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Utah Jazz management has some tough decisions to make on Free agents

Published: Saturday, April 30 2011 9:53 p.m. MDT

C.J. Miles (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News) C.J. Miles (Lennie Mahler, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin, as Raja Bell described it, "has some brainstorming to do" this offseason.

Corbin wouldn't disagree with that — he might be breaking down gametape from last season right now, in fact — but Jerry Sloan's midseason replacement believes the Jazz have a solid core group coming back in 2011-12.

"I think," he said, "we have talent on this team that we can build around."

Therein also lies the heavy workload sitting on general manager Kevin O'Connor's desk. And not just him. From the coaches, to scouts, to the front office, the Jazz organization has big decisions to mull over and make in the next few months.

Ronnie Price (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Ronnie Price (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

Among the pressing issues:

Is Raja Bell, C.J. Miles or Gordon Hayward the answer at starting shooting guard?

O'Connor insisted defense must improve next year, so how important is it to pick up a defensive-minded center or other players with strengths on that side of the court?

Can one or more of the players under contract step up and be the team's leader(s) and go-to guy(s), or is it necessary to seek elsewhere for someone to fill that role?

Which Jazz unrestricted free-agents-to-be will be brought back? Do Andrei Kirilenko, Kyrylo Fesenko, Ronnie Price, Francisco Elson or Earl Watson have a future in Utah?

Ronnie Price (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Ronnie Price (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

How about C.J. Miles: Let him go, pick up the one-year team option or give him an extended contract?

Are a legitimate shooter and another big man to complement Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson and Derrick Favors the highest priorities heading into the 2011 NBA Draft?

Corbin said he won't make new hiring decisions until after the potential lockout scenario is sorted out, but who will he bring in as his assistant(s) to work alongside Scott Layden and Jeff Hornacek (assuming they return)?

Will this finally be the year the Jazz's stashed-away European center Ante Tomic — the promising 7-foot-2 2008 second-round pick who played for Spanish power Real Madrid — crosses the pond?

Who will the backup point guard(s) be?

Jimmer?

LeBron James, left, Heat, is fouled by Andrei Kirilenko, Jazz,  and at the EnergySolutions Arena.  December 8, 2010.  (Michael Brandy, Deseret News) LeBron James, left, Heat, is fouled by Andrei Kirilenko, Jazz, and at the EnergySolutions Arena. December 8, 2010. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News)

With those questions in mind, here's a look at who the Jazz might turn to for answers:

JAZZ FREE AGENTS

Andrei Kirilenko

Position: Small forward

Upside: Obviously, AK-47 knows the Jazz system and fits scoring and non-scoring roles. Now 30 years old, Kirilenko possesses skills and length that are bothersome to opponents and effective for his team.

It also can't be overlooked that Kirilenko likes living in Utah, even calling Salt Lake City his second home after Russia.

"It's definitely my first choice (to return to Utah). So many good memories here. Ten years you don't want to throw it out so quick. So Jazz are going to be definitely player. ... It's a matter of waiting when the lockout is over, see where the team going, how we going to get new players."

 Kyrylo Fesenko (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Kyrylo Fesenko (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

O'Connor said the Jazz don't have a decision to make.

"I think we want Andrei back," he said. "Now the decision's going to be a little bit on his part — what's good for him and what's good for us? ... We said it to him. We said it to his agent that we would like Andrei back."

Downside: Since playing all 82 games as a rookie in 2001-02 — and only missing six games in the next two seasons — Kirilenko has been sidelined 133 times (out of 574 games: 23.2 percent) due to various ailments. It's hard to ignore all of those injuries.

Prognosis: O'Connor has repeatedly stated the Jazz want Kirilenko back, and vice-versa. The forward has also said he wants to be in the right scenario, meaning money isn't his top priority. It's likely the Jazz won't be the only suitors this offseason. How high other teams bring his price tag up might end or extend his decade-long stay in Utah.

Manu Ginobli of the San Antonio Spurs collides with Andre Kirilenko of the Utah Jazz during the second half of play at Energy Solutions Arena Wednesday, January  28, 2011.  (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News) Manu Ginobli of the San Antonio Spurs collides with Andre Kirilenko of the Utah Jazz during the second half of play at Energy Solutions Arena Wednesday, January 28, 2011. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

C.J. Miles

Position: Swingman

Upside: Miles' overall game has come a long way since being drafted out of Dallas' Skyline High in 2005. His productivity on both ends surged at times this past season as his role and confidence increased. He even averaged a career-best 3.3 rebounds.

Miles is the only Jazz player who might be taken off of the free-agency table. The Jazz own a team option on him for 2011-12, and they could even work out a long-term extension.

"I felt like I played well enough this year as far as getting picked up," Miles said. "It's not my decision."

If it were up to him, he'd like to stay in Utah.

C.J. Miles (Tom Smart, Deseret News) C.J. Miles (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

"This is where I want to be," he added.

But do the Jazz want him back?

O'Connor answered with his trademark "no comment" when asked, but you have to wonder if the Jazz GM gave something away when he specifically mentioned Miles with Al Jefferson, Devin Harris, Paul Millsap and the three rookies as part of the future makeup of the squad during his locker cleanout interview. Or was that merely a slip of the tongue?

Downside: Consistency issues — both from a shooting standpoint, to doing well away from the ball and his defensive effort — have plagued Miles his entire career. His shooting has steadily declined every year since 2007-08, with his field-goal percentage falling from 47.9 percent to 40.7 percent and his 3-point accuracy going from 39.0 percent to 32.2 percent.

Prognosis: It's likely Miles' relatively inexpensive $3.7 million price tag will entice Jazz to take their option on him, especially considering he's only 24. His inconsistency might prevent them from working out an extension.

Utah's Andrei Kirilenko dunks as the Utah Jazz and the Charlotte Bobcats play NBA basketball Monday, Jan. 31, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Utah's Andrei Kirilenko dunks as the Utah Jazz and the Charlotte Bobcats play NBA basketball Monday, Jan. 31, 2011, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Kyrylo Fesenko

Position: Center

Upside: With a 7-foot-1, 300-pound frame, the Ukrainian can be a huge presence when he gets playing time. He isn't afraid to mix it up with opponents, and his defensive contributions can be immense.

The 24-year-old Fesenko called the last four seasons in Utah "a crazy ride." And he doesn't want to find a new ride, either, as he made clear by declaring, "I'm a Jazzman."

O'Connor said the Jazz definitely won't rule bringing him back out.

"I think his progress was slower than we wanted it to be, but I think there was progress," O'Connor said. "Again, you can't teach height."

Francisco Elson (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Francisco Elson (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Downside: While it is true you can't teach somebody to be taller, the question is: Can they actually teach this Ukrainian height to take basketball more seriously? Despite Mehmet Okur's absence and a clear need for a backup big man, Fes' playing time was near nonexistent at times.

Prognosis: The Jazz do have four years invested in Fes, and he could become a beast when/if he learns to focus on hoops and not goofing off. O'Connor said Fesenko "showed flashes" late in the season, including against the Lakers, so it wouldn't be a big shock if they do take another big gamble on him — or somebody else likely will.

Earl Watson

Position: Point guard

Upside: Watson knows what he is and likes what he is — a pretty reliable backup point guard who provides spunk. The 10th year vet is a quiet leader and somebody O'Connor called "a total professional." The Jazz GM also lauded Watson's competitiveness.

Watson liked that his shooting percentages rose at the end of the season, when he said, "I'm now more comfortable with the team." He knows the system, and likes the possibilities in Utah.

"This is my team. This is my family and I want to back. It's more than just the team. It's more like the organization. It's more the city. It's more the fans. It's perfect for me," Watson said. "I think it's a great place to be. For what I want in a family, it's a great place to raise a family, so this is where I want to be."

Downside: Watson raised his 3-point percentage to 33.6 percent, but he shot just 41 percent overall. His shooting is a concern. He also had his lowest assist average (3.5 per game) since 2002-03, but his minutes were also down from previous stints with multiple teams around the league.

Prognosis: The Jazz are very young, and this soon-to-be 31-year-old provides leadership on and off the court. He's happy as the No. 2 playmaker, but if the Jazz pick up a young point guard, would he be willing to play third fiddle? His steady presence could very well earn him another season or so in Utah.

Ronnie Price

Position: Point guard

Upside: His athleticism is off the charts. So are the Utah Valley product's energy and intensity levels. He also seems to love his role as the spark plug, and he can annoy the heck out of opponents on defense with his peskiness and quickness. O'Connor called him and Earl Watson "two of our better competitors on our team" and credited both for being "a total professional," but the GM didn't provide a hint as to whether the Jazz wanted him back or not.

Price, who married a Utahn and lives here permanently, sure hopes they bring him back.

"There's not too many people that had opportunities in a place where they call home early on in their career," Price said. "Me in the situation I'm in. I've had four years in my home, being able to sleep in my own bed, live in my house, be around my family and be a part of an organization like the Jazz and Coach Sloan. I played for arguably the greatest NBA coach of all-time. ... Everything that I've been fortunate enough to be a part of since I've been in Utah has been nothing but positive."

Downside: Price was a terrific college scorer, but he has struggled to find his shot in the pros (39.0 percent for six seasons). He only shot 29 percent from 3-point land last season while dishing out just 0.9 assists. A variety of injuries plagued him this year as well.

Prognosis: Price spoke very highly of Corbin and said he hopes to return to Utah — a place where the Texas native has played basketball for seven years (four with the Jazz, three at UVU). It might come down to a Watson-or-Price scenario for Jazz management.

Francisco Elson

Position: Center

Upside: Early on, the NBA veteran filled a nice (rather grumpy) role for the Jazz as a feisty and physical presence on the second unit. His mid-range shot provided Utah with an occasional offensive weapon, and he was not intimidated or pushed around by anybody on the defensive end. The intelligent Dutchman was also liked by teammates who jokingly called him "Sensei."

Elson, who won an NBA title with the Spurs in 2007, hopes they get the opportunity next year, too.

"I'm going to go full blast (this summer) and try to come back stronger and be more focused and be more of a vocal leader," Elson said. With a laugh, he added, "I think I'll take some classes to become a better spokesperson."

Downside: The 35-year-old struggled from about midseason on, and his productivity came to a halt once knee and ankle issues flared up and slowed him down.

"It's been a tough season, ups and downs," Elson said the day after Utah's season ended last month. "In the beginning, I think I played very aggressively, and then it dwindled down to little nagging injuries."

Prognosis: Elson's efforts were invaluable to begin the year, but he wore down as the season did. He returned to the Netherlands — where he'll play for his national team this summer — but he might be a long shot to return to Utah.

OTHER POSSIBLE PICK-UPS

2011 NBA DRAFT PROJECTIONS

Top 15 players

(NOTE: Players placed in combined projected order from three popular NBA draft websites: ESPN.com, NBADraft.net and DraftExpress.com)

Player . . . School . . . Position . . . Ht./Wt

1. Kyrie Irving, Duke, PG, 6-2/180

2. Derrick Williams, Arizona, SF, 6-8/241

3. Enes Kanter, Turkey, C, 6-10/255

4. Brandon Knight, Kentucky, PG, 6-3/185

5. Jonas Valanciunas, Lithuania, PF, 6-10/230

*6. Jan Vesely, Czech Republic, PF, 6-11/240

7. Kemba Walker, Connecticut, PG, 6-1/172

8. Donatas Motiejunas, Lithuania, PF, 7-0/220

9. Alec Burks, Colorado, SG, 6-6/195

10. Terrence Jones, Kentucky, SF, 6-8/244

11. Marcus Morris, Kansas, PF, 6-9/235

*12. Tristan Thompson, Texas, PF, 6-8/225

13. Bismack Biyombo, Spain, PF, 6-9/243

14. Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State, SF, 6-7/225

15. Jimmer Fredette, BYU, PG, 6-2/195

(The Utah Jazz are currently slotted in the Nos. 6 and 12 positions for the June 23 draft, although that could change depending on the results of the lottery on May 17.)

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