All Darrell Griffith has to do as the Jazz open another NBA season this week is come back from another major injury, replace one of the league's best defenders and play big minutes right away for a team counting on a great start.

"I kind of like to take on challenges," he says.Good thing. In the last three years, he's had to stay home all winter with a broken foot, adjust to coming off the bench, wait for somebody else to be traded and, finally, spend a summer rehabilitating his knee.

Any plans to gradually work Griff back into the lineup changed dramatically Oct. 21 when Bobby Hansen broke his hand, leaving only Griffith and second-year player Bart Kofoed - himself recovering from a broken foot - at the off-guard position. As if on cue, Griffith delivered a solid preseason, shooting 50 percent and averaging 12 points in about 24 minutes a game.

No doubt, he answered some pressing questions.

"He's playing as good as he's ever played for us," says Coach Frank Layden.

"(He's) the most pleasing thing of the preseason," says president-general manager David Checketts.

"He looks good to me," says teammate Thurl Bailey.

Griffith will buy that. "Things seem to be coming together," he said.

And just in time for the Jazz. If they intend to win 50 games, they have to cash in right away on a schedule that starts with eight of 10 games at home. The No. 1 variable? Undoubtedly, the 30-year-old Griffith.

Bailey and Griffith shared that description going into last season; Bailey responded with his best year, while Griffith struggled in a difficult situation. Playing only about 20 minutes a night, he shot less than 43 percent from the field while Layden juggled him with Hansen, Kelly Tripucka and even Kofoed. On the January night when the Jazz started to right themselves with a win over Atlanta, the locker room was curiously subdued afterward, because Griffith had stayed on the bench.

"It was frustrating . . . probably my most frustrating season," he says. "I had to voice my opinion on my situation because I knew what I could do and how I could help the team."

Griff's best stretch came when Tripucka was injured in February, but his knee acted up soon afterward. Having had to drain fluid from the knee every couple of weeks, trainer Don Sparks finally ordered rest and sent Griffith home from a California road trip Feb. 28.

Griffith played for the last time March 5; he underwent surgery three weeks later to clean debris from the knee cap in the joint. While Griffith apparently had no doubts about his return, reports about the knee caused considerable distress among Jazz officials. "I was kind of expecting to see Darrell halfway limping around and not even jumping," said owner Larry Miller.

Instead, Griffith had little trouble during the preseason, although Sparks says the real test will come Nov. 9-10, the first time he has to play back-to-back games. "It hasn't shown any signs of swelling, soreness and irritation," Sparks said.

The real issue is how the knee will hold up during a long season, especially with Griffith having to play about 35 minutes a night until Hansen returns. One Jazz official describes the knee's condition as "not healable" but treatable; Sparks has not had to drain fluid yet, but notes, "In time, that may be different. I don't know."

Adds Checketts, "If he can hold up physically, he can do the job for us. Can he hold up physically? That's the question."

Griffith figures he'll have no trouble as long as he keeps lifting weights and faithfully using ice on the knee during the season. As for his game, well, that's never an issue with Griffith, who never lacks confidence.

"If you've watched me play over the years, you know what I can do," he says. "I'll put myself out there against anybody."

In the preseason, he did look better than usual. His shot selection was reasonable, his ball-handling much improved. "Even his defense . . . he's more conscious of that," says a teammate.

Just maybe, after all his recent troubles, Darrell Griffith is Darrell Griffith again. "I always have been," he says.