SALT LAKE CITY -- Meaningful minutes was the mantra for Jazz Senior VP of Basketball Operations Kevin O'Connor and Head Coach Tyrone Corbin. As the Jazz embarked on the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season the questions about the young players, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter were continual. How would they be worked in? How will they develop? How much time will they get?
The answers from O'Connor and Corbin were consistent, "We hope they will earn meaningful minutes." Two words should be highlighted, earn and meaningful.
The Jazz were not interested in giving minutes to the young players simply for the sake of giving them time this year. They wanted those minutes earned and they wanted the franchise to play to win. They want a playoff team. They wanted earned meaningful minutes.
The national reaction was skepticism. ESPN.com and NBA.com picked the Jazz to finish last in the West. Many commentators and fans questioned a year after trading star Deron Williams and two years after losing Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews why the Jazz would still be trying to win.
"Clear the deck," they said and let the young guys play. The Jazz wanted the young guys to learn not just play. The Jazz wanted wins; they wanted their players to learn in minutes that mattered, minutes that had weight, minutes that had an impact.
With a little less than two weeks left in the season the plan has come to fruition. Second year player Gordon Hayward played more minutes than anyone in his draft class during the month of March while in a playoff push. Derrick Favors has been playing down the stretch in key moments of must win games.
For rookies Enes Kanter and Alec Burks as the games have gotten more significant the season has gotten tougher. Their rookie mistakes are highlighted. Their struggles can cost you playoff positioning. They are learning firsthand how hard the NBA game can be.
One play last week showed why meaningful minutes are learning moments. The Jazz were in an enormous game against the Phoenix Suns. Alec Burks who has been struggling with his shot was in a semi-transition opportunity when he decided to step behind the three-point line on the left wing and pull the trigger.
Burks has yet to show he is a good three-point shooter. A quick-look three was the last thing the Jazz wanted or needed in this circumstance. Sure enough Burks rimmed the shot and the Suns took it the other way for an easy transition basket and the game had a monumental 4- point swing.
Had the Jazz cleared the deck and just let the young kids play as many teams have done, like the Wizards, Kings, Bobcats, etc., there would be no ramifications for Burks' shot. In all likelihood the ball would get taken out of bounds, the game would go on and maybe, maybe not someone would mention that was not very good shot selection.
However, because the Jazz are in a playoff push that shot got reaction. Burks was pulled, shortly thereafter, from the game. The coach's certainty mentioned the importance of valuing every possession and maybe some teammates as well. Most powerfully, the Jazz lost that night in a game crucial for their playoff chances. It was a loss that stung, a loss that makes every player go back through their night and ask how they could have made a difference.
This is not to single out Burks. Kanter has had these moments, as have Favors and Hayward, the same way Millsap did when he was a young player on the Deron, Boozer and Okur-led Jazz teams.
These are the plays that make a player better. They make players a winner. The Kings, Bobcats, Wizards, etc don't have those possessions.
When O'Connor and Corbin talked of a season with a playoff run and meaningful minutes for the youngsters this is what they envisioned.