SALT LAKE CITY — Before he took on Kyrylo Fesenko in a friendly game of H-O-R-S-E prior to Tuesday morning's practice, Raja Bell spent time working on his stroke with the Utah Jazz's shooting coach.
The lesson with Jeff Hornacek must've paid dividends. Bell cinched the win over the big center with a smooth-looking 18-foot jumper.
Beating low-post players in fun contests isn't the reason Bell shot with Utah's special assistant coach, of course. But the veteran shooting guard has been trying to refine his mechanics and has worked on catching and popping, screening and his jump shot before practices this week.
Bell's desire to improve, even at age 34, and his willingness to work on his trustworthy shot that had been a bit wayward early in his return to both NBA action (after nearly a year off) and the Jazz (after five years away) has been duly noted by his other coach.
"You would think he's a rookie," an impressed Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "He's been out there (recently) quite a bit just working on things he feels like helps him."
Now in his 11th NBA season, Bell knows the fluctuations of shooting success. So, hitting only six of his first 20 shots and going 2-for-9 from 3-point territory didn't make him panic last week.
Previous experiences have proven his aim bounces back. Bell recalls one back-to-back situation a few years ago when he missed a whopping 10 attempted threes in one game at Oklahoma City. The following night, after Suns coaches told him "don't worry about it," he recalls going 8-for-8 in Los Angeles.
Though he's working up a sweat to improve, Bell is not going to sweat about missing early season shots.
"The reality," he said, "is that timing and everything takes a minute to come back."
By the way, Bell said that before Sunday's 3-for-3 outing in the Jazz's blowout win at Oklahoma City.
Another reality many might not realize: The perceived lack of an outside sharpshooter a la dearly departed Kyle Korver — or also dearly departed Wesley Matthews — has raised concerns for some outside of the Jazz.
But Bell has shot 41.1 percent from beyond the arc in a decade of NBA play.
And Korver, who set a single-season 3-point-shooting record in 2009-10?
Yep, 41.1 percent from 3-point land for the ex-Jazzman for his career, too. (p.s. Matthews has a career 37.1 percentage from long range.)
In other words, Bell can shoot the lights out with the best of them and has no reason to believe that well-established habit won't continue in Utah.
It helps that Bell's body, as well-seasoned as it is by NBA standards, feels good and is mostly rust free because of all of the cardio he did in his playing absence. His left, non-shooting wrist, which required surgery last December and kept him out of most of last season, is also dandy again.
"Just some time for me" Bell said is all he needs to fully get back into the swing of things. "A little bit more greasing of my wheels, and I'll be fine."
Even if the shots aren't falling for the overlooked sharpshooter — "funny what you get labeled as in the NBA," he said — Bell still does plenty to help lift the Jazz.
"He's a very professional player. He's a hard worker," Sloan said. "He, I think, is a team guy, wants to do what's right for the team. Those guys are important to you because they help keep you on track."
Sloan also appreciates how Bell takes superb care of his physical shape by working in the weight room and in the gym.
Now his teammate for the second time, Andrei Kirilenko said Bell is a better teammate than ever. He's very happy to have him back.
For one thing, the Russian small forward loves how the feisty Bell plays defense and that he's able to defend opponents in multiple positions. He fondly calls him a "Kobe stopper."
But, Kirilenko added, Bell is also the type of savvy vet who's capable of improving any team with all of his intangibles — from leadership, to his talent, to the way he respectfully treats and mentors others in and out of the locker room.
"You feel like he's a family member," Kirilenko said. "He comes in, you're happy to see him, a lot of jokes, not offensive jokes … he always brings those kind of positive atmosphere."
Kirilenko joked that Bell is a reliable "old dog" and used another old animal reference as a term of endearment.
"In Russia," he added in English, "we say old horse never mess it up the thing you're supposed to do."
Bell hasn't fully taken Fesenko under his wing like Matt Harpring did in the past, but he has been trying to help keep the 23-year-old's spirits and confidence high. He gave Fesenko an in-game pep talk during a huddle Sunday and they worked on post moves and shot together Tuesday.
Bell enjoys dispensing words of wisdom to the young fellas (which could include every teammate but fellow 34-year-old Francisco Elson, but don't remind him). In this case, he told an attentive and nodding Fesenko to make his minutes count and to stay positive.
"I was privy to a lot of good advice from great players that I played with," Bell said, "and a guy like Fes can really help us, I think. I was just telling him that."
Rookie Gordon Hayward admitted the dynamics of his new relationship with Bell are unusual, considering the would-be college junior is 14 years younger. But the 20-year-old described the insightful Bell as being an "invaluable type of guy" for him and the Jazz.
"When he's out there on the court, he's leading and doing things to help the team win," Hayward said. "Then off the court it seems like he's the first guy that's vocal and telling guys what to do, giving encouragement when we're down, when we're up."
Hayward has too much respect for Bell to call him "Gramps" or kid about the age disparity. He did laugh when asked about having a teammate so much, well, more mature.
"I don't want to act like it's too old," Hayward said, smiling, "but to me (34) sounds like really, really old."
Hayward, whose favorite non-Reggie Miller player is Steve Nash, still hasn't told Bell that he rooted for his Phoenix Suns while he was a prep player (which sounds longer ago than it really is, considering he graduated only two years ago).
"That's the part that's weird," Hayward said. "I was rooting for Raja, growing up when I was in high school. Now here I am on the same team."
Like others, Hayward is soaking in Bell's sage advice.
"He's been in the league (11) years," he said. "He obviously knows what he's talking about. He just brings all of that experience to our team."
Bell said he's become "a lot more calm" since his last Jazz stint from 2003-05, partly because he is now a father of two with a refined perspective.
"I don't think you'll see me flying around and getting techs and yelling at people and doing all of that stuff," he said. "It's just not worth it at the end of the day."
Especially now that technicals are $2,000 a pop.
The Jazz can expect him to give them what made him so beloved here last time.
"I try my best to play defense," Bell said. "I try to bring an energy level, first and foremost starting with myself, that might rub off on my teammates, and if it does, cool. And when I'm open, I try to knock down shots."
Not to mention help and hang out with young twenty-somethings every day, which keeps Bell aware of his 1976 birth date.
Of course, Bell tries to make his seniority pay off as the self-proclaimed "elder statesman on the team" of youngsters.
"It's always to your advantage. Always. No doubt," a smiling Bell said. "Unless it's in vertical leap contests or sprint contests, and then age shows up a bit."11 comments on this story
Fortunately for the Jazz, his better-with-time qualities show up a lot.
Just ask the guys getting advice from him — or losing to him in shooting contests.