Sloan ready to see what young team can do

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By DOUG ALDEN AP Sports Writer

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah coach Jerry Sloan has heard about how good the Jazz could be this season.

He'd much rather see it.

"Everybody's got them in the playoffs. Now they've got to go prove it," Sloan said Tuesday.

The Jazz open the season Wednesday night at home against the Houston Rockets.

Utah went 41-41 last season. That was short of the playoffs, where the Jazz haven't been since 2003, but it was a 15-game improvement from 2004-05.

All key players from last season are back -- and healthy -- and the Jazz feel that the rebuilding from the John Stockton-Karl Malone era is over.

"I'm confident we can make it," forward Andrei Kirilenko said of the playoffs. "If we're healthy, if we're playing our game, we'll be there."

Kirilenko even took it another step and said the Jazz have the potential to be a Western Conference finalist -- a bold statement considering the Jazz haven't been that far since 1998.

Sloan, who is starting his 19th season as Utah's coach, is a little more guarded. The team is still young and will rely heavily on point guard Deron Williams, whose third-year contract option was picked up by the Jazz this week.

Rookies Ronnie Brewer and Paul Millsap, and second-year shooting guard C.J. Miles, will be among the young players who will need to learn quickly.

"They don't grow up overnight in this business," Sloan said. "They will get tested with 29 different teams."

Rookies Dee Brown and Brian Chase made the 15-man roster, but which one becomes the No. 3 point guard was still up in the air. Undrafted forward Roger Powell Jr., who played with Williams and Brown at Illinois, also made the cut.

Only 12 players can be active for a game, so some rookies will be behind the bench rather than on it Wednesday.

Sloan was still trying to figure out his starting lineup before Tuesday's practice. He said guard Derek Fisher, Utah's biggest acquisition of the summer, will probably play but not start Wednesday.

Fisher has been out since bruising his tailbone in a preseason game at Indiana on Oct. 14.

Mehmet Okur has been nursing a sore left hip but is expected to be ready. The Jazz went 4-4 in the preseason and even Sloan has liked what he has seen.

"It's fun to watch them try to do some things and get better. This is a wonderful group of guys," Sloan said. "When things go wrong, they kind of pull for each other. Hopefully that can carry over into the season."

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-10-31-06 1444MST

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