To be able to start and play in every game thus far, that exceeded what my expectations were. —Richard Jefferson
SALT LAKE CITY — When Richard Jefferson came to town last offseason, he was coming off a stint of riding the bench.
Between 12 seasons in the NBA and the resulting nagging injuries, the veteran forward had played in just 56 games the previous season as a Golden State Warrior, starting only one and averaging a mere 3.1 points per contest.
When an offseason trade landed him in Salt Lake City, Jefferson had just one simple goal: “The only thing I wanted to do was play 82 games,” he said at practice at the Zions Bank Basketball Center Saturday morning.
“I’ve played a lot of games, a lot of seasons, a lot of minutes,” Jefferson said, “so when you start to have multiple nagging injuries, you’re like, ‘This might be it.’”
But now, with just six games to go, including Sunday's trip back to Golden State and Oracle Arena, the 34-year-old has not only played in all of his 76 contests in a Utah Jazz uniform, he has started in each of them too.
“I was shocked when coach (Tyrone Corbin) said I was going to start. I hadn’t started in a year and a half,” Jefferson said, adding that Corbin told him it was his veteran leadership that put him on the floor.
“When you go from getting DNPs for the first time in your career and only playing in 60 games, yeah, you’re going to question some things,” he said. “To be able to start and play in every game thus far, that exceeded what my expectations were.”
Not only has the season been a surprise to Jefferson, but Jefferson and his contributions all season long have also been a surprise for the Jazz. It is not just what he has done on the floor — although his 27.2 minutes per game, 10.3 points per game, and 45.3 percent shooting from the floor have been beneficial — but what he has done on a daily basis to help mold a roster chock-full of young players.
“We needed him to be able to be on the floor to help us guide these young guys through,” Corbin said. “The situations we’ve been through haven’t been new to him. (He’s) been through it and (can) help the young guys stay calm in some situations. And (he’s) played well enough to help us.”
Jefferson has scored in every game this season, highlighted by a season-high 22 points against New Orleans in November. He scored 12 points at Golden State in November and five in both of the Warriors’ games at Utah. All three meetings have been losses for the Jazz and Golden State has an opportunity Sunday to sweep Utah for the fist time in franchise history.
In spite of the team’s on-court struggles, its 24-52 record, which is right on par with preseason predictions, and missing the playoffs for the second year in a row, Jefferson’s presence has been for the better.
“I had a couple conversations with him once the trade was made about coming in with an open mind and being in great shape and seeing what happens,” Corbin said. “He did a great job of coming in ready and things grew from there. He didn’t try and sit out of any of the drills early. He gained the respect of his teammates.”
And whether or not age or free agency take him away or he finds a home in Salt Lake City for another season, Jefferson has enjoyed the current season with the Jazz.
“The more time I spend here, the more I really enjoy it,” he said. “The fans have been great, the people in town, the organization is first-class (and) without their help, I wouldn’t be in a position that I am right now. I don’t ever want to seem ungrateful. I love it here. I think people see my passion, the way I approach things, and the way I want to help the young guys that I definitely wouldn’t mind staying.”
Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.