Fes up

The Utah Jazz offense -- the same one that's been running since Frank Layden was stalking the sidelines in powder blue coloured pastel sports coats -- relies on a few key components. We collectively understand the need for a point guard who can dominate the ball, a series of wings who can pass to cutters and make open jumpers, and a strong scoring forward. The Jazz front office hasn't yet traded away those components and this core has been competent on offense for a few seasons now.

Defense -- that thing that helps you win on the road when you are down by 25 in the 3rd quarter in a hard building to win in -- has lagged quite a bit for this 'generation' of the Jazz. Previous generations of this franchise had defenses that could be described as hardnosed, disciplined and intimidating. Over the last few seasons Jazz fans have only seen defenses that were akin to houses of cards.

Until now.

The big reason is, honestly, the biggest reason. A veritable man-mountain from the Ukraine who, sadly, so many of 'us' Jazz fans never thought would get it. Lots of haters are quiet right now, but it's time we all Fes up -- and see improvement in the Jazz interior defense and the potential for so much more.

Of course, an article glorifying Fesenko is a little bit premature -- he has not been a big part of this recent (and sustained) Jazz surge in the standings. Nor has he been noted as a catalyst for greater defensive improvements for the entire team. He is, though, a guy who has played in 31 games for the Jazz this year -- and very few of those had him playing more than 10 minutes. His stats aren't going to blow anyone away, but it's what he does when he's on the floor (and the blood he sheds upon it) that matter.\


And what he does includes, but is not limited to: being big; taking up space; being active around the basket (on both sides of the ball); not taking bad shots; challenging shots; and fouling hard. These are all things the Jazz have always needed from their defensive centers -- and if Fes improves he can surely place himself within the continuum from Mark Eaton through Greg Ostertag to poor poor Felton Spencer. (My favourite Spencer play was him being dunked on by Keon Clark, that's how bad he was). This continuum is not a list of greats by any stretch -- but a continuum of rotation players the Jazz have used at center with significant regularity.

Kyrylo has played greater than 10 minutes only 12 times this season. (Which is a significant problem, if you actually want young players to develop and get better) During that period of time he has only managed to accrue 5.5 points per game (at the stellar rate of 62 fg% and respectable 52 ft%) and 3.8 rebounds per game. Fes also produces 0.67 blocks, 0.67 assists and 0.33 steals on average over those 12 times this season. More importantly, Fes has one of the best blocks / foul ratios on the team (though it is much worse than it was last season).

I think the blocks / foul ratio is quite telling, because it can be used to state how effective a player is at challenging shots without getting called for it. With increased playing time, systematic improvement, and the related improved respect from the refs -- this number will only increase if Fes gets more playing time.

And just WHY do I think Fes needs more playing time? It's partly numerical. And those numbers aren't 5.5 ppg (at 62 fg%) and 3.8 rpg. The numbers that matter are 7'1 and 300 pounds.

Utah's defensive scheme (even in the 2-3 zone that worked well enough last game) is specifically anchored by a bigman. In older times, when the Jazz had better regarded defenses, opposing players would be funneled into the paint only to face significant length and shotblocking ability (Eaton and Ostertag come to mind). In recent years the defensive scheme and doctrine has not changed -- but the abilities of the players have. Instead of facing the likes of Eaton, Ostertag, Malone, Bailey or Antoine Carr in the paint, opposing players relish the opportunity to go into the paint and score over interior defense albatrosses like Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur. (and Jarron Collins, whom David Locke went on the radio during last year's playoffs to say that playing Jarron Collins gives the Jazz the best chance to win, instead of playing a 7'1, 300 pound guy against Bynum and Gasol)

One only needs to look at a quivering, frightened Rudy Fernandez huddled on the floor and afraid to get back on the court to see the benefit of having a big guy like Fes defending the paint. (Lets contrast this with that Marbury game winning layup against the Jazz two seasons ago where Memo ran out of bounds instead of defending the basket) Fes is a big man in a league that does not have many true, throwback centers anymore. Fes has historically played well against the Shaqs and Yao Mings of the NBA. (Take a look at that game where the Jazz almost beat a healthy rockets team when Booz and Memo were both injured -- game went to OT because of Fes' strong play inside) Fes is going to be needed in the future too (or players like him) to combat the Bynums and Dwights.

Of course, defending the paint with a big man who challenges shots, takes up space and grabs rebounds has a greater impact than just validating my opinions. Defending the paint with a big guy means that Jerry can play man defense against other teams with big guys. This means the guards don't have to sneak in and try that ineffective soft double (which results in the other team passing the ball around to an open jump shooter).

Yes, the perimeter defense is directly related to Utah's current penchant for poor interior defense. If you want to see less of Sasha V running back on defense after hitting a three (and congratulating himself for hitting an open jumper) then you need to agree to fix the paint defense.

We all know that Boozer and Memo (great players when on), are just not defensive players that can fundamentally change a game with challenging shots and dissuading incursions into the paint by opposing players. Millsap, for all his hustle and heart, is just not tall enough to do this either. (Sap is a child next to Bynum in the paint) Even the mythical Ante Tomic (still in Europe) and fan fav Koufos (who can't get off the bench) are not going to be able to provide what Fes can right now.

For the Jazz to continue this forward trajectory they will need to get better on defense. (Obviously, offense isn't the problem) Getting better on defense means getting better inside. No big free agents want to come to Utah, and defensive bigmen are very hard to find. (Name 8 rotation playing defensive bigmen in the league that are 7'1)

If we wish to be honest with ourselves, the best chance for improvement will be with internal development. Meaning: Fes needs to play more. I could go on and on, but as the longest standing (longest tweeting?), non-family member cheerleader of Kyrylo -- I really should temper my enthusiasm.

That said, it's time for his detractors (including Sloan, who seems to hate the idea of playing someone who isn't an 8 year vet) to Fes up and admit -- Utah's only going to get better (greater than 6 playoff wins) if they get better at defending the paint.

And the only way for this to happen this season will be the continued playing time and development of Fesenko.

All comments are the opinion of the commenter and not necessarily that of SLC Dunk or SB Nation.

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