Utah Jazz look to find leaders in Devin Harris, Al Jefferson
Mike Terry, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Deron Williams was occasionally surly and borderline pouty, and you might recall the infamous high heat he threw at a certain rookie last season when he didn't like what was happening on the court.
Even with his flaws, the two-time All-Star was the undisputed leader of the Utah Jazz.
While leadership isn't quantifiable in boxscores, the role of go-to guy and leader — someone who could either make plays or push and help teammates to get it done — seemed to go unfilled after D-Will was shipped to New Jersey.
Several people inside of the organization — players and management alike — are hoping to avoid such a scenario next season.
But who will emerge out of the offseason as the leader or leaders is one of the intriguing questions being bandied about a franchise that became flummoxed with the loss of strong personalities and presences in resigned Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan and Williams.
Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor pointed in the direction of the franchise's two newest veterans — Al Jefferson and Devin Harris — while recently talking about the subject.
O'Connor teased Harris and Jefferson at season's end: "I said, 'Myself and Coach (Tyrone) Corbin and you and Al, we're the four guys who are going to get the blame next year, so tie your hat on.' "
In his first season in Utah, Jefferson openly distanced himself from the leadership role outside of the by-example category.
Harris just didn't quite feel comfortable enough to be a vocal presence after joining the team mid-season and in the midst of turbulence and turmoil.
The very respected Paul Millsap admitted he was trying to study up on how to become a better leader but the transition remains a work in progress, though he would like an increased leadership role.
And Raja Bell and Earl Watson provided a veteran perspective, but a clear-cut leading predecessor to Williams never emerged as the Jazz's season submerged into the depths of a losing season for only the second time in nearly three decades.
The guys O'Connor called out (or on) could make a big difference if they make that change next year.
For starters, they both strongly endorse having teammates get together for training at the performance lab often used by the Jazz in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Harris made a point at locker cleanout of talking about an increased leadership role next season.
"That is my job as a point guard," Harris said. "So, yeah, I definitely take pride in that (leadership). That's kind of what we talked about in the (exit) meeting, too, taking ownership. It's going to be heavy on my shoulders as well as Al's, and we look forward to having that type of pressure."
While talking about trying to round up guys for summer training in SoCal, Jefferson made it clear that he feels like he's established enough to make a difference with his teammates.
"I've been around long enough to speak my opinion," he said.
It's natural, though, that players might be hesitant to try to take over a team's leadership until they have themselves settled and feeling completely comfortable.
And this was a particularly bizarre situation this year, with the Jazz losing both Sloan and Williams in the span of a couple of weeks.
"Trying to fill in the heat of moment is a little tough," Harris said. "But who's to know what will happen next year with a full training camp. And obviously coming back, they're used to me. I'm used to them. We can get off on the right foot."
Wherever the leadership comes from, though, Jefferson believes the entire team is set on working hard during the offseason to help the Jazz get back into the playoffs.
"Everybody on the same page. Everybody got that same mindset," Jefferson said. "We're just trying to reach the same goals."
Jefferson believes winning again and returning to postseason action next year is definitely within Utah's reach. He scoffed at the idea that the Jazz are in a long-term rebuilding process despite a second-half free fall that resulted in a 39-43 record.
"If it is rebuilding," he said, "it's not going to be two or three years."
This summer, he believes, will do.
Harris is of that same frame of mind.
"I think this team knows how to win. We had some distractions, some injuries, that prevented that," he said, "but I think moving forward with the guys that we have I think that we definitely can win at a high rate."
Corbin admitted the Jazz don't necessarily have a down-the-stretch clutch player a la Williams.
"We haven't found that guy yet," he said.
But he likes the core group Utah will have back, and Corbin suggested leadership and clutch plays in crunch time could come from a committee instead of one guy.
"The cream," he said, "will always rise to the top."
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