Note: This is the first of a series of “Jazz Mythbuster” posts intended to clear up many common misconceptions and false narratives that have been perpetuated by either fans or media regarding the Utah Jazz and their franchise history.
The frustration over Ty Corbin and the Jazz’s refusal to play the “Core-4” significant minutes over the past two seasons has been well documented. Many excuses have been offered in their defense – but none are more blatantly erroneous than “Jerry never played young guys either.” There couldn’t be a more false or inaccurate statement as Jerry Sloan’s 23-seasons in Utah are littered with examples of the Hall-of-Famer entrusting the ability of rookies moreso than their veteran counterparts.
Before delving into specific examples, there are a couple important points to consider.
1.) Not all rookies are created equal.
Successful teams picking at the back-end of the first-round aren’t often bringing in rookies with high ceilings to attain.
Jerry Sloan often was handed mid-to-late 1st-rnd picks with very little NBA ability. Players such as Erick Leckner (17th overall), Luther Wright (18th overall), Quincy Lewis (19th), and Morris Almond (25th overall) simply never possessed the qualities to be a competent NBA player. As head coach of the Utah Jazz, Sloan only had three lottery picks at his disposal for an entire season – one #3 pick and two #14 picks. Between 2010 and 2011 the Jazz selected two #3 picks, a #9 pick and a #12 pick.
2.) Not all rosters are created equal.
A coach with two future hall-of-famers competing for an NBA title does not have the same luxury to allow young players to grow and learn through their mistakes – and that is common with virtually all championship-caliber coaches. Phil Jackson didn’t go out of his way to give 1st-rnd pick Rusty LaRue developmental time in 1998. Greg Popovich played 1st-rnd pick Ian Mahinmi played a total of 188 minutes in his first two seasons in the league. It’s not like Sloan could’ve easily sacrificed the home-court advantage Utah attained throughout the 1998 Playoffs by giving Jacque Vaughn extra minutes in place of John Stockton.
When a team is established as a top-8 team in the league – it has a different set of priorities regarding the future of the franchise as opposed to – let’s say a .500 team that fails to qualify for the playoffs.
–Deron Williams (3rd overall) was the only top-10 Jazz draft pick Jerry was able to coach for a full season (the next highest draft picks were #14 – Kris Humphries and Ronnie Brewer). Much has been made over Deron not playing enough as a rookie, with Sloan himself admitting in 2007 “I probably screwed him up a little bit“). It should also be pointed out however, that Deron significantly struggled in the first-half of his rookie season (he became a full-time starter after the All-Star break) to the point not giving him the starting position also made quite a bit of sense.
|Deron Williams Rookie Season|
|Pre All-Star Break||9.3||3.9||38.4%||72.3%||34.7%||26.4|
|Post All-Star Break||12.4||5.2||47.2%||87.8%||53.7%||30.8|
With shooting percentages mirroring those of Keith McLeod – Deron hardly gave Sloan much reason to name him a starter any earlier than he did. Nevertheless, for the season Deron still finished with 47 starts and averaged 28.8 mpg. In his second season Deron averaged 36.9 mpg starting all 80 games he played; and in his third season he made 82 starts averaging 37.3 mpg. Comparing only Deron’s rookie season numbers to those of Utah’s two current #3-overall picks shows how the “limited” opportunity Deron received as a rookie still blows away the opportunities Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter have received through three seasons.
|Player – Season||Starts/Games||Start%||Min|
|Williams – 2005-06||47/80||58.8%||28.8|
|Favors – 2010-11||4/22||18.2%||20.2|
|Favors – 2011-12||9/65||13.8%||21.2|
|Favors – 2012-13||8/77||10.4%||23.2|
|Kanter – 2011-12||0/66||0.0%||13.2|
|Kanter – 2012-13||2/70||2.9%||15.4|
Yes, Deron made more starts during his “He should have played more” rookie season than Kanter and Favors have made combined in their first two and three seasons with the Jazz. What makes these splits unforgiveable is that their development wasn’t even sacrificed in the interest of significant team success (i.e. contending for a championship) with Utah earning merely an 8th-seed and subsequent first-round sweep in 2011-12 and failing to qualify for the playoffs in 2012-13.
Those two seasons of mediocrity squash any notion that limiting Utah’s young players in favor of veterans who theoretically gave the team a better opportunity to win was a wise decision. Given the success Utah has seen when the Core-4 has been given increased roles – it also flies in the face of Jerry Sloan’s coaching philosophy in which he consistently played whoever he felt gave him the best chance to compete regardless of age or size or experience.
–In Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals – Sloan opted to play rookie 2nd-round draft pick Shandon Anderson throughout the 4th-quarter of a tight game which was eventually tied at 86 with less than 30-seconds remaining. Not only did Anderson secure a spot in the rotation as a rookie – his role only increased over his next two seasons with Utah and he often found himself out on the floor in crunchtime of crucial playoff games.
–In 1999, Jerry Sloan gave rookie Scott Padgett (28th-overall) a golden opportunity – naming him a starter in only the 4th game of the season. Despite making 9 consecutive starts, Padgett struggled mightily in those contests – averaging only 4.2 points and shooting just 32% from the field. That same season, Sloan gave fellow rookie Quincy Lewis (19th overall) every opportunity to replace the departed Shandon Anderson as Utah’s primary off-the-bench scorer but Lewis shot just 37% and struggled so badly defensively that by the end of the season Sloan was playing 6-1 point guard Jacque Vaughn at SG in relief of Jeff Hornacek.
–Utah opened the 2001-02 season with a veteran-laden roster coming off a 53-win season. On opening night, Sloan had 28-year old Donyell Marshall (in a contract year) starting at SF, 28-year old Greg Ostertag starting at center, 31-year old John Amaechi (the team’s marquee free agent signing) as the first big off the bench and 36-year old John Starks (final year of contract) as the first wing off the bench.
By the end of the season, Sloan had benched the oft-injured and inconsistent Marshall in favor of starting 20-year old rookie Andrei Kirilenko (40 starts and over 2100 minutes played). He also gave 20-year old DeShawn Stevenson a chance midseason with 23-starts at shooting guard. Searching for a spark, he opted to leave John Starks off the playoff roster (in those days you set a 12-man playoff roster and only those 12 players were eligible to play in the postseason) in favor of Quincy Lewis who had spent much of the season in the Developmental League after starting opening night and repeating his struggles. Frustrated with the lethargic play of his veteran centers, Sloan also opted to start rookie 2nd-round pick Jarron Collins at center for the final 68 games. Utah opened the playoffs with two rookies in their starting lineup and put a serious scare into the Sacramento Kings – the league’s best team.
–The makeup of the 2003-04 team is well-documented but it should be noted that Sloan played a slew of young players (including four rookies in Sasha Pavlovic – 14 starts, Curtis Borchardt -16 games before breaking wrist, Raul Lopez -11 starts and 20 mpg, and 30-year old undrafted rookie Ben Handlogten -backup PF before tearing ACL) ahead of the few veterans the team possessed in Keon Clark and Michael Ruffin.
-In 2006-07 Utah finished the season with PG Derek Fisher as their starting 2-guard but only after Sloan gave 19-year old C.J. Miles the opportunity to start the first 12 games of the season. Despite some overall team success, Miles struggled defensively and offensive averaged just 4.2 points in those starts. The next man into the lineup was Ronnie Brewer (14 starts at SG as well as SF filling in for an injured Kirilenko) who showed flashes but struggled with his perimeter shot. Only after giving Gordan Giricek another chance did Sloan resort to Fisher. The young player who made the biggest impact however was 21-year old rookie Paul Millsap – who played in all 82 games, averaging 18 minutes filling in at both PF and even some at SF early in the season when Kirilenko was injured.
–From 2006-2010 the Jazz were competing among the top teams in the West, so setting aside developmental time for rookies became difficult but one of the most promising rookies in that group was Eric Maynor – whom Sloan played at both backup PG as well as some SG alongside Deron Williams before management traded him to Oklahoma City midseason in a salary dump.
-In 2009 injuries allowed undrafted Wesley Matthews to find a spot on the roster, and Sloan opted to start the rookie by the 9th game of the season in place of 28-year old Andrei Kirilenko and his $16.5 million salary. Even when veterans Kyle Korver and C.J. Miles returned from their respective wrist and hand injuries, Sloan kept Matthews in the rotation to the point either Korver or Miles was squeezed out of the 5-man logjam on the wing. Following the trade deadline deal of soon-to-be free agent Ronnie Brewer, Sloan inserted the rookie back into the starting lineup for the final 38 games of the regular season as well as all 10 postseason games and Matthews responded with numbers of 11.0 pts on 50%FG/90%Ft/41%3pt following the trade.
–Kyrylo Fesenko was one young player who many fans clamored to play more due to his likeability as well as eye-popping analytics (Utah’s defensive metrics were significantly better with him on the floor) A 7-foot-1, 300-pound teddy bear , Utah’s 2007 2nd-round pick rarely saw significant playing time barring injury to Mehmet Okur but played reasonably well in the 2010 first-round playoff series against Denver (3.8 pts/3.2 reb/57% FG) before coming back down to earth in the 2nd-round series versus the Lakers (2.5pts/5.0reb/31% FG).
Fesenko opened the 2010-11 season as Utah’s backup center and had some nice moments but still fouled a ton (for his Jazz career Fesenko averaged 7.3 fouls per 36 minutes) and also missed multiple games do to ailments ranging from “ankle” to “sinus infection” to “gastric distress.” During his Jazz tenure Sloan had always harped on Fes’ lack of maturity – particularly his “jackpotting,” and Fes gradually lost minutes to Franciso Elson.
Nevertheless on February 7, 2011 Sloan played Fesenko heavy minutes in the second-half and Fes responded by scoring 11 points and grabbing 7 rebounds in a comeback win in Sacramento. Following the game, point guard Deron Williams took a public shot at Sloan’s decision-making saying “Fes, given the minutes, he always performs…He might make a few boneheaded plays a game, but who doesn’t? Coach has got to realize that and let him roll with it.” Jerry Sloan would choose to resign two nights later.
Fes would sign with the Pacers for the last part of the 2011-12 season but saw a total of just 17 minutes in only 3 games. Indiana opted not to re-sign him and he joined the Chicago Bulls’ for training camp in 2012 but was waived just 12 days later. Perhaps Jerry Sloan was wrong in his evaluation of Fesenko’s defensive potential – but Frank Vogel’s Indiana Pacers found no use for him and neither did Tom Thibbedeau’s Chicago Bulls. Two of the league’s best defensive coaches gave Fesenko far less of a chance than Sloan did. In hindsight, it’s again hard to argue Fes should have played more in Utah.
Jerry Sloan certainly wasn’t immune to making errors or mistakes – but one thing that is certain is that he didn’t shy away from playing talented players just because they lacked experience.
I’m critical of Ty Corbin but I judge him on being a quality NBA head coach – not on being Jerry Sloan. It’s completely unfair to compare Ty Corbin to a Hall-of-Famer, but it’s equally ridiculous and absurd to compare Ty’s decision-making and rotations to Jerry Sloan’s.