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Jazz thankful for man from Turkey

Okur has emerged as go-to guy in wake of mounting injuries

On Thanksgiving Day, it's safe to say the Jazz had no one to appreciate more for their six wins this season than, go figure, a big man from Turkey.

With Carlos Boozer sidelined since training camp with a strained hamstring and Andrei Kirilenko missing the past half-dozen games with a sprained ankle, Mehmet Okur has emerged as a go-to guy meriting special mention from teammates and special attention from opponents.

"Right now," said Kirilenko, who played his first and only NBA All-Star Game two seasons ago, "he's at All-Star level."

In the Jazz's last outing, a 93-87 win at Seattle on Tuesday, Sonics coach Bob Weiss assigned burly Reggie Evans to guard Okur late in the game and asked for one particular thing from his club's defense.

"Okur was the only guy we didn't want getting open on the outside," Weiss said. "Everybody else we wanted to beat us from the outside."

So what does Okur do?

The native of Yalova, Turkey, merely finished with 24 points, including 3-of-3 shooting from 3-point range.

The last of Okur's trio of treys that night came with just one minute and 26 seconds remaining, extending Utah's dwindling advantage back to a safe six points.

Two games prior, Memphis coach Mike Fratello put relentless defender Shane Battier on Okur — whom Fratello said is "having a tremendous season" — and held him to an off 13-point night.

More often than not lately, though, Okur's had an answer for whatever teams toss at him.

"I'm rolling right now from outside," he said, "because I'm feeling good.

"If they don't (guard) me, I'm gonna be there," Okur added. "If they double me, I try to find my teammates wide open and just pass the ball."

He is averaging 19.8 points — nearly seven more than his career-high 12.9 from a season ago, seven more than next-closest Deron Williams this season and nearly eight more than Kirilenko averaged in seven games before getting hurt.

Only twice in 13 outings this season, in fact, has Okur scored in single digits.

Both times the Jazz lost.

In one of Utah's other five losses, Nov. 12 at Chicago, he posted not only a season-high 17 rebounds but also a career-high 33 points.

In each of the Jazz's six victories, Okur has scored at least 16 and he has seven games with 23 or more. After he scored 29, including 14 in the fourth quarter, with 12 boards in a win at Toronto, Jalen Rose of the Raptors called it "a monster game."

Yet the 6-foot-11 Turk has a pretty shooting stroke for a big man, and relies on a well-rounded approach as potent on the perimeter as inside.

"It gives us a great weapon because he can shoot the ball out there," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "Teams know they have to go out there and guard him."

Okur is shooting 50.5 percent from the field, and his 54.1 percent average on 20-of-37 from behind the 3-point line is a whopping 16 percent better than next-closest starting shooting guard Gordan Giricek.

"The simple fact Memo is a guy that can step out there at the 5 position (center) with a 5 man guarding him — that's a great asset to us," Sloan said. "It was always that way when we had Antoine Carr (in the mid-to-late 1990s) that played out on the perimeter, and we had Karl Malone who could inside or outside as well.

"That was a great complement — because now you can have a little more freedom in there to do what you want."

Accordingly, Okur has a virtual green light wherever he plays these days.

"Anybody that can shoot over 50 percent," Sloan said, "I have to find him a place to shoot."

It's not just Okur's scoring that impresses, either.

He also is averaging a team-high 8.5 boards per game, one more than last season and 2.7 more this season than next-closest starting center Greg Ostertag.

He has four double-digit rebounding games, and a team-leading four point-board double-doubles.

One of those came against the Jazz's opponent tonight, when on Nov. 4 at Golden State he scored 23 and pulled down 14 rebounds in Utah's 91-85 win over the Warriors.

"A year ago, he couldn't do that," Sloan said. "I'm happy for him, because he's put a lot of hard work into it."

As the Jazz have traveled from one NBA city to another — eight of their first 13 games so far have been on the road, and tonight's opens a stretch with 8-of-9 at home — Sloan has harped on how Okur's physical conditioning is vastly superior compared to a season ago.

But there's more to his decidedly improved play.

"Probably some percent is about his shape," Kirilenko said. "But, I think, most important he has adjusted to the team.

"He didn't know last season (his first in Utah after two years in Detroit) what Coach Sloan wants from him, team. Right now, he knows everything. He feels comfortable with the city, with the team, with the coach, with the whole organization, the fans. He just feels more involved."


E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com