It's like all my friends came to my team... —Jazz center Al Jefferson
SALT LAKE CITY — He occasionally grumbles and has intimidating physical features as a powerful 6-foot-10, 289-pound man, but Al Jefferson is an affable guy.
There's a reason why his Utah Jazz teammate, Paul Millsap, chuckled while talking about the center and pointed out, "Al has a relationship with everybody."
Three of his old pals — Mo Williams (a fellow Mississippian), Marvin Williams (All-American prep pal) and Randy Foye (ex-teammate in Minnesota) — joined forces with him in Utah this offseason.
"It's like all my friends came to my team," Jefferson said.
The friends were thrown into an already talented group that, for the most part, previously got along pretty dang well.
Combined with an increase in overall basketball skill, shooting capabilities, defensive commitment, improved youth and a deep bench, that chemistry bodes well for a team that has high hopes of building on last year's playoff appearance.
If making the postseason surprised outsiders in 2011-12, here are some reasons why Jazz fans have reason to be optimistic for even more pleasant surprises in the 2012-13 season:
CHEMISTRY: That the Jazz don't already hate each other after one month of intense practices, scrimmages and rotation positioning battles can only be considered a positive sign.
Big Al (or is it Big Pal?) believes it matters because teammates that mesh well can offer positive support and constructive criticism.
"The good thing is we able to talk to each other even when things are bad," Jefferson said. "Mo can get on me and pick me up, I can take it and understand it's all about getting a win here. Everybody on the same page. Everybody want to win."
Jefferson continued: "If I see Paul struggling or Paul see me struggling, he can come to me or I can go to him and help boost him up and not criticize him in a negative way. … That's the good thing about it. We able to talk to each other on and off the court."
Millsap sees a bonding taking place, and not just when it comes to Jefferson and Enes Kanter or his old buddies.
"We're coming together," Millsap said. "I think just the regular training camp helped us out a lot. We're able to get some type of chemistry, some type of bond with each other."
And the more that happens, the more likely they'll trust in one another, play hard for each other and succeed together.
"I feel like we've become more comfortable," Marvin Williams said, "and I think it's shown out there on the court."
DEPTH : Coach Ty Corbin has reminded reporters — and his players, no doubt — that the NBA season is long. It begins Halloween Night and the 82-game regular season doesn't conclude until mid-April. Throw in injuries and struggles, and there will be ample opportunities for most guys.
The reason he has to throw out that reminder is because the Jazz believe their talent cupboard is stocked deep.
The starters will be Mo Williams, Gordon Hayward, Marvin Williams, Millsap and Jefferson. Young bigs Derrick Favors, whom many thought could start at power forward, and Enes Kanter, the preseason MVP and early breakout player, demand chunks of court time because of their current impact and eye-popping potential.
Experienced point guards Jamaal Tinsley and Earl Watson (when healthy) and veteran combo guard Randy Foye figure to play key roles off the bench at various junctures. The Jazz also love the hustle, defense and improved offense DeMarre Carroll provides, the athleticism and energy Alec Burks brings and the ridiculous bounciness and X-factor traits Jeremy Evans offers.
Corbin calls that depth "a great thing" for the Jazz.
But even after subtracting Raja Bell (contract limbo) and rookie Kevin Murphy (hello D-League?), that's 13 guys with seemingly legitimate arguments in their playing-time favor. The third-year coach will have tough decisions to make while divvying up 240 position minutes each night.
Let the backseat coaching begin.
"It can be frustrating for the players at times. Guys deserve minutes on the floor," Corbin said. "It's going to be a thing that we have to manage all year long. It's going to be a good headache for us."
Considering Ironmen basketball players like John Stockton and Karl Malone are a rarity these days, Corbin would rather have too many good players than not enough.
"It's a good situation for the team," he said. "It's a long season. A lot of things happen, a lot of guys (will be) in and out of the lineups. We feel very good about the number of people we can put into the game."
Corbin has been pleased with his starting unit, and he feels just about as comfortable when the cavalry comes in. At times in the preseason, groups that included only backups were among the best combos the Jazz had.
"We got a good nucleus of veteran guys and younger guys, too," Millsap said. "We're going to try to put it all together, but our strength is our depth. We know that going in."
DEFENSE: The Jazz struggled mightily defending the pick-and-roll last season, and they were in the bottom third of NBA teams in points allowed (99.0 per game). So the fact they were the fourth-stingiest defensive team (91.0 ppg allowed) in the exhibition season was encouraging even if not an absolute indicator of a guaranteed turnaround.
Corbin was impressed with defensive improvement made in training camp, especially when compared to last year.
"Communication and the accountability of each guy holding each other (responsible)," he said, "should get us off to a better start than we did last year."
The Jazz have tried to improve on weaknesses from last season: pick-and-roll defensive breakdowns that yielded easy buckets, weakside help and rotations, outside containment.
"I just think we're going to communicate a lot better this year than we did last year," said Jefferson, who considers himself the key to defensive struggles or success. "(We have) defensive-minded guys that love to play defense on this team, especially on that second unit. I think once we get on the same page, communicate and talk, it's just going to make us better overall."
Jefferson also loves how this rendition of the Jazz crashes the boards, especially Millsap, Kanter and Favors.
"Rebounding. I think rebounding is going to be big for us, too," he said. "We've just got to get stops on the defensive end."
OFFENSE: There were some similarities with each of the three veterans the Jazz acquired this past summer. The Williamses and Foye all have NBA experience, are well-respected, seemed genuinely excited to be in Utah and possess an important skill the Jazz were low on: reliable outside shooting.
If guys like Hayward, Burks and Carroll can be consistent from long range, that will go a long way in helping reverse Utah's shooting woes that led to opposing defenses collapsing in the lane.
Leading the NBA in 3-point shooting in the preseason (42.9 percent) gave an exciting sneak peek of the possibilities.
"We got shooters," Jefferson said. "Guys that make you pay."
Outside and inside.
"If we can make perimeter shots and especially 3-point shots consistently, it'll give us more opportunities there at the post with our big guys to be one-on-one," Corbin said. "If you get Al and Enes and Paul and Derrick in one-on-one positions with most guys in the post, we'll feel good about our chances there."
The Jazz have also made a big push on, well, making a big push in the transition game. That attack-mode offense has paid dividends in the preseason, and it helps to have wings like Hayward, Williams, Burks and Foye who can handle the ball and race down court.
Hayward said it's "impressed" him how well the Jazz have played in transition.
"We've gotten a lot more easy baskets," he said, "and we're going to have to continue to do that if we want to be successful."
There will be challenges, of course. An already loaded Western Conference seemingly got even tougher, beginning with the additions of Dwight Howard with the Lakers and Andre Iguodala in Denver.
But the Jazz feel good about where they are and who they have. They haven't suffered injuries to key players like Minnesota (Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio) and Dallas (Dirk Nowitzki) have, either.
So far, so good for the ever-optimistic Corbin, coming out of his first full training camp since replacing Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan midway through the 2010-11 campaign.
"I'd like to get off to a good start. I think we've worked and grown from the beginning of training camp until now," he said. "We're looking forward to a good season, and getting off to a good start would get us in the right place early to continue to run throughout the year."
Jazz players feel confident that could happen.
"I think Coach do a great job getting the guys involved, learning and drilling offense in our head," Jefferson said. "I'm just happy that it worked out the way that it did."
Now Big Al just hopes he can play with his friends — and win with them, too.