forward Lauri Markkanen talk to University of Arizona's men's basketball coach Tommy Lloyd at the Red-Blue Game at the McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz., on Sept. 30, 2022.

“Everybody in the league who went to Arizona just comes and talks to you. Obviously, having Jet here, you connect right away,” said Markkanen. “It was a fun experience to go back — that was my first time going back to [see] the scrimmage. … That allowed me to just get started with Jet, and then throughout the season, the relationship has gotten better.”

Before games, Terry’s responsibilities with the Jazz include putting together scouting reports, game plans, and film sessions for about eight opponents. During games, he’s making time-management and scheme-adjustment suggestions to Hardy, while keeping an iPad close by so he can point things out to players on the fly — either encouraging them on things they’re doing well, or showing them things they can do better. And in between games, he works most frequently and specifically with Rudy Gay and Collin Sexton.

Both players appreciate the pairing for dramatically different reasons.

The veteran forward pointed out that, as his and Terry’s playing careers overlapped a bit, the now-assistant has seen him in his prime, is exceedingly familiar with Gay’s game, and can help him course-correct, both schematically and, sometimes more importantly, mentally: “He’s very vocal with us — especially with me, trying to get me to get out of whatever’s in my head and just play basketball.”

Sexton, meanwhile, grew up in the Atlanta area, and so was a fan of those early-aughts teams that Terry played for. Getting personal instruction from one of them now is a bit mind-blowing to him at times.

“It’s crazy — I’ve been watching Jet for a long time, pretty much just growing up as a Hawks fan. Whenever me and my brother used to shoot 3s, we always used to do that,” Sexton said, imitating Terry’s patented arms-out-as-airplane-wings ‘flying’ celebration.

(Tony Gutierrez | AP file photo) Dallas's Jason Terry (31) follows a 3-pointer with his patented flying jet celebration against the Rockets on April 18, 2012.

Still, Terry — like all the other coaches — works with every player on the roster to some degree. And they all apparently appreciate his basketball expertise.

Rookie wing Ochai Agbaji said that Terry is always on him to be more aggressive — an idea mirrored by Kelly Olynyk, who said that Terry brings a “scorer’s aggressive mentality” into the advice he gives as a coach. Sexton said Terry’s best instruction to him is about pace — when to use his natural speed, but also when to slow things down. Markkanen noted that Terry likes to give him a guard’s perspective both on how he can attack, and how he might be attacked. Center Walker Kessler said Terry keeps hammering in the notion of him having an impact beyond blocking shots, and finding a way to be a presence and thus deter perimeter players from even trying him.

That Terry can disseminate all of this information with an outsized personality and an infectious, upbeat energy just makes it all the better.

“Jet has this thing whenever he sees me, he goes: ‘First name: Big! Last name: Walk!’” Kessler said, smiling at the recollection.

“He’s very, very outgoing at all times, he’s always happy,” added Sexton. “You never see Jet in a bad mood, he’s always making jokes; even when everyone’s upset about something, he’ll make a joke. That’s just the person he is.”

“He reminds me every now and then how good a player he was,” concludes Markkanen.

And he was.

That, Hardy noted, makes Terry unique among his group of assistants.

“He’s seen the inside of an NBA locker room, which I think is a really important perspective to have on your staff,” Hardy said. “No matter how much coaching I do, I’ve never sat in that seat as a player in the locker room, so he adds a really great perspective to our staff in that regard.”

Several of the players agreed with the importance of having an ex-player on staff.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Assistant coach Jason Terry as the Utah Jazz host the Sacramento Kings, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 20, 2023.

“He’s one of the guys who has been through it — he’s a battle-tested champion, and he brings that to the team. And people listen to him. It’s a long season, and him being on the other side right now, he understands how tough it can be,” said Gay. “… As smart as Will is, as knowledgeable about basketball as he is, the psychology part of playing in an NBA season and actually going out there and being between those lines is different. So from his standpoint, I guess it feels better for him that he can bounce things off of [Terry], see whether guys are tired, whether guys need a little bit more rest, guys are mentally drained — he can be that voice for them.”

The 45-year-old Terry said that, when he was a player, he admired the Jazz for their organizational stability. Now, he has very different reasons for enjoying the team.

He could have been bitter that Hardy got the job he wanted, then offered him a position as a subordinate. Instead, he saw an opportunity to become a part of something he thought had the potential to be special.

Terry praised Hardy for not getting bogged down by pressure or expectations or outside noise in his rookie head coaching season; for developing relationships with colleagues and players that aren’t exclusively about basketball; for himself being approachable and personable; for striking the right balance between doing the work but making work a fun place to be.

Even as Hardy praised Terry for being one of the funniest people he’s ever known, the assistant called his boss “a comedian” who has a habit of starting off coaches’ meetings with whatever inanity he caught on TV the night before. In those meetings, whichever coach is responsible for presenting that day’s scout gets to control the music in the office. There’s a wide variety among them: classic rock, smooth jazz, country. Terry will occasionally opt for some R&B, but generally will go for some old-school hip-hop — both because it’s what speaks most to him, but also because he’s noticed it has a penchant for getting Hardy all fired up.

“It’s the culture — the culture that we’ve set out as a coaching staff. Will made it a point from Day 1 to come in, he’s going to be loose, we’re going to have fun, we’re not going to give them a whole bunch of guidelines and restrictions, we want to allow them to play with freedom,” Terry said. “And when you give young people in this generation freedom to be who they are, and have a voice, and empower them, then they perform at their best. And I think our team has played that way from Day 1. They’ve also played with a chip and an edge, because nobody really expects them to achieve anything this season.”

Terry has flourished in that environment.

But he’s contributed to it, too.

“My message is the same, man, my message is the same: Just do what you do well, play hard, and have fun.”

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