DENVER — This past offseason, Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor admitted it's easier to be patient with the bigger works-in-progress than the smaller ones.
The big Ukrainian project who goes by the name of Kyrylo Fesenko is tantalizing the team with a huge payoff for its patience with him.
The 7-foot-1 center won't just be known for his wacky antics and jokes if he continues to work and play in the regular season like he did in the preseason.
Fesenko's new-and-improved act, which included exhibition averages of 8.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 0.9 blocks, even drew rave reviews from one of his staunchest critics.
"Fes has played extremely well," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said Tuesday before leaving for tonight's season-opener at Denver.
Showing up to camp fitter and 25 pounds lighter has boosted everything from Fesenko's work ethic, to his mobility, conditioning and confidence.
During the preseason, he drove with the ball, pulled off stunning spin moves, played aggressively but in control on defense, and managed to win over a coach who often doesn't find his brand of humor all that funny.
While veteran newcomer Francisco Elson struggled with a hamstring injury, Fesenko showed he might be a viable backup option at center while Mehmet Okur rehabs from his Achilles heel injury.
"Fes has played his best basketball," Sloan said. "And he's done it because he's in much better shape to be able to stay focused on what he has to do. Whenever you're always bent over grabbing your pants, it's pretty hard to think about what you're doing."
Sloan calls that exhausted motion "the first sign of fatigue." The coach is thrilled that Fesenko has shown signs of giving the Jazz offense some punch, not just punchlines.
Sure, Fesenko might remain funny off the court, but he's no joke on the court.
"This is the best I've ever feel about myself basketball-wise," the 23-year-old said.
He is comfortable and confident.
"I realized what coach wants to see from me," Fesenko said. "I realize what I need to do on the floor. ... I just feel more mature."
Fesenko even has a short set of goals heading into what essentially is a contract year. The lifetime 40.2-percent free-throw shooter wants to hit at least 60 percent of his freebies. He wants to improve on his career average of 1.9 rebounds. And he definitely wants to swat more shots than he has (only 37 blocks in three seasons).
With those goals in mind, Fesenko said he's "confident, excited, psyched for the season to start."
Sloan agrees that the 280-pounder has room for improvement.
"We've been pleased with a lot of his play," Sloan said. "He still has his moments he loses his concentration, but I think he's matured a great deal. But he's got more to do. He's got a tremendous upside if he continues to work at it."
CAPTAIN D-WILL: For the first time in years, Sloan picked one player to serve as team captain. As expected, it's Deron Williams, who had previously been a co-captain with Carlos Boozer.
"He's been in that situation where he knows what we're trying to do and has as good a grasp on all of that stuff as anybody," said Sloan, who usually has multiple captains. "It's not a reflection on anybody else. I just thought it was the choice to make."
Williams' description of his duties: "Support the coach, support the team, and it's my job to lead this team."
By example, by speaking up when need be, and by receiving input from everybody.
"That's what's special about this group — nobody's too good. Everybody can get better, even me," Williams said. "We're all open to listening to each other. It's not just like I am the only one talking in the locker room, the only one that has something to say. We have a great group that gets along and is ready to win."
AWARD-WINNER: Jazz broadcasts executive director Travis Henderson won a regional Emmy for his production of Game 6 between Utah and Denver last spring.. Henderson received the award in the Director-Live or Live-to-Tape category from the Rocky Mountain Southwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.