The day I learned I had made my first NBA All-Star Team, I honestly wasn’t thinking about it too much. We had a game that night, and I was focused on keeping my same routine. I had taken a nap, and after I woke up, I was chasing one of my daughters around.
Then 5 p.m. hit, and my phone rang.
It was Johnnie Bryant, one of the assistants with the Jazz. Johnnie was my basketball drills coach this offseason in Utah. He and Isaiah Wright, the strength and conditioning coach, were with me the whole summer. I spent many mornings with Johnnie, grinding and really trying to improve my game. Over the season, I’ve continued to lean on him. We watch film together and have maintained my workouts and all of that so I have a good relationship with him.
Johnnie told me I was an NBA All-Star.
After that, my phone just started blowing up. So many people reached out, calling me and texting me, it was almost overwhelming. Coaches from high school. Coach Stevens, my college coach. College teammates. Jazz teammates, past and present. Friends. Family. The whole deal.
I can’t remember the number of messages I got. I just know there were a lot. More than I ever could’ve expected.
To be recognized as an All-Star is an incredible feeling. It’s rewarding. It was definitely one of my goals going into the summer. I think I’ve taken a step forward this season, and it’s because I have improved upon a lot of the little things in my game.
My footwork is better this year. My ability to finish in the lane has been better this year as well, and I think a lot of that is attributed to the work that I did this summer on footwork, on balance, and on core stuff in the weight room. That’s boosted me up two or three points this year that I didn’t have last year. Any time you spend hours and days and weeks trying to add something to your game, and you’re able to apply it in a real game and have success, it doesn’t get much better. So to see all that hard work I put in during the summer be recognized and rewarded was a cool feeling.
I went into the season with a different mindset too—a mindset to continue to be aggressive and assertive when the game is not necessarily going my way. I’ve brought that to every game. Those things have helped me be the player that I am this year, an NBA All-Star.
It’s an honor just to be able to say that and to say it as a member of the Utah Jazz, for this franchise and this city. It’s not something that a lot of guys have gotten to do over the years. I think there have only been 10 All-Stars in the history of the Utah Jazz.
This is the seventh year I’ve been with this franchise, and I know how passionate these fans are and how much they love the game. They were fortunate for so long with John Stockton and Karl Malone. For a long time, they’ve wanted somebody to come in and be an All-Star. It makes me happy that I can kind of carry that torch for the franchise for a little bit. I want to thank the fans who were with me from the beginning, who stuck with me and supported me—from when I was a rookie all the way to now, when we’re making a run at the playoffs.
It means something extra special to have the All-Star honor come during a year where we’re having the best Jazz season since I’ve been a part of the organization. I definitely have to thank my teammates and the coaching staff for putting me in the position to even have a chance to play in the All-Star Game. If we hadn’t been successful as a team this season, I don’t think I would have made it, and that’s how it should be. That’s always been the person and the basketball player that I am, a team-first person. I don’t worry about the individual stuff. It usually takes care of itself.
HITTING THE BREAK ON HIGH
The greatest obstacle for any team going into the All-Star break is getting through the dark days of January and into February.
We’ve now played 52 of our 82 games. That’s a lot of games. Guys are beat down, both physically and mentally. We have five more left before we get to the break. You see some teams, they’ll check out right before All-Star break, and drop four or five in a row.
We can’t do that.
These games going into the break are very important because you want to have some momentum. You want to feel good going into the break, so when you come out of it, you can try to pick up right where you left off.
This road trip we’re on is extremely important. We did a great job in Atlanta on Monday night. That was a good start.
We’ve been very good at home all season, and the next step for us to take as a team is to be as effective on the road as we are at home. Great teams are able to play the same way when they’re on the road as they do at home. For us, that’s dealing with the crowd and the road trip—the travel, the sleep and all that. We’ve taken steps this year, but we still have a little ways to go. That will be the next step.
It will come. It’s a matter of having more experience. When you’re together for a longer period of time, it’s easier to play on the road. It’s about finding consistency.
Those teams that are ahead of us in the Western Conference, they are who they are every single night. We’ve had moments like that this year, and we’ve had winning streaks and times when we were playing really well. But there were other times where we fell back and dropped a game to somebody we shouldn’t drop a game to, or played down to the competition a little bit.
So I think consistency is something that we’ve got to be better at.
Another area where we can improve is rebounding after a loss. It actually kind of goes hand-in-hand. We need to pick right back up where we left off, continue to play with confidence, and move on to the next one. That’s something that’s collective. It takes the group having a short memory. If you have a bad game, you’ve got to be able to just shrug it off and keep going.
Sometimes, that’s a matter of picking teammates up on the court. Sometimes it’s off the court. It could be me saying something to the group, or George Hill saying something to the group. Lifting teammates up is something that I knew I needed to do as a leader of the team going into this season, and I feel like I’ve done that.
When you have teammates that are able to pick each other up, it makes you a lot better as a unit.
GIVING IT OUR BEST
George has been awesome for us as a leader on the court and in the locker room. He has a calming presence when he’s in the game. He’s so under control with the basketball, making the right decisions. And the way he’s shooting the ball has really added another dimension to us as well. He’s truly been our floor leader out there.
Rudy Gobert also continues to be a tremendous presence for us. He’s been just a mammoth on the block and down in the paint for us, and not only defensively. His ability to catch the basketball and finish this year has been so improved from years past. He’s been instrumental to our success. He was deserving of being an All-Star, and I would have loved it if he could have joined me in the All-Star Game. It’s a sense of pride for your team and for your city to have multiple representatives.
One guy who is playing really well and doesn’t get enough credit is Joe Ingles. He has been so steady and solid for us the whole season. When he gets in the game, he makes things happen. He’s been one of our best defenders. His playmaking ability is something that’s really underrated, and then there’s the way he’s been shooting the ball.
He’s in the top five in 3-point percentage around the league. That’s pretty excellent.
With all our injuries, every player on our team has been important. Joe Ingles has filled in and stepped up for guys that have gone down on multiple different occasions. With Rodney Hood down, Alec Burks has played extremely well coming back from his own injury. He’s another guy who we’re going to need to rely on, with his speed and ability to get to the rim. Joe Johnson has been tremendous for us this year with his versatility and his ability to play two, three, or four. We have a lot of depth and versatility now.
For us as a team, it comes down to doing the right things and making the right plays to be successful. That starts on defense. I’ve said this in some of the blogs before, but we really have played pretty well on defense this season. It’s given us the chance to win some games that we quite frankly shouldn’t have been in, given how we were shooting. We’ve had several games where it’s come down to the wire and we’ve pulled it out.
If we lose those, you’re looking at a five-to-ten-game swing, and we’re definitely not in the position that we’re in.
It has me confident in both where we are right now, and where we are headed. I look forward to riding this thing out through the All-Star break and seeing what we can do in the playoffs.
NEXT STOP: NEW ORLEANS
Once we get to All-Star weekend, what I’m really looking forward to is actually being a part of the main event, to be with all those great players and participate in the All-Star Game itself.
I’ve participated in All-Star Weekend before. I did the rookie-sophomore game, and also helped Jeremy Evans in the dunk contest. But when I went there in the past, it felt more like being a spectator. The rookie-sophomore game feels like a JV game, and then the varsity plays on Sunday.
So I don’t really know what to expect this time around. I’m just going in with an open mind.
One of the best parts of All-Star Weekend is going to be sharing everything with my family. All of my family that is able to make it is going to be there, and I’m really happy that they’ll get a chance to see me.
Robyn is taking care of a lot of the accommodations. She’s been so amazing through all of this. More than anybody, she knows how much work that I put in. I was gone for so much time, even during the offseason, and a lot of times I had to leave her at home with the girls while I went to put in the work at the gym. She was extremely happy for me and excited, but we wouldn’t be having the success as a family that we are without her. I’m so appreciative of all she does for me and our family and all of her support.
We’re going to have a great time down there for that weekend. We’ve decided that we’re not going to bring Bernadette and Charlotte with us because that would probably make the weekend a lot more chaotic. It will also give Robyn and me a chance to spend some time together that we don’t normally have with two little ones running around.
It’s also going to be incredibly meaningful to have my parents there to watch me play in my first All-Star Game. The call with them after I found out I was an All-Star was one of the most important ones to me. They’ve been with me every step of this journey.
When we talked, my dad was a little emotional about it. I’ve worked with him since I can remember, and he taught me everything about the game. I remember growing up, playing “Around the World” with him in the basement, playing him one-on-one till I could finally beat him, playing 21. He was my coach all the way up until high school. We spent so much time together just traveling across the country in the minivan, going to different sporting events, AAU events.
He reminded me of a time when I was little, and we wrote down my goals as a basketball player. (He wrote them down for me.) The last one was to play in the NBA. So there was not even a goal “to be an NBA All-Star.” In our wildest dreams, I don’t think either of us actually thought it was possible. I don’t think anyone really ever thought I’d make it this far when I was growing up. I was a kid with two 5’10” parents.
For my dad to have a chance to come watch me play in the NBA All-Star Game is something I don’t think either one of us imagined would ever happen.
It’s going to be a really, really cool experience that I don’t think either of us will ever forget.