Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — There is one battle Jeremy Evans has already won in his fledgling NBA career.
The second round NBA draft pick out of Western Kentucky beat the odds by surviving preseason cuts and claiming an opening day roster spot with the Utah Jazz. For Evans, simply being on the team marks a first step in his journey.
It is not his final destination.
"Just to know I'm still here, I guess, has given me a little confidence," Evans said. "I'm here, but I still need to work, and I want to stay on the team."
For Evans and other Jazz newcomers, the goal is to find a way to compose sweet music in Utah by making a positive impact immediately.
The pressure will be on some new players to make big contributions right away. Rookie forward Gordon Hayward is one under a particularly big microscope. Once the Jazz selected Hayward out of Butler with the ninth overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, the level of expectations for the lanky forward was immediately ratcheted up.
Hayward considers himself a competitor and a winner. But he also wants to show he is a learner who will soak up whatever information from coaches and teammates will help him adapt to pro basketball faster.
"I just want to go out on the court and play hard every night," Hayward said. "I want to know that when the game is over I gave it my best shot. This year, especially, is going to give me a lot of opportunity for learning."
Recent history suggests that Evans could emerge as an important contributor off the bench to Utah's success.
The Jazz have shown a knack for turning undrafted free agents and former second round picks into solid role players. Bryon Russell, Shandon Anderson, Jarron Collins and Mo Williams are among players who went from late draft pick in Utah to build lengthy NBA careers.
Longtime Jazz coach Jerry Sloan is already high on the work ethic Evans possesses and the energy the paper-thin rookie brings to the court.
"That's how you get better, if you're willing to try to make yourself better through hard work — which he did," Sloan said. "We like him. We think he's got a chance to play in this league."
History does not greatly favor Hayward's quest to be an impact player. Over the past decade, only one player selected at his NBA draft position — Amare Stoudemire — has gone on to be an all-star and three of those players selected at ninth overall no longer play in the league.
Still, Hayward is determined to be one of the few who beats the odds and carves out a successful NBA career. That, he believes, comes down to embracing whatever role Sloan asks of him.
"It's just (about) doing my job," Hayward said. "Whatever the coach wants me to do. If that's making the right cut. If that's coming off a screen hard. If that's pushing someone out of the basket. If I do my job, I'll be all right."
From Sloan's perspective, the key to rookie players like Hayward and Evans surviving in the league essentially comes down to their willingness to consistently play hard.
"It's a sad commentary a lot of times when you say somebody is giving 100 percent," Sloan said. "Well that's what they get paid to do. If you're going to play, that's what you have to do if you're going to be able to be a factor on a team and win games."
If any Jazz newcomers need an example of what it takes to strike a chord in Utah, they need to look no further than veteran shooting guard Raja Bell.
Bell was a seldom-used reserve journeyman when he signed with the Jazz earlier in his career. But he quickly won over Sloan with his defensive toughness and became a starter during his two-year stint in Salt Lake.
After getting a glimpse of the newcomers in the preseason, Bell thinks they have potential to make an impact for the Jazz. But he also realizes it may take a while for that potential to fully be realized in Utah's complex offense
"It's not brain surgery," Bell said. "It's basketball and if you played long enough, a lot of this stuff is good old-fashioned basketball. Having said that, if you haven't played in this style or in this structured an offense before, it can take awhile to get used to the nuances of it and to learn where you fit in."
Bell is among a handful of veterans that joined the Jazz in the offseason who hope their addition will help Utah progress up the ladder of NBA contenders.
Big things are expected of the veterans as well. Al Jefferson appears to have the tools to flourish in a system geared toward a power forward who can score in bunches down in the low post. Earl Watson provides a capable veteran backup to point guard Deron Williams that the Jazz have lacked in recent seasons. And Bell is expected to offer some defensive toughness that has been missing on the perimeter.
All are confident that fitting into their new home and helping Utah take another step forward is an achievable goal.
"Everybody has got a positive attitude," Jefferson said. "Everybody wants to win. Everybody, you know, is very unselfish. It's great chemistry. There's a reason why this team has been to the playoffs so many years."
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