SALT LAKE CITY — Heading into the 2012-13 season, Al Jefferson holds a belief about the Utah Jazz's success possibilities in his heart and mind.
The idea has weighed on him since the Utah Jazz were swept out of the first round by the San Antonio Spurs last spring. It also shaped his offseason workouts.
Simply put, Big Al believes the Jazz's failures or fortunes on defense revolve around him.
Asked if the Jazz have the makeup to become a tough defensive team this season, Jefferson responded in the affirmative, saying, "We most definitely have what it takes."
Fair or not, when it comes to stopping or slowing opponents, the 6-foot-10 big man considers himself the center of attention.
"But you know," he said, "it really starts with me."
That's especially the case, he pointed out, when opponents decide to go all John Stockton and Karl Malone on the Jazz.
Over the years, the pick-and-roll evolved from being one of Utah's best products to becoming one of the Beehive State's worst nightmares.
The Jazz tried to improve that glaring weakness on the defensive end last season, and the team knows that it will pay dearly if it allows opponents to screen and score at will again this year.
Overall, coach Tyrone Corbin likes what he's seen this preseason. "Effort's there," he says. Players are trying to understand intricate nuances, teammates' tendencies and implement coaches' suggestions.
Sure, the Jazz have had stumbles, allowing the Clippers to score 34 points with starters on the floor in L.A. in one quarter last week and letting Chris Paul's team shoot 51 percent on Saturday, to name a couple.
But Utah, which takes a 4-2 exhibition record into Portland tonight, is second in the NBA in preseason scoring defense. The Jazz have held foes to 86.2 points per game on 41.6 percent shooting, seventh-best in the league.
Yes, it's merely exhibition play. But for a team that was the eighth-worst defensive squad last season, allowing opponents to average 99.0 points, this can be considered a good starting point.
"We always think we can communicate a little better," Corbin said.
He pointed out a few other areas that need improvement: meet the ball sooner coming down the floor; make crisper weak-side rotations; improve positioning on inverse situations; know when to pull an opponent down so teammates can get through middle screens; keep teammates informed on what opposing players are doing and where they are going, which falls in that communication category.
Oh yes, and defend that darn pick-and-roll that Jerry Sloan's clubs made so popular again.
Corbin wants guys to avoid getting caught up in the screens and confusion, putting the Jazz in four-on-five or three-on-five defensive situations because the ballhandler slipped below the defenders.
Which brings the focus back to Jefferson.
Big Al knows he's one of the guys involved in so many of those defensive struggles. He realizes his previous setbacks. He's also intent on improving, which led to him camping out (not literally) in Santa Barbara, Calif., this summer so he could focus on speeding up his footwork at the P3 performance lab.
"It's coming along," Jefferson said.
The CP3-led Clipper offense gave Jefferson what he called "a big test" in the Jazz's 99-91 win Saturday.
"I wasn't as good as I wanted to be," he said. "We get a defensive grade every game. I made a lot of mistakes on the pick-and-roll. I let them split me a couple of times. Thank (heaven) for preseason. I know what I need to continue to work on."
Jefferson noted the challenges of playing top-notch point guards, like Paul, saying it's a "pick and choose your poison" scenario.
"If I go out too far, he'll split," he said. "And if I stay in, he'll go around me."
Having worked on his body and agility, Jefferson said this battle is more mental than physical.
"It takes a lot of energy, but that's what you get in shape for," he said. "You've just got to do it. No excuses."
It's a battle he knows he needs to win more often than not, too. His teammates, his team's success and maybe even the size of his next contract all depend on it.
"If I let the guy split and get into the heart and soul of our defense, it's really just now everybody scrambling, everybody gotta make hustle plays," Jefferson said. "But if I defend well on the pick-and-roll, the bigs defend well, then that sets the tone. It starts with us."
Corbin said it's evident that Jefferson has a renewed sense of responsibility on the defensive end. It was there in the offseason and carried into camp.
"To his credit, he hasn't focused as much on trying to score, because he really wants to try to do a better job on the defensive end," Corbin said. "He knows he's going to be in a lot of pick-and-roll with the point guard."
Even though his defensive grade wasn't as high as he'd like, Jefferson believes he's on the right path. His team, too.
"I think we're doing a great job. We're helping each other. We're talking. Coach do a great job in practice," Jefferson said. " It's continuing to get better. It's going to go up, increasing. That's all that matters."
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