PHILADELPHIA - The rookies are playing like rookies. The center is still fighting to boost his conditioning and learn his duties. The trio of backup point guards remains a jumble of injuries and turnovers.
But with the finale of the Utah Jazz's preseason schedule to be played Thursday, one major overhaul seems to have been completed well ahead of schedule.
Carlos Boozer, a 1999 Juneau-Douglas High School graduate, has filled Utah's vacancy at power forward like a politician with free airtime, making himself at home in the lane, on the perimeter and in the locker room. If there were any doubts about the most celebrated free agent in Utah history fitting in with his new team, they have been erased by a doughnut-shop variety of jump shots, layups and elbow-to-the-sternum sweeping hooks.
After attacking defenses with scoring popguns Michael Ruffin and Tom Gugliotta at the position a year ago, the Jazz are discovering whole chapters of their playbook that have been neglected.
"He's probably the biggest difference in our offense," Jazz assistant coach Phil Johnson said. "We may do some things a little differently, but the big [change] is who's running the offense. ... Maybe you go back to some things that you've used in the past." Things like post-up entry passes that actually turn into layups.
Or pick-and-rolls that spring the power forward for an open 15-footer.
Or the fast-break opportunity triggered by a rebound and finished with a dunk, all by the same person.
Boozer had all three - plus a baseline spin move away from a defender, creating space for a soft 12-foot fallaway - in the Jazz's preseason loss in Detroit on Sunday, probably his best game (16 points, six rebounds) of the preseason. He promised more of the same Tuesday night against the Philadelphia 76ers, and beyond.
"I'm just trying to keep working on it, get confident in our offense and [in] what I'm doing," said Boozer, who has averaged 11.3 points and 7.0 rebounds, albeit with 3.3 turnovers, in limited action going into Tuesday's game against Philadelphia. "Just keep knocking them down."
He's already knocked down any uncertainty about his all-around ability. Boozer has combined with Harpring to create a potent, especially for its size, rebounding combination around the basket.
And his creative array of shots - the third-year forward also swooped into the lane against Detroit and shoveled in a shot-clock-beating scoop - isn't even the weapon that has most caught the eye of Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.
"He's made a couple of passes that we haven't been able to recognize in awhile," Sloan said last week. "He's willing to pass the ball, not just look for his shot."
Whatever Sloan wants, Boozer said.
"You've got to adjust to the game situation, what the team needs," Boozer said. "If you have a post-up, post up. If you have an open shot, shoot it. Everybody on this team is an option offensively. We have cuts, screens - you can get open all over the court. It's been great for me."
It should become greater, Sloan said, because the uncertainty at the other positions - he has experimented with numerous lineups, some as a test and some due to injuries - likely has limited Boozer's comfort level, at least relative to what it will be once the rotation is set.
"He can post the ball up some. I think he can shoot the ball out on the perimeter. But we've got to get comfortable with one another in order to find out what makes him a better player," Sloan said. "It's not going to happen all of a sudden."
On Boozer's part, it looks like it already has.
Reprinted with permission from The Salt Lake Tribune, on the Web at www.sltrib.com.
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