ATLANTA — Mention this weekend’s schedule, and you’re bound to get smiles from guys who’ve been around the Utah Jazz for the past few years.
The Old Friends Tour continues for the Jazz when they take on Atlanta on Friday and travel to Charlotte on Saturday.
Three-fifths of the Hawks’ starting lineup used to call Utah an NBA home, including longtime power forward Paul Millsap, shooting guard Kyle Korver and small forward DeMarre Carroll.
And the Bobcats, of course, signed ex-Jazz center Al Jefferson to a big deal over the summer.
“Great guys,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said.
But not just that.
The impact Jefferson and Millsap made on the young Jazz players, especially cornerstone bigs Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, is immeasurable.
“My first two years,” Kanter said, “I learned a lot from Al and Paul Millsap.”
“I think staying behind (them on the bench) helped me out a lot,” Favors said. “I wouldn’t be the player I am now, because I learned a lot from them.”
Specifically, Favors said Millsap showed him that he needed to be well-rounded, not just a big guy who relies on his strength and athleticism.
“I was a good athlete,” Favors said, “but there was stuff I needed to do to be a better basketball player and he helped me out a lot with that.”
Favors now finds himself trying to emulate Millsap’s mid-range game, the way he attacks off of the pick-and-roll, his “face-up game” and moves in the post.
According to Favors, Millsap continually helped the current Jazz big man see the wisdom in “doing different things aside from going in and dunking all the time. He helped me realize that and just how to be smarter out there.”
Watch Kanter go to work in the post, and you can see shades of Big Al in the guy Jefferson used to call Big Turk, especially when it comes to footwork and pump moves.
“It’s really exciting just because you’re teammates with them for so long,” Hayward said of the back-to-back games against Millsap and Jefferson. “I can’t wait for the Al Jefferson and Enes Kanter matchup on the block. I think that will be pretty exciting to watch.”
Kanter has been looking forward to it ever since Big Al signed a three-year, $40-plus million deal with the Bobcats this past offseason after it became clear the Jazz were looking to go young.
Later in the summer, Kanter went to the P3 performance facility the Jazz use in the offseason in Santa Barbara, Calif., when he ran into his ex-teammate. The two big men, who became fast friends despite coming from vastly different backgrounds in Mississippi and Turkey, started jawing about future Jazz-Bobcats games.
“I came in and I look over there and Al is there. Me, Al, Coach Corbin, and he was telling Coach Corbin, ‘Game of the year. Matchup of the year,’” Kanter said, smiling. “(Jefferson) said, ‘Don’t bring any double-team, Coach, we’re going to be playing one-on-one.’”
Kanter took the ribbing from his mentor and sent some friendly trash talk back in Big Al’s direction.
Kanter told Big Al, “I’m going to dunk on you. I’m going to block you.”
It remains to be seen if that'll happen.
But their friendship, respect and lessons learned will continue on.
“He’s a really good guy,” Kanter said of Jefferson. “He texted me the day he signed with Charlotte. He said, ‘I tried to help you, now it’s on you. I know you’re going to do real well.’ He’s just a really good guy.”
Hayward appreciated the bond that Jefferson and Kanter had. The Jazz shooting guard laughed thinking back to how Big Al would “just mess with him a lot” but also take the time to tutor him even though he knew Kanter would eventually replace him in Utah’s lineup.
“I think Enes learned a lot from Al,” Hayward said. “He was a cool guy to have on the team. Good memories with those guys.”
All four former Jazz players the team will face this weekend are playing well.
Millsap, who signed a bargain of a two-year, $19 million deal, is averaging 16.5 points and 8.1 rebounds. He’s already shot a career-high 53 3-pointers and is shooting a career-best 43.4 percent from beyond the arc.
“He just competed every single night. He worked hard. He didn’t really say that much. He just gave it his all every night,” Hayward said. “I think as far as a Jazz player, that’s kind of what the fans liked about him. He was a competitor, man, so he just went out there and played.”
Carroll, a season-long starter, is averaging career highs in points (9.6 ppg), rebounds (5.8 rpg), assists (1.6 apg) and steals (1.2 spg) with his fifth NBA team after Utah helped him revive his NBA life.
Korver has an ongoing NBA record for consecutive games with a 3-pointer, a streak of 95 games that includes eight treys made in Wednesday’s blowout of Sacramento.
“Kyle’s a super, super human being,” Corbin said, “and DeMarre’s a great guy. I think he really enjoyed his time with us and his game grew from the time he came with us to the time he left. He’s making the most of his opportunity.”
Jefferson dealt with ankle issues early in the season, but he’s now putting up his usual steady numbers of 15.6 points and 9.3 rebounds.
Though Kanter has been relegated to a reserve role and is fighting through some struggles, the third-year pro will get his shot against Jefferson on Saturday.
“I don’t think Paul or DeMarre will say anything,” Hayward said, “but Al probably has some jokes that he’ll crack.”
Among other moves.
Favors was asked if he considers these upcoming games to be fun showdowns.
“Competitive-wise, it’s fun. It’s tough guarding those guys, man,” Favors admitted. “You know what Paul can do. Paul can score in a lot of ways, rebounding. He’s just a hard-working guy.
“Now Al,” Favors continued, “you know he’s coming with that right-hand hook shot that you can’t stop. He’s going to pump fake you a thousand times.” He cracked a grin and added, “But it’s fun.”
Corbin worked with Millsap for seven years as an assistant and head coach in Utah, so it’s hard for him to see the 2006 second-round pick from Louisiana Tech battle for another team.
“He was great for us in all kinds of ways, a great guy. I really enjoyed working with him as a player and just knowing him as a person,” Corbin said of Millsap, who made Salt Lake his year-round home. “He really loved and embraced the (Utah) community and I thought the community embraced him. It was a tough loss for us.”