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Utah Jazz: California transplants hope to find steady roles in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — Brandon Rush was in a tropical paradise this summer when he found out he’d spend this winter in a state known for its snow.

“I was actually in Hawaii at the time I got traded,” he said. “It kind of ruined my moment.”

It didn’t take long for him to embrace his new situation after being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Utah Jazz in that big, three-team deal this offseason.

“I think it’s what’s best for me. I ended up at a place where there’s a great opportunity for a lot of playing time,” Rush said. “I’m happy where I’m at right now.”

Two other California transplants he still calls teammates — Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins — are probably even happier with their new situations.

News that they’d been dealt to Utah was anything but a vacation spoiler.

“I really like it here,” Biedrins said. “I like the weather. … I really like the snow.”

For Biedrins and Jefferson, the change of scenery sure beats the career fog they were experiencing in the Bay Area.

Last season, the 7-foot Biedrins scored a grand total of 24 points and averaged only 9.3 minutes in 53 appearances for the on-the-rise Warriors. He hasn’t scored more than 5.0 points per game since his double-double season of 2008-09 (11.9 ppg, 11.2 rpg).

“The last couple of years were bad for me and I didn’t play a lot. It’s been great that I’m here,” Biedrins said. “It’s a new chapter in my life. I will do anything what it takes, just to regain myself and be who I was."

The recent drop-off has been even more considerable for Jefferson. The 6-7 small forward only averaged 3.1 points after tallying no less than a nine-points-per-game average in his previous 11 NBA seasons. The 33-year-old averaged a career-high 22.6 points for New Jersey in 2007-08.

On Monday, Jefferson joked that the rough season came about because he was forced to wear No. 44 instead of his preferred No. 24 (which he now sports in Paul Millsap’s absence).

More accurately, Jefferson pointed out that he entered training camp injured in 2012. When his health returned, up-and-comer Harrison Barnes had secured the lion’s share of minutes at their position, forcing the former prolific scorer to take on a mentoring role for playoff-bound Golden State.

“Last year,” Jefferson said, “was a tough year. … I received my first DNP (did not play) in 12 years.”

Rush suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game of the 2012-13 campaign. He’s still rehabbing after having ACL surgery in January and hasn’t been able to fully participate in training camp. It’s not clear when he’ll be able to go at full speed, but it’s likely he’ll split a chunk of minutes with Alec Burks at the shooting guard spot.

“He’s a great shooter and he’s a great competitor,” Jefferson said of Rush. “He’s a very good defender, but again it’s going to be awhile before he’s himself.”

It might take awhile for Biedrins and Jefferson to establish their roles on a team that is admittedly in a youth movement.

“They seem to relish the moment,” Corbin said of the traded Warriors. “They all come in with their positive attitude about working to earn a spot with this team and to be effective for us in whatever role that is for them here.”

Biedrins is young enough (27 years old) that he still has time to re-establish himself as a presence in the paint despite the tailspin he’s been in the past few years. Rush has proved to be a reliable 3-point shooter and defender. And Jefferson is hoping his improved health and fresh start will push him back into NBA relevance.

Even if they don’t provide any substantial contributions on the court, the three players’ contracts are helping the Jazz. With all of its likely starters on rookie contracts and the bigger salaries of Al Jefferson, Mo Williams and Paul Millsap in the past, Utah needed to increase its financial output to meet minimum requirements for the payroll. That certainly happened. Jefferson is the highest-paid Jazz player this year with an $11 million salary, while Biedrins is set to bring in $9 million and Rush $4 million. Trading for three guys in the last year of their contracts also gives the Jazz flexibility in the 2014 offseason to structure extensions, sign different free agents and/or broker more deals in an effort to make the franchise a “championship contender,” to use the front office’s oft-repeated optimistic phrase.

The ex-Warriors and Jazz coaching staff, however, are hoping to make themselves much more useful than just being contract pawns in this rebuilding chess game.

Corbin sounds like he’s more than willing to give them that chance, too. He credited Richard Jefferson for coming to camp in great shape, going hard in drills and “being the true pro that he is.”

“I’m just looking to contribute in any way,” Jefferson said. “Hopefully, it’s on the court. If not, it’s going to be mentoring some guys, whether it’s Gordon (Hayward), whether it’s Alec, whoever it is. I just want to contribute.”

Same goes for Biedrins, whom Corbin said “has been great” early on in training sessions and in unofficial workouts leading up to camp.

Both incoming veterans are very complimentary of the younger guys in their positions, and they believe they can be productive players with consistent minutes.

“Whatever coach will give me opportunity, I’ll do my best and give my 100 percent. If it’s going to be 10 minutes or five or 15, I’ll accept any role he has for me,” Biedrins said. “I still need to work a lot to get my confidence back, but it’s a good start. It’s a fresh start. It’s been great.”

Imagine how excited he’ll be when the snow arrives for good.

Just don’t mention that part about Utah winters to Rush. Especially if he’s in Hawaii.