Utah's Jefferson back in best shape ever
SALT LAKE CITY (AP)
Utah Jazz big man Al Jefferson is in the best shape of his life. Rookie Enes Kanter of Turkey is finally going to play in the U.S. And fan-favorite Earl Watson is just happy to be back in Salt Lake City.
What it all means when it comes to how the Jazz will do this season remains to be seen.
''I think we'll do real well,'' Jefferson said of competing in a 66-game season. ''We got a lot of young legs ... and we're one of the few teams that got a lot of our same guys from last year.''
The Jazz opened training camp Friday with a dozen players on their roster and a few more on the way.
Kanter and fellow lottery pick Alec Burks signed their rookie contracts and reported along with the nine players already under contract. Watson, a backup to point guard Devin Harris, agreed to a two-year deal and caught a flight in time to be in uniform for the afternoon practice.
The only negative was news that Jefferson's live-in girlfriend had been arrested the previous night in a domestic dispute in which she is accused of biting the 6-10 veteran at his Cottonwood Heights home.
He declined to discuss the incident, calling it a personal matter, and said he wanted to focus on basketball.
''It's life, man, life,'' he said. ''Life is full of adjustments. You got to adjust.''
Jefferson said he expects the full support of teammates.
''Teammates (are) like family,'' Jefferson said. ''Family is always going to be with you through thick and thin.''
While team officials declined to discuss off-court issues, they were overjoyed at seeing Jefferson's conditioning.
''I will go on the record right now in front of God and everybody,'' trainer Mark McKown said. ''He is the most explosive, the most athletic overall, the strongest and most stable from foot to head than he's ever been, and with the lowest body fat ever.
''If he doesn't have his best season ever ... I will be shocked.''
The Jazz may be a small-market franchise, but their strength this season should be their size in the paint.
In addition to Jefferson, they have 6-11 Kanter, who wanted to play at Kentucky but never did because he was ruled ineligible by the NCAA. He spent the lockout playing in Turkey against the likes of Pau Gasol and other NBA veterans, and working out with trainers in Los Angeles.
In three weeks, that's where the Jazz will open their season, against the Lakers.
No one was more thrilled Friday than Kanter, the No. 3 overall pick in the draft.
''It finally happen,'' Kanter said. ''I finally have a team and teammates and am finally going to actually play for that team. That's why I'm really excited.''
He called his family in Turkey after signing his contract.
''When the NCAA (ruling) happened, they were frustrated,'' he said. ''Now they're happy. I have team to finally play basketball in America.''
Okur, who also is Turkish, said he hasn't felt this good since before he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury two years ago.
Jefferson promised the team would be better defensively.
''And it starts with me,'' he said.
The Jazz are coming off a 39-43 season in which Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan abruptly retired and the team traded its best player in All-Star guard Deron Williams.
''A lot of things that happened last season would really wreck any team up,'' Jefferson said. ''But now everybody is on the same page. We got new guys on the coaching staff, the same goals and are on the same page.''
He wouldn't go so far to predict this would be a playoff team.
''I'm not going to jinx us but we're gonna play hard every night,'' Jefferson said. ''We took some quarters off last year. We just can't afford to do that this year. We've got to be consistent from day one.''
Jefferson is the only player who started every game last season, and he led the team in rebounding and scoring. But he acknowledged he finished poorly and was looking to change that.
New coach Tyrone Corbin, who took over the final 28 games last season, has said minutes and roles would be up for grabs.
Gordon Hayward, a rookie last year, could end up starting at shooting guard.
But Hayward said he knows nothing is given and wants to avoid the dips and surges he had last year and play more consistently.
Two-a-days start Sunday, giving the Jazz not much time before the Dec. 27 opener in L.A.
"It's such a short time, anything can happen,'' guard Raja Bell said of the condensed season. ''I think we're built if we can find a way to start fast, we're kind of built for it. We've got young guys who quite frankly don't know any better. They're bodies really shouldn't get beat up too bad.''
Jazz CEO Greg Miller looked forward to the new pieces, and what the new collective bargaining agreement could mean in future years for his small-market team.
''Nobody likes to give anything up,'' he said. ''Sometimes it's painful, but a lot of times you have to go through the pain to get back to what makes sense. The (new) CBA is a long way from where we wanted to be when we set out, but it's a lot better for the Jazz than it was at end of last season. We're better off from a competitive standpoint and from a financial standpoint.''
The 750 or so fans who showed up at the team's downtown arena for the unveiling of an alternate green jersey are counting on it.