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Favoring Utah: Beehive State becoming home, sweet home for Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors

SALT LAKE CITY — Upon returning from Team USA’s minicamp in Las Vegas, Derrick Favors bought a house in the mountains above his NBA workplace this past weekend.

The largest purchase of the 22-year-old’s life included his only two must-have amenities: a finished basement and a movie theater.

It also has plenty of room for his pit bull, Gotti, to roam free.

Considering the 6-foot-10 power forward is a major part of the Jazz’s youthful renaissance and has an opportunity to sign a large contract extension this offseason, buying a home in Utah is a symbolic move.

Salt Lake City is far from Favors’ hometown of Atlanta — in multiple ways.

But 2 1/2 years after he was traded to the Beehive State in the Deron Williams deal, the capital of Jazzland continues to win over this Southerner’s heart.

“There’s still work to do, but it’s starting to feel like home,” Favors said of Utah. “I’m starting to get comfortable. I’m just excited for my opportunity.”

Favors has been waiting for that opportunity since he left Georgia Tech after his freshman season in 2010.

The No. 3 pick four drafts ago just never would have imagined it would take a few years — or that it’d happen in Utah.

A new home

It wasn’t too long ago when Favors knew approximately two things about the Beehive State (and the state’s nickname was not one of them).

When he was a 19-year-old Nets rookie, he was somewhat familiar with the Jazz because, well, that comes with the territory of being an NBA player.

The second thing Favors knew was that on Feb. 23, 2011, he was following in the footsteps of Karl Malone to play in a place that was as unfamiliar to him as Uruguay. (He’d actually played at EnergySolutions Arena once in the fall of 2010 — grabbing nine rebounds in a 10-point loss to Utah — but the November visit was so nondescript he doesn’t recall ever coming to Salt Lake City before he was traded with Devin Harris and draft picks.)

“I knew nothing about Utah. Nothing at all,” Favors said. “Down South, they don’t talk that much about Utah.”

The Atlanta native hopes to change that with the help of young Jazz teammates Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Alec Burks, Trey Burke and Co.

“We’re building on something new now. We want to continue the tradition,” Favors said. “We just want to keep winning.”

And he wants that a lot.

Playing to win

Truth be known, Favors won’t be satisfied with his career until his team wins the last game of the NBA postseason.

The big question surrounding the athletic big man this summer revolves around how much money he’ll make over the course of the next four or five seasons in Utah. Will he be a max player? Will Utah wait until next offseason to re-sign him?

While he’s letting his agent deal with contract talk with Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey, Favors is focusing on trying to get rings instead of dollar bills.

“If I don’t get nothing else out of my career, I want to win a championship,” Favors said. “I’ve got goals of being an All-Star. At the end of my career, I want to give that speech — that Hall of Fame speech. That’s one of my biggest goals. But if I don’t get any of those, I at least want to win a championship.”

By the way, Favors went to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., with his South Atlanta High School team, the 2009 Georgia Class 3A state champion, but he’s never actually heard one of the enshrinement speeches.

“I don’t want to listen to one,” he said. “The first one I listen to, I want it to be mine.”

Even so, Favors has gotten an earful from someone who has delivered an emotion-filled Hall of Fame speech. So far this offseason, the fourth-year pro has worked out twice with Malone, who’s added part-time Jazz big man coach to his lengthy resume.

“They’ve been intense,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said of the Malone-Favors workouts. “They’ve been really good for both guys.”

Malone’s return to the Jazz organization has been well-publicized. One of the more interesting aspects of the coach Mailman situation is that Favors reached out to management about getting in contact with the NBA’s all-time second-leading scorer.

“I was just at home thinking, ‘Karl Malone played here. Why not?’” Favors said. “I (thought) the worst they can do is just say, ‘No, he can’t come.’ I just asked to see if they can make it happen. I didn’t expect to work out with him. I just wanted to talk, pick his brain or whatever, but we started working out with each other.”

Jazz brass — already impressed by Favors’ willingness to improve on many levels, including in media interviews — was thrilled to accommodate him once Malone agreed to the arrangement.

“It really shows that he wants to work to get better,” Corbin said. “He wants to (learn from) the guys that played the position, like Karl, and understand how to get the knowledge and help his game grow, especially on the offensive end.”

Favors tweaked his back during his USA Basketball participation last week and is taking a week off from his arduous summer training, but he hopes to get in more sessions with Malone this offseason, perhaps even in Ruston, La.

If nothing else, it’s helped him get into prime condition.

“This might sound crazy,” Favors said, “but the hardest thing was getting ready to work out with him because he wanted me to be in shape, be ready before he got there.”

While Favors continues to work on his mid-range jumper and refines a go-to move or two in the post — something that will come with increased playing time, he believes — the young big said Malone has given him great ideas.

What he’s learned most: “how to approach the game, how to outthink your opponent, just all those mental things.”

Favors smiled while admitting he beat Malone in a game of H-O-R-S-E — “He don’t want me to tell nobody” — but he admiringly described the recently turned 50-year-old as a “still strong guy.”

“I think,” he added, “he could come out here and still hold his own."

Leading the youth movement

Favors knows he’ll need to more than hold his own, mentally and physically, now that Paul Millsap has headed to his backup’s childhood home to play for the Hawks and Al Jefferson has signed with Charlotte.

That was the message they each had for Favors on their way out of Utah: “They both just told me, ‘It’s (your) team now; it’s time to take over; do your thing out there. You’ve been learning from us the past two or three years; now it’s time to play.’”

To sum up Favors’ reaction to that sentiment: FINALLY!

The beginning of his NBA career was filled with a hope for quickly establishing himself in the league and the dreaded anticipation of being traded, something that was rumored for much of his rookie season leading up to that midseason deal.

“I was just waiting for my chance to prove myself,” Favors said.

After being dealt to Utah, Favors’ first thought was, “Utah. Wow.” Once he arrived in Utah, he quickly discovered that the Jazz had two veteran big men — Millsap and Jefferson — who led the team in scoring and minutes played.

Less wow. More waiting.

“It was frustrating at first,” he admitted. “Then I had to sit down and just realize that these two guys are good and I’ve just got to learn as much as I can from them, but it was frustrating at first.”

In 2011, Favors began the lockout-shortened season as the starting power forward ahead of Millsap. That, however, lasted two games before he returned to a reserve role that continued through the 2012-13 campaign.

That meant more waiting for the young man hoping to win a championship and become an All-Star and Hall of Famer.

On one hand, Favors understood. He even admitted, “I knew Paul was better than me.” But the Olympic team candidate and 2012 NBA “Rising Star” selection likes sitting on the bench about as much as he enjoyed the lower-back injury that left him feeling “mad as hell” and spoiled his Team USA scrimmage in Vegas last Thursday.

“I still keep it with me as motivation, just deep down in me as motivation,” said Favors, who's averaged 8.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 23.4 minutes per game in his first three seasons.

“I was thankful and blessed to play behind (Millsap and Jefferson) because those two (were) great guys and I learned a lot from them, but I still use it as motivation. … I’m not going to let that happen to me again.”

This won’t come as a shock to fans familiar with Corbin’s tendency to play veterans over younger guys, but the Jazz coach believes Favors’ career will benefit from biding his time behind Millsap.

“I think it’s always helped guys to have to earn whatever they get,” Corbin said. “They don’t like it, but the ones who use it right as motivation and continue to work, I think it can be a great thing for them going down the road.”

Corbin smiled when asked about that chip on the shoulder of Favors, who only has 44 starts so far. He knows his young player isn’t a malcontent, and he likes that he’s not satisfied with sitting on the bench.

“He’s shown tremendous dedication about what we’ve talked about,” Corbin said after watching Favors in Las Vegas with Team USA last week. “He’s been in Salt Lake more. He’s starting to work earlier and harder during the offseason to get ready for the next year.”

Corbin credited Favors for “showing growth” since the Jazz ended their second non-playoff season in three years April 17.

“He’s doing all of the things that we need him to do to show that he deserves more time. That’s what we want,” the coach said. “He’s going to have an opportunity now to get a lot more time and he wants to be ready for it. He’s doing the things to give himself a chance to be successful.”

Favors is committed to help those around him be successful, too. One thing he focused on during his national experience in Vegas was being a vocal leader on the defensive end, and he could be heard barking out orders in UNLV’s Mendenhall Center during scrimmages.

The Jazz have asked him — and Hayward — to take on a leadership role and he’s eager to seize it. That might seem like it’s against his nature, especially considering Hayward still laughs about how quiet Favors was when he first arrived in Utah.

“He didn’t talk ever,” Hayward said. “You basically had to do everything you could to get him to say, “What’s up?” to you.”

Hayward said his teammate has opened up and is fun to be around now, but Favors, who can be as quiet off the court as he is powerful on it, doesn’t deny clamming up in the beginning.

“When I first got here in Utah, I was just overwhelmed with everything,” he said. “I didn’t feel like talking with nobody. I didn’t feel like hanging with nobody. I just wanted to hurry up and get the season over and go home. As the years went on, I opened up a lot more.”

Now he’s downright crazy around his teammates, right?

“Give me a couple of years,” Hayward said, grinning, “and I’ll get back to you on that.”

Jazz teammates and fans can expect to see and hear more from Favors in the future.

“I’m not going to be uncomfortable doing it,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I’m not scared to talk and say what I need to say. It’s just if I have to, I’ll do it.”

Favors’ little brother can attest to that.

Neither of them have had their dads in their lives — Favors has never met his dad, in fact — but the maturing Jazz player has taken on a long-distance role as a father figure for the 13-year-old. He doesn’t call him in Atlanta every two or three hours like his caring mom, Deandra, calls Favors and his two siblings. But he definitely keeps tabs on Brandon from the other side of the country.

“I’m real close to him. I’m more of a male role (model) with him — the older, big brother role,” he said. “I’ve got to go there and make sure his head is on straight, make sure he’s doing good. I make sure he’s doing school. I make sure he keeps his room clean. It’s hard right now, but we’re working on it.”

Best interests at heart

In a different supervisory role, Favors is also looking after the best interests of his favorite animal — the pit bull puppy he bought in April. He had to set some house rules with his girlfriend when she dressed Gotti up in a fluorescent green shirt.

“I was so mad. It was a regular doggie shirt,” he said, shaking his head while cracking a smile. He told his thoughtful-but-misguided girlfriend, “Don’t buy my pit bull no shirt. Let him be a pit bull.”

For the record, Gotti now has a new friend who gets dressed up and treated like a baby — a gorki called Rocky, owned by Favors’ girlfriend.

Before his new experiences of taking care of others, Favors looked up to the 17-year-olds he played with as a 14-year-old on his AAU team, the Atlanta Celtics. It was the honest and open leadership provided to him by his coach from that traveling squad that still resonates.

Favors appreciates that coach Jamar Stegall, who used to call the talented player “The Package,” continues to offer constructive criticism to this day. It’s an example the 2009 Mr. Basketball USA hopes to emulate with the rebuilding Jazz.

“He’s always in my ear — whether things are going good or going bad — motivating me. He’s not afraid to tell me anything,” Favors said. “He tells me if I’m not doing right. If I’m not working hard, he’ll tell me. You need people like that. If you’re slacking off, you need somebody to say, ‘Hey man, you need to get your (butt) up and go to the gym.’”

More than ever, Favors realizes that devotion and continual self-motivation are critical to his long-term goals. Now that he’s a few months from the golden opportunity that he’s waited for so long, Favors recognizes it’s on him to be a hard worker, a defensive beast, a reliable offensive presence and a solid leader for his teammates to get that chance someday to hold the NBA’s Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.

And Favors believes he will.

“I feel like inside I’ve got the heart to do it,” the soft-spoken-but-convincing Favors said. “I’ve got the ambition to do it, and I really want to win before my career’s over with.”

Utah doesn’t have good Southern cooking like he’ll find at his favorite Atlanta restaurant, Mary Mac’s Tea Room. He’s also aware the NBA is a business, so who really knows where his career will take him.

But, for now, the new homeowner can envision Utah being his unlikely home-away-from-home for years to come.

“I hope so,” he said. “I don’t want to move again.”