SALT LAKE CITY — For the first time since Deron Williams was traded to New Jersey 20 months ago, the Utah Jazz have a team captain.
Three of them, in fact.
Mo Williams, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap.
Coach Tyrone Corbin jokingly said he isn't sure whether a letter "C" will be sewed onto the Jazz jerseys with numbers 5, 24 and 25. Regardless of what the uniform manufacturer does, those veteran players will carry a shared leadership mantle of responsibility during the 2012-13 campaign, which begins Wednesday night at home against Dallas.
Corbin was essentially the head coach and team captain last year and since the post-Jerry Sloan/D-Will portion of the 2010-11 season. Now in his quasi-third season, he's passing along that leadership duty to Williams, Jefferson and Millsap.
The Voice. The Mentor. The Example.
The assigned tri-captainship comes with high expectations from Corbin: "Being leaders, being good teammates, understanding where we are and working together to keep us better."
Even without designated titles, roles have been established in the team's first month.
Williams, entering his 10th season in the NBA, is the most outspoken player and one who dishes out tough love and support alike while directing the team from his floor-general position.
Jefferson, now in his third season in Utah, is the lovable leader who's taken the young bigs under his wing and occasionally dispenses guidance.
Millsap, the longest-tenured Jazzman going into year No. 7, is the classic soft-spoken do-as-I-do type who also picks his moments to speak up now and then.
The three-headed captain combo received an endorsement from one of the team's younger players and potential future leader.
"Mo has really picked it up vocally for us and become a vocal leader. Paul always leads by example really well, and same with Al," Jazz shooting guard Gordon Hayward said. "This has been good to have those guys here and leading some of us young guys."
The 22-year-old knew (and liked) what Millsap and Big Al had to offer, but he's particularly impressed with the passion, insight and direction Williams brings in his second stint with the Jazz.
"It's been good so far with Mo. Really as a vocal leader, he's done a tremendous job in that regard," Hayward said. "It's something I think we've lacked the last couple of years."
Williams isn't afraid to point out flaws and give constructive criticism. But he also points out things players are doing well and should continue to do. Or, as Hayward added, he gives "little hints" based on what he's seeing from the opposition.
"He's the voice," Jefferson said about his old Mississippi friend, echoing the compliment he gave Jamaal Tinsley last season.
Added Jefferson about Williams: "He's the guy in games when things get kind of tight or at practice when you're coming in feeling sore and you really don't want to get through it, he's the guy that get us through it with his voice."
The 29-year-old Williams, who's a self-proclaimed perfectionist, didn't wait to make an impact. He's been vocalizing his opinions since returning to Utah prior to training camp after being traded here by the Clippers.
"That's just me. I've always been a leader. That's just how I am," Williams said. "If I see somewhere I can help, I always try to lend a hand or lend an ear. I always don't talk. I listen too."
And he observes.
Williams has been impressed with his fellow captains — by Millsap's day-in-day-out lunch-pail mentality and by Jefferson's continued tutelage of the Turk, Enes Kanter.
"They're different leaders than I am. They lead more so by example, just coming to work and doing their job. Especially Paul," Williams said. "I'll do all the talking for the both of them, but at the same time they come in, they work, they play hard."
Even if they aren't barking out commands or delivering impassioned speeches, other players watch how they conduct business — over and over and over with a persistent professionalism — and want to emulate that hardworking style.
Corbin trusts this group to lift up players who might be dejected over struggles or their minutes. He wants them to constantly monitor teammates and have a "feel for the team," to be compassionate and critical when needed. They'll be counted on to push and encourage while busting their own behinds. Ideally, they'll act as mediators, although Corbin laughingly admitted he'll hear grumbling one way or another.
"A true leader knows what's best for the team and not what's best for the individual," Corbin said. "And they vocalize that to their teammates."
Or sometimes they simply show them á la Millsap, who's grown considerably in multiple aspects since arriving in Utah with a chip on his shoulder out of Louisiana Tech in 2006.
"He's a tremendous worker and always has been. He's a good guy that's worked within himself," Corbin said of Millsap. "To see him blossom out more, to take on a leadership role and be able to help his teammates by talking to them more, because he's going to do it himself (and) to encourage and pull the guys along with him is a great growth for him."
Corbin is always hesitant to put one of his players above another, and that was again evident before he revealed his captains.
"This," he said, "is a great group of guys, first of all."
The captains agree, which is why a Media Day quote from Millsap still rings true four weeks after this team started practicing.
"It's everybody's team. We're all in this together," Millsap said. "We're all trying to reach the same goals, so it's everybody's team. Everybody's gonna come out and treat it that way. This is a more team-oriented organization right now."
That's regardless of who may or may not be wearing the letter "C."
Williams, who's been to the Eastern Conference Finals with LeBron James and the Cavaliers, is a firm believer that good leadership in the NBA translates into more wins.Comment on this story
"Absolutely. Because what it does, it improves the chemistry on the team. It improves obviously the character of the whole team, because it shows people do want to get better and it's not an individual thing," he said. "Everybody (is) lending a hand and giving up themselves for the betterment of the team."
And if not, one of the captains, probably him, will be sure to tell them about it.