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Jazz waiting to nab a big guy

Utah will gauge interest in as many as a dozen centers

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The waiting game has begun.

With the NBA's free-agency negotiating period under way as of Sunday, and its signing period not open until July 18, all Jazz basketball operations vice president Kevin O'Connor can do now is let those he'd like to lure to Utah know they're wanted men.

What happens after that is largely out of his hands.

"We (will) make calls to a lot of people," said O'Connor, whose club is in the market for a center, especially if free-agent starter Olden Polynice decides to sign elsewhere.

"I'm going to make 10 or 12 calls on big men," O'Connor added Sunday. "What I don't know is what interest those people . . . have."

For that reason, the Jazz's search will be wide-ranging.

It's likely to include at least a call to aging veteran Hakeem Olajuwon, whose fate in Houston seems uncertain. It's likely, too, to include some sort of contact with rookie Marc Jackson, whose Golden State Warriors should match any offer he receives up to about $4.5-million. Then there's Philadelphia's Todd MacCulloch, who is expected to re-sign with the 76ers, and Orlando's John Amaechi, who re-signed with the Magic for one year after getting wooed by the Jazz last offseason, but is now a free agent again.

"The question," O'Connor said, "becomes, 'How do you get them? How do you do it?' "

Payroll and salary-cap realities are such that, beyond re-signing Polynice, the Jazz have limited tools available to them in the free-agent market: a sign-and-trade, the mid-level salary exception (used by teams over the league-imposed cap) and the veteran's minimum.

The veteran's minimum — $1 million or less, depending on years of NBA service — won't buy much.

If Polynice and fellow Jazz free agent Danny Manning do not return, Utah can offer someone else the mid-level exception — expected to fall anywhere from $4.2 million to $4.5 million. That, though, is likely to land little more than a middle-of-the-road player.

Then there's the sign-and-trade possibility, something the Jazz pulled off last season, when they were unable to re-sign their own free-agent, guard Howard Eisley, but were able to help orchestrate a four-team deal in which Eisley signed with Utah before getting shipped to Dallas (making more money than if he had signed directly with the Mavs) and Utah salvaged something in return by acquiring forward Donyell Marshall from Golden State as part of the multi-club, multi-player swap.

"Maybe we got lucky," O'Connor said. "And maybe we'll get lucky again this year? Who knows?"

For now, no one.

Nor does anyone know the certain fate of a couple of other Jazz free agents, namely backup point guard Jacque Vaughn and reserve forward David Benoit.

Neither was expected to be with the team last year, but both were. Neither is expected to be with the team again next year, though O'Connor is ruling nothing out.

"Anything can happen," said O'Connor, whose club does fully expected to re-sign its other free agent, NBA all-time assists leader John Stockton.

"I think the important thing," he added, "is to remember that it's awfully early for anything at all right now."


E-MAIL: tbuckley@desnews.com