As they cleaned out their lockers before heading separate ways for the offseason, veteran Randy Livingston couldn't resist razzing Jazz teammate Kris Humphries one more time.

Humphries and fellow first-year pro Kirk Snyder, Livingston told the two, must bear the burden of a certain tag for some time to come.

"They're still rookies," Livingston joked, "until the (next) regular season. Not the preseason, but the regular season."

Humphries' response? "I don't think so."

The title is one Humphries and Snyder can't shed soon enough.

That is because "the rookies" were a source of consternation for Jerry Sloan, who will factor the reality that he often struggled to get through to the two into the many points he will ponder while deliberating a return to Utah for his 18th season as head coach.

By the just-concluded season's end, Sloan made his frustrations known — sometimes speaking specifically about "the rookies," other times packaging them with others in a broader sub-group dubbed "young guys."

"The hard part," Sloan said at the tail end of a trying 26-56 run, "has been (having) young guys that don't seem to really enjoy playing basketball — unless they have (the ball) in their hands all the time.

"You know, they like to play — as long as they have it in their hands. But when they're not involved, then what do we do?"

Sloan was not alone with his assessment.

"Our young guys," Jazz co-captain Matt Harpring said, "didn't get four years of college, so they need to learn the game."

The rookies — Humphries left the University of Minnesota after just one season to be drafted No. 14 overall, and Snyder spent three seasons at the University of Nevada before Utah took him at No. 16 in the opening round of last June's NBA Draft — do have their defenders.

"I don't know that we can blame them for the season we had," Jazz co-captain Raja Bell said.

"Rookies catch (flak). That's what they do. Anywhere you go, they're going to catch a lot of grief. And some coaches are harder on rookies than others. I don't think it's anything they should become down about, or hang their heads about.

"And there's a bright side to it," Bell added. "They're young guys, they're very talented. Jerry knows that. But you kind of have to set a tone with young guys, and not let them feel like something is being handed to them right off the bat . . . I don't think he was trying to crush anybody's spirits."

The bigger question, though, is just how badly Sloan's spirit has been broken — and if it can be rehabilitated enough to prompt him to want take another shot at making his "young guys" see what he firmly believes is the light.

Humphries, for one, suggests that if the professor indeed returns he will find a student more enlightened as a sophomore than he was as a rookie.

"The NBA is a lot different than college," he said.

"It took a while to understand what we were doing, and make things a habit," Humphries added. "I feel like I can take a lot of the stuff I learned, and improve on it next season."


E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com