Posted: Thursday December 21, 2006 11:27AM; Updated: Thursday December 21, 2006 6:39PM
Deron Williams has built on his strong finish to last season in helping the Jazz race to the top of the Northwest Division.
"He played with a lot more confidence [at the end of last year]," Sloan says. "He understood what we wanted him to do. He's a very intelligent player, a very intelligent person. He worked very hard."
Williams hasn't missed a start this season while increasing his scoring average more than six points a game (from 10.8 to 17.2) and handing out 8.8 assists a night. He's also provided a Utah team thick with post play a safety valve from outside the paint. One scout described him as a "Chauncey Billups with athleticism."
For all the fireworks this Utah team is producing this season, it still, at heart, is a reflection of Sloan, who, for the 18-plus seasons he has coached it, has tried to keep opposing offenses as lifeless as anything in the Great Salt Lake. The Jazz are limiting opponents to 43.9 percent shooting, the third-best mark in the league.
"They just grind with you," the scout says. "They're aggressive from the beginning and just so mentally tough. Even if you score once or twice, they're not going to lose their defensive confidence."
But this isn't the veteran-laden Jazz teams of the late '90s, where postseason trips were as reliable as passes from Stockton to Malone. Outside of newly acquired Derek Fisher, Utah is thin on playoff experience.
"I don't know who we are," Sloan said minutes before his Jazz played in New York on Monday, a game they lost lost in overtime. "We've had some games where we've played very well and we've struggled in some games. There are a lot of things we have to improve on. Just name it because we're a young team."
Sloan's cautious approach is echoed by a locker room claiming to look ahead only as far as the next game.
"I think it's too early to say what we're capable of doing," Fisher says. "But I think we've shown some abilities to play at a very high level or level similar to championship-type teams. We have quality players at key positions and we have good coaching. That's a good formula for success."
Will it be enough to truly make the Popoviches and D'Antonis sweat come May?
"I think the only thing they're missing is a certified go-to guy in the playoffs who is proven, that guy who can, no matter what, get you a shot, hit something big for you," the scout says. "That's not to say Carlos can't be that. We just haven't seen it; they haven't been there before."
If the first quarter of the season is any indication, that likely won't be the case much longer.