He’s a talented guy. I think he likes being a leader there. —Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, on Richard Jefferson
SAN ANTONIO — Through 40 games, small forward Richard Jefferson is the only Utah Jazz player to have started every contest.
Tyrone Corbin, Jefferson’s current coach, was surprised by that fact.
Gregg Popovich, Jefferson’s former coach, was not.
“He’s a talented guy. I think he likes being a leader there,” Popovich said Wednesday before the Jazz-Spurs game. “He’s shooting the ball really well. He’s playing well. He’s a talented guy, so it’s not surprising at all that he’s doing what he’s doing.”
Corbin agrees with all of that. It’d just slipped his mind that other regular Jazz starters have missed games this season. Alec Burks is the only other player who’s appeared in all 40 games.
“Yeah, it is surprising. It says who he (Jefferson) is and the work that he put in this summer to get himself ready,” Corbin said. “After we were able to get him (via trade), we had a couple of talks with him and he got himself ready and he’s playing well for us.”
It was only two years ago that Jefferson was a starter in San Antonio, where he scored 15 points with five assists in Utah's 109-105 loss Wednesday. The veteran was traded from the Spurs to the Warriors on March 15, 2012, after playing there since 2009. He was then shipped to Utah this past offseason in a three-team deal.
The 33-year-old Jefferson credited his time in San Antonio for helping him learn how to take better care of his body all year long and for improving his outside shooting.
“I started,” he said, “to understand being a spot-up shooter versus being the guy who had the ball in his hands a lot.”
Because of that, Jefferson is averaging 43.1 percent shooting from 3-point range, second-best to the career-best 44 percent clip he shot as a Spur in 2010-11.
Both Jefferson and Popovich credited Spurs assistant Chip Engelland for helping Jefferson fine-tune his outside shot.
"I did take a lot of positive things from my time here," Jefferson said. "I wouldn’t be shooting at the percentage I am now if it wasn’t for learning from Chip Engelland here, learning from Pop."
“His release was a little slow in certain situations,” Popovich said. “It sounds simplistic, but being ready to catch it, being prepared to catch and shoot, is almost as important as shooting the shot. It can really help you. It can make you quicker. ... He worked really hard at it, and he’s gotten really good at it.”
The Spurs never won a championship in Jefferson’s stay after the organization envisioned him being a big complementary piece to its Big Three and he was eventually traded, but Popovich was downright complimentary while speaking of his former player.
“He’s a really good teammate. He gets along with everybody. People respected him,” Popovich said. “One thing that I enjoy — I always do — I enjoy humor and he has a great sense of humor. He was just fun to be around. In the locker room, he’s an easy guy to talk to. He engenders that sort of a relationship with everybody.”
SAFETY NET: Corbin admitted that having Burks fill in for injured Gordon Hayward (left hip flexor) in the starting lineup eases the pain a little for Utah. Burks followed his career-high 34-point performance in Monday’s impressive 118-103 win over Denver with 20 points in the loss to the Spurs. He's averaging 23.3 points in three games as a starting shooting guard.
“It helps, but we need all of our pieces, and Gordon’s a big part of that,” Corbin said. “The sooner we get him back when he’s fully healthy (the better), but we don’t want to take a chance. Alec, his play kind of gives us a chance to be a little more cautious (with Hayward’s return). But we need all of our guys.”
ANOTHER CHANCE: Jefferson was asked what he expected for this season after being traded to Utah last offseason. Mostly, he’s just happy to be playing after seeing scant time last year in Golden State and having his time in San Antonio end abruptly from the midseason trade.
“Just looking at the (Jazz) roster, I knew that I was going to get an opportunity. I think a lot of people had kind of counted me out because the lockout year (struggles),” he said. “Then I went to Golden State, (and) they were obviously trying to get a good draft pick, so they kind of rested guys.”
That last reference might upset Jazz fans who remain bitter that the Warriors lost enough games in 2012 to hold on to a protected lottery pick (used to draft Harrison Barnes), which would’ve gone to Utah if it’d been eighth or lower.
As for Jefferson, he played the following season behind Barnes after getting injured in training camp.
“After being injured for not really being injured for most of my career, everybody thought I was finished,” he said. “It was great to kind of get this summer to rest, get healthy and then get a change of environment and an opportunity to play.”
Corbin agreed. He said the Jazz are getting just what they expected from Jefferson: “veteran leadership, consistent guy, helping these young guys grow and giving us a chance to get better.”