By Matthew Coles
Whenever I cover Jazz games for the Associated Press, I hear fans loudly yelling for the young guys to play. “Free Alec Burks,” they’ll shout. Or, “C’mon Corbin, you know you want to put Derrick Favors in there.” I hear people chanting for Enes Kanter. Yes, it seems Jazz fans are ready for the Youth Movement. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!
But the guy who often changes the nature of the game more than any of those rising talents is the shortest dude on the team who has rarely been a full-time starter in his 11 years of pro experience. Reserve point Earl Watson admittedly can’t shoot the long ball well, isn’t a great dribble penetrator in the set offense, and is a poor free throw shooter for a guard.
What he can do is get under the skin of opponents, throw the best 30-foot alley-oops in the business and change the fortunes of his team before you have time to ask, “Where did Devin Harris go?”
Against Memphis Friday night, the Jazz outscored the Grizzlies by 21 points when he was on the floor. When Harris played, Memphis had eight more points than the Jazz. Often, the plus-minus stats (which are by no means bulletproof) are reversed as Watson has the tendency to turn the ball over and his 3-point attempts are apt to lead to fast breaks the other way. But what he does do is make something happen.
“Every night is going to be different. Some nights I’m going to score and other nights I won’t shoot and get assists. The whole point is to win the game and I’ll do whatever it takes,” Watson said after he tallied 11 points and five assists in the 94-85 win over Memphis.
He puts ball pressure on opposing guards and makes entry passes tough. When the ball does get inside he digs down and harasses the big fellas in the paint.
“That’s my style of play. That’s how I thrive. If I don’t do all that, I think I’m worthless. So I try and find a way to get creative like that,” Watson said.
The Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol got so fed up he tried to swat Watson away like he was a little mosquito but missed. Rudy Gay had seen too much of Watson in his grill, so he somewhat playfully punched Watson in the chest during a break in the action. Watson merely smirked and walked away.
“Sometimes I’m fighting the bigs and sometimes I’m bothering the guards —whatever I have to do that will bring energy and change the tempo,” Watson said.
Watson, who has career averages of 7.0 points and 4.5 assist, says he’s been around long enough that he knows what teams are going to do and which teams he can really affect. “I pick my spots,” Watson said.
The UCLA product was a hero against Memphis but one night later in Oakland, Watson had just two points and three assists and his second unit was outdueled by the Warriors. Harris was definitely more effective Saturday, but Watson maintains that’s the beauty of the situation.
“I think [Devin and I] complement each other and, at any given time, either of us can change the game. I think that puts a lot of pressure on a lot of teams. I play enough minutes that we can both stay fresh and continue to attack,” Watson said.
The Jazz fans who were around in the late ’80s and ’90s surely recall the uneasy feeling they got every time John Stockton went out of the game for a rest. Some backups, like Howard Eisley, were better than others but you could almost sense the Delta Center patrons collectively hold their breath until Stockton ran back to the scorer’s table to re-enter the game.
With Watson, it’s different. Harris is no Stockton of course, but many expect elevated play when Watson spells the starter. And, no matter what, they expect a change of style and tempo.
Watson was a free agent after last season and didn’t sign a new contract until a few hours before training camp began last month. The Hawks made a play for the spunky guard but the Jazz were his first choice. He says he has a special relationship with GM Kevin O’Connor and feels a strong loyalty to him. His two-year deal is guaranteed and worth $1.4 million a year — a bargain for the Jazz.
“I came back here because of the young guys. I am really excited about Favors and Gordon and Jeremy, all of them. The team and the chemistry and coaching staff brought me back,” Watson said.
While most pundits peg this abbreviated season as one of rebuilding for Utah, Watson senses better results.
“Everything is going the right direction,” Watson said. “I feel like we haven’t even scratched the surface. Everyone is so positive and the energy of the team is just amazing. And I feed off of energy.”
The experienced anchor of the second unit also creates that energy. He has the young guys that run with him believing that anything is possible and they have the playoffs as a goal.
“We feel like our five off the bench could start in this league,” he said. “We five off the bench believe we can dominate and change the game. We really believe it — and sometimes believing is bigger than reality.”
That kind of abundant faith is probably why a 6-foot, 30-something who can’t shoot straight is often Utah’s designated game-changer.