(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jonas Jerebko, new Jazz player, meets the media for the first time in Salt Lake City Tuesday July 18. He’s a Swedish-born power forward who grew up a fan of the Utah Jazz.
Jerebko and fellow free agent signee Thabo Sefolosha were both introduced as new Jazzmen on Tuesday morning at the Grand America Hotel, smiling as they held up new jerseys (Sefolosha sporting No. 22 and Jerebko with No. 8). They talked extensively about how excited they were for the next step of their respective careers — to play an unselfish style, to play defensive-oriented basketball and to play in front of raucous fans.
The elephant in the room: As much as the two Europeans are excited to come to Utah, is Utah as excited for them?
The Jazz fan base still sports a collective hangover from missing out on the summer’s biggest free agency target, Gordon Hayward. The All-Star left the organization that drafted him for the Boston Celtics, dimming Utah’s hopes to compete in an increasingly tough Western Conference field. The free agent additions so far — Sefolosha and Jerebko included — haven’t exactly rung out in the way that bringing back Hayward would have.
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Except that’s not how Utah’s new free agents see things.
“We come here expecting to win,” Sefolosha said. “[The Jazz] lost a few guys. But it’s a new season, a new year. We’re all here for the same goal. We plan on winning games.”
Combined, Sefolosha and Jerebko’s point production from the 2016-17 season (11.0 ppg) amounts to half of what Hayward brought to the table last year (21.9 ppg). But that’s not either player’s concern.
What both see is the chance to be a part of an unselfish, team-oriented roster that will give them more opportunities to showcase their offensive talents, while bringing a intensity on the other end that will continue to make the Jazz one of the best defenses in the NBA. Replacing Hayward’s production is not a thought, neither for them, nor in their conversations with Jazz officials during free agency.
What they see, they said, is something entirely new.
“We’re just going to keep building and keep getting better,” Jerebko said. “Obviously Gordon was a great player, but he went somewhere else. Ricky came here, a lot of other free agents. We’re excited about this team.”
A lot of the excitement, and perhaps the clinching factor for both free agents, comes from Utah’s style on offense. Both Sefolosha and Jerebko see the Jazz’s acquisition of Ricky Rubio, the pass-first point guard from Spain, as a huge plus and in the mold of the European style they grew up playing.
Swiss native Sefolosha said Utah’s vision of team-oriented basketball (versus star-oriented) reminded him of the style he played in Atlanta. Aside from his pre-existing relationships with franchise cornerstone Rudy Gobert and Jerebko (both played for the same Italian club), he’s itching to get on the floor with Rubio.
“I can only imagine it being a lot of fun,” he said. “The way he shares the ball, his vision on the court — I think everybody would love playing with a guy like this.”
The Jazz are still angling to get other additions made official. Center Ekpe Udoh and wing Royce O’Neale were also added in recent days as additional pieces for the post-Hayward era.
But the ones who were present on Tuesday seemed to portray all the confidence in the world that the Jazz will be a competitive team come fall, and that they’re eager to be a part of it.
“I didn’t want to go somewhere where I know it’s not going to be a good situation, obviously,” Jerebko said. “After talking to coach, talking to [general manager] Dennis [Lindsey], looking at the roster, it just felt like a great fit. The way they play basketball is the way I want to play basketball.”