Howard Eisley is doing everything he can to make it tough for the Utah Jazz to cut him.
When the softspoken, 6-1 guard was brought in to replace the injured Jamie Watson, it was widely assumed he'd be around only until Watson returned to action. But Watson is still not back, and Eisley has made a strong bid to stick around as John Stockton's backup.Now the best guess is that when Watson returns, Bryon Russell will go, leaving Eisley on the roster for the rest of the season as part of a four-guard rotation.
If Eisley does stick, he'll have earned it. The second-year pro is almost always the last Jazzman in the gym after practice, working on his outside shot with assistant coach Gordon Chiesa. Unlike a lot of young players, Eisley doesn't think he's made it just by being here; he wants to be better.
Besides, Eisley knows how tenuous a thing an NBA career can be. A second-round pick of the Timberwolves out of Boston College in 1994, he played 34 games with Minnesota last season before being cut in February. The Spurs signed him to a 10-day contract, then another, then signed him for the remainder of the season, only to cut him on April 17.
"Watching last year helped me to understand the game a little more," he said. "I didn't play much, but I tried to learn."
Chiesa said the Jazz planned to invite Eisley to play on their summer league team last season, except that the labor dispute canceled the league. The Jazz staff liked Eisley in college, and again at pre-draft camp in Chicago, and they might have taken him with their second-round pick that year (which ended up being Watson) if he hadn't gone to Minnesota at No. 30.
When Watson didn't report to veterans' camp last fall while working out his contract, Eisley accompanied the Jazz to Cedar City. He played well there, but when Watson returned, Eisley was, as Chiesa says, "the proverbial last guy cut." He played a few games with Rockford of the CBA before the Jazz called again.
"He's had some tough times," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "I think he appreciates it more because of that."
What Eisley has shown this season is that he is a decent point guard, a better player at that position than Watson. Watson may have more upside by virtue of being taller and more explosive, but Eisley is a better ballhandler, more adept at getting the Jazz into their halfcourt offense.
Sloan praises, among other things, Eisley's intelligence.
"He knows what we're doing," Sloan said. "When you tell him what to do, he goes out and does it. He's a focused young man. So many people play with their athletic ability alone and forget to play with the other people on the court. He's adjusted as quickly to what we're doing as anybody we've had."
Eisley does have room for improvement. Sloan would like to see him add strength to his 177-pound frame, and Chiesa says he need to become a consistent perimeter shooter.
Not surprisingly, Eisley was a good shooter in college. He made 44.7 percent of his three-pointers in four seasons as a starter. But he's hit just 5 of 30 (16.7 percent) three-pointers for the Jazz, despite being wide-open for most of those misses.
"I'm struggling shooting the ball right now, maybe rushing my shots a little bit," Eisley said. "It's nothing severe. I'm still a confident shooter."
The knock on most small guys coming out of college is that they are shooting guards without point-guard skills. Relied on to be scorers for their college teams, they don't develop the ability to run an offense that is required of NBA point guards. Eisley says his situation was similar, but he feels he's making up for lost ground by being Stockton's understudy.
"If you had to pick a guy in the league to play behind, it would be John Stockton," he said. "Every day is like class in session for me."
"He's learned from John, rather than going out there trying to do his own thing," Sloan said. "He's fought John pretty good in practice."
It's hard to picture Eisley battling anyone. He's neither cocky nor loud. In fact, he's so quiet one has to strain to hear him. He admits that coaches have talked to him about that.
"You have to change when you walk on the floor," he said. "You have to be assertive, aggressive, almost a little nasty."
"He's a soft-spoken guy who has good mental toughness," Chiesa said. "There's that quiet demeanor, but he has some street toughness, too. The players and coaches have confidence in him."