SALT LAKE CITY — Deron Williams, the All-Star point guard who emerged as the Utah Jazz's premier player for five-plus seasons before being traded away last February, is back in the Beehive State.
And he won't be the only returning familiar face. Williams is one of five former Jazz players who are now members of what some folks might call the "New Jersey Jazz."
Veteran center/power forward Mehmet Okur, who spent seven seasons in Utah, was traded to the Nets just before the 2011-12 season started. Kris Humphries, a forward taken by the Jazz in the 2004 NBA Draft, is probably best known for being the guy Kim Kardashian dumped last year after 72 days of marriage. Shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson, drafted by the Jazz out of high school in 2000, was traded away in 2004 and won an NBA title with the Dallas Mavericks last season. And point guard Sundiata Gaines will always be remembered for his storybook 3-point shot at the buzzer that beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010.
"It'll be a little emotional for everybody," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. "Those guys played here, they're not here any more, we enjoyed the time they were here, but they're with a different team now. So we have to go out and play.
"Memo came in the first year and he got himself in tremendous shape after that and he had a great run for us. He was versatile, he could step out for a big to make shots and he could post up at times. He was a great teammate to have on the team and the guys really enjoyed playing with him."
Jazz shooting guard C.J. Miles was a teammate with four of the former Jazz players — all except Stevenson — and likened tonight's matchup to the one Utah had last year against the Chicago Bulls and their three former Jazzmen — Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer.
"Those guys are our friends and former teammates, but when we step between those lines, we're opponents and you've got to go win the game," Miles said. "And I'm sure they're thinking the same thing. ... Between those lines, he's another opponent trying to stop us from doing what we're trying to do. And I'm sure he feels the same way about us."
Miles said he and Williams have remained close, checking up on each other regularly before Williams went to play for a short time in Turkey during the NBA lockout.
And although they're "still pretty good friends," they'll both be gunning to come away with a win in tonight's matchup.
"Everybody always wants that bragging right, especially when you see those guys that you talk to a lot," Miles said. "But we're going into it like we go into every game, and that's to win. That's our objective and we're going to follow the game plan and we're going to play hard."
Miles said Williams was the most competitive player he's ever played with, bringing a fierce focus and intensity to the court every night.
"He plays hard, he wants to win, and that's all he wants to do is win," Miles said.
Another longtime teammate of Williams is Jazz power forward Paul Millsap, who has also kept in touch with D-Will and worked out with him at times during the past summer.
Millsap figures tonight's reunion will be an emotional time for a lot of folks.
"I'm sure his emotion is to get out there and try to win," Millsap said of Williams. "He's going to be in attack mode, we know that. But hopefully the fans will embrace him. We're talking about a guy that, for six years, did everything he could to help this organization win. Just looking at his emotions as he plays, you can tell that he wants to win. ... He's very competitive and I learned a lot from him about keeping a competitive edge.
"I think it's a game everybody circled. It's going to be interesting to see what goes on and what happens, the environment, and it's going to be a good game.
"You've got to leave all your personal feelings on the outside," Millsap said. "You get on the court, it's about winning, it's about your teammates — your current teammates — and about winning the game. I want to say it's easy, but it's not. "We're all human and we all have feelings, but when you step between the lines, none of that matters. Before the game, I'm sure we'll joke around and I'm sure he'll have a lot to say. And after that, it's business."
And the key thing to keep in mind when the Jazz try to defend the two-time All-Star performer? "Keep him out of the lane, keep him out of the paint," Millsap said. "If he gets down low, he's a great passer so he's going to find open guys.
"And try not to anger him," he added with a laugh.
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