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Okur fast becoming Jazz's fan favorite

February 11, 2007|From the Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — When the Utah Jazz signed Mehmet Okur as a free agent in 2004, the deal was overshadowed by the arrival of Carlos Boozer.

But Okur has been the most durable player on Utah's roster, and his clutch outside shooting has helped keep the Jazz atop the Northwest Division. And his play has eased the loss of leading scorer and rebounder Boozer, who has a broken leg.

In close games, the Jazz are comfortable getting the ball inside or even outside to their 6-foot-11 sharpshooter.

"I have confidence in my shots. So do my teammates and coach," Okur said. "If they need me, I'll be there for them."

Okur is the top three-point shooter on the Jazz at 38%. He's also second on the team from the foul line, and second only to Boozer in scoring as Utah appears headed back to the playoffs for the first time in four years.

"There's not many guys 6-11, 7-foot that can shoot like that," Jazz point guard Deron Williams said. "It comes at the right time as well. He likes those clutch shots."

Utah lost Boozer, who has been averaging 22 points and 12 rebounds, at the end of January when he broke a bone in his left leg. But Okur rallied the Jazz to three wins in their next four games.

He scored 29 and made a game-winning shot with five seconds left in a win at Phoenix. Then he scored 12 of Utah's last 14 points in a 100-95 win over Chicago.

Okur scored 31 against the Spurs on Jan. 31, going 10 for 14 from the field and three for six from three-point range in a 97-93 win. Okur scored eight in the fourth quarter, including a three-pointer with 27 seconds left that gave the Jazz the lead for good.

The three-pointers have been fan favorites, and Okur is trying to adapt to being called "Money" for his clutch shooting.

Boozer is expected back by late this month or early March, although he's still hoping he can play in his first All-Star game after being named to the Western Conference reserves last week. When Boozer returns, Okur will move back to center and once again give Utah the combination the team envisioned when both players signed as free agents in 2004.

Boozer's deal was a little bigger and his arrival easily overshadowed that of Okur, even though Okur was coming from the NBA champion Pistons.

Boozer played two seasons with Cleveland and came from a high-profile college program in Duke, where he won a national championship in 2001.

Okur came from Turkey, another big European taken in the second round in the 2001 draft. He entered the league in 2002 and played mostly as a reserve for two seasons.

The Pistons couldn't afford to re-sign Okur and keep Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace after winning the NBA championship. The Jazz had plenty of salary cap space available.

Boozer still gets the fanfare, while Okur plays with a shy grin above the scruff on his chin. He had played in 229 consecutive games through Friday, including 213 with the Jazz.

"He's bought into the work ethic. He's bought into improving himself in the off-season," said Kevin O'Connor, Jazz vice president of basketball operations.

"Everywhere he's been, he's rebounded. We also knew he could make shots and we also knew he had some toughness. And we've gotten more than we expected in all those areas."

Okur's run with the Jazz is all the more remarkable considering his arrival in 2004, when Sloan was not pleased to see a somewhat more stout version of his new center. After winning the NBA title with the Pistons, Okur got married and signed a six-year, $50-million deal with the Jazz.

He lived a little too comfortably that summer and paid for it right away once practice started.

"The people say get in your shape because you're going to need it, especially with Jerry," Okur said. "I thought I was in shape, but as soon as I saw what we were doing out there, a lot of running stuff, 'Uh oh, I'm in trouble.' "

Okur started only 25 games that first season, even though the Jazz were short-handed through much of it because of injuries. Okur was still the only member of the Jazz to play in all 82 games that season.

Sloan's message registered and Okur came back in better shape. He has started every game since and he still has the stamina to shoot well at the end of games.

"He's been in great shape, and he's able to have success," Sloan said. "You can talk about it all you want, but it's up to him to do it. He's got a wonderful shot. That hasn't changed. He's had that all along."

Growing up in Turkey, Okur wanted to be a soccer player. But when he grew to taller than 6 feet by age 14, it was apparent he might have a better future in basketball. His family persuaded him to try it.

"I scored first shot, so I just kept working," Okur said. "I think I did a good choice to play basketball."

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