The lights go down at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah as the public address announcer introduces the starting lineup for the Utah Jazz.
Fireworks blast, laser lights scan the crowd of Jazz fans, and music blares from the arena’s new sound system. But one former Jazz starter doesn’t get to experience the new introductory style.
Instead, he is introduced after a buzzer substitutes him in—with all the lights on and no music playing.
Think that bothers the Jazz’s three-time NBA All-Defensive Team member Andrei Kirilenko?
Not according to him.
“It doesn’t really matter, as long as you play in the game,” Kirilenko said after Utah’s first win this season against the Denver Nuggets. “There are some good sides when you are coming off the bench. You have a chance to see the game from the beginning, see who’s really dangerous, and see how you can help.”
Utah’s star forward now plays the critical sixth-man role for a Jazz team that now has arguably the most dangerous bench in the NBA.
And it may be part of the reason why he has started the season the way he has.
Kirilenko’s ability to accept the role as the multi-dimensional weapon off the Jazz bench has, in fact, been a major reason for the new found energy and success that the one-time NBA All-Star is enjoying through the first seven games of the 2008-09 campaign.
Through Utah’s first two weeks of the season, the 6'9" forward out of Russia is averaging 15.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in his new role with the Jazz—all while still getting over 32 minutes per game.
While as a starter, it was easy for Kirilenko’s aggressive defensive style to sometimes land him in foul trouble in the opening minutes of the game. Now, with C.J. Miles starting at forward, Kirilenko enters the game with no fouls and the opportunity to be more aggressive defensively and offensively—leading to more production on both ends.
In fact, one major part of Kirilenko’s success could be the fact that Miles is in the game early on to pick up those fouls that would have otherwise limited Kirilenko’s late game production.
Kirilenko has only added to a potent Jazz bench in his new role, and he has played a major part in making the Jazz’s bench the best bench in the NBA with an average of over 40 points per game from the reserves.
Many of those points are coming from Kirilenko and his omnipresent style of basketball. As Kirilenko continues his successful beginning to the 2008-09 season, it is easy to see how he could be on the fast track towards a Sixth Man of the Year award and a second All-Star selection.
It is definitely early in a long NBA season, but entering Wednesday night’s 95-87 loss to the Washington Wizards, Kirilenko has proven wrong any doubters of head coach Jerry Sloan’s plan to have his highest paid player come off the bench.
Kirilenko’s lone All-Star Game appearance came in the 2003-04 season. Through the first seven games of that season, his production was similar to what it has been through the first seven games of this season. No other season of his, until this year, has seen similar numbers to his All-Star year through the first seven games.
Through seven games of the 2003-04 season, Kirilenko averaged 17.2 points per game (this season, 15.6). He grabbed 7.4 rebounds (7.3), dished out 2.1 assists (2.8), blocked 2.2 shots (1.5), and came up with 1.5 steals per game (1.2).
“I’m trying to be valuable coming off the bench,” Kirilenko added. “Trying to get some deflections, steals, blocks, run the floor a little bit, and bring a little spark and energy from the bench.”
Many Jazz opponents may feel that the Jazz’s bench was already a force to be reckoned with, as Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Matt Harpring, and Ronnie Price provided plenty of spark and energy.
But, as Kirilenko is excelling and succeeding with his new role, opposing coaches now hear the substitution buzzer and their stomachs drop a little more than usual.
Kirilenko’s role with the Jazz may have changed, but his ability to produce results and contribute to the Jazz’s game plans has stayed constant.
“A.K. is a special part of our team,” Jazz teammate Deron Williams said. “He does what no other player on this team can do and that’s fill up a stat sheet. He does it offensively and defensively, he brings s a lot of energy to our team.”
With that type of production off the bench, it is easy to think:
Move over Manu Ginobili…there just may be a new Sixth Man of the Year.
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