The Importance of Veteran Leadership

Photo: Melissa Majchrzak NBAE/Getty ImagesPhoto: Melissa Majchrzak NBAE/Getty Images

Winning games in professional sports is a lot easier when a team has veteran players.

Most young teams struggle their first few years together, the Oklahoma City Thunder being a prime example.

The Thunder were still the Super Sonics when Kevin Durant was drafted into the league, and Seattle posted a franchise-worst record of 22-60.  Russell Westbrook was drafted after the team relocated to Oklahoma City, and even with Westbrook the Thunder struggled to win games.

A year after moving to Oklahoma, the newly-christened Thunder finally made a playoff push. In the 2009-10 season, Oklahoma City went 50-32, and aside from an early playoff exit last season, the Thunder have remained in the thick of things in the Western Conference.

Aside from having a transcendent player in Durant, the Thunder now have experience on their side as well. Durant is beginning his seventh year, while Westbrook is in his sixth. They know how to win, and they’ve played on the biggest stage basketball has to offer, losing to the Heat in the Finals two years ago.

So how did Durant and Westbrook learn the tricks of the NBA trade? Losing games together is always a learning experience, but on top of that, both players had veteran leaders to help show them the ropes. Durant had Nick Collison, Eddie Gill, Donyell Marshall, Wally Szczerbiak, and Kurt Thomas in his rookie year to help him along.

Superstars don’t usually need a lot of help transitioning to the NBA, but the principle here is the same. If Durant had been thrust into a situation where he was expected to play in the NBA with little-to-no veteran leadership, who’s to say how much longer it would have taken Durant to learn the best ways to apply his skills in this league.

This is where the topic of veteran leadership directly ties into the Jazz.  This season the young Jazz roster is lucky to have a good group of veterans who honestly care about helping young players succeed in this league.

Richard Jefferson’s efforts in particular have been very noticeable, and he knows that his presence makes a difference in the locker room for the likes of Trey Burke, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, and Enes Kanter.

“It’s important to have a good mix of players on a team but veterans like Marvin and John and myself have been around a little bit so we can help the young guys prepare,” Jefferson said.

Helping the young guys has been a key theme in the locker room this season for Jefferson, although he doesn’t see it as any kind of a duty.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a duty as much as it’s something I want to do.  I’ve played this game for a long time and enjoy helping and teaching the young guys,” Jefferson said.

Having Jefferson’s experience, along with that of Marvin Williams and John Lucas III, has been a huge help to the younger players on this team, who constitute the future of basketball in Salt Lake City.

“They always help us on and off the court…we all listen to them, as a young group we listen to Rich, Gordon, and Marvin and all those older guys who have been here and have been through the fire. We just keep listening to them and we’ll get better,” said  Diante Garrett after a tough home loss the the Toronto Raptors at home Monday night.

“I think it’d be real tough if we didn’t have too many people we could come talk too at tough times, and I’m glad we got em here,” Garrett added.

Certainly, the wealth of experience and basketball knowledge the veterans bring to the team this year is probably a large part of why the younger talent has been able to excel. Another thing to bear in mind is that, in the NBA, veteran players are still young. Williams is only 27 years old, but he’s definitely a veteran leader on this Jazz team.

With their own rookie years not far behind them, it’s a lot easier for the veterans to relate to new and incoming players. Burke was asked about the role that Williams has specifically played as a mentor this season.

“I just try to learn things from guys like [Marvin] because they’ve been in my shoes, they’ve been rookies before. There’s a lot I can definitely gain from being around him,” Burke said.

Veteran leadership is the key aspect of a successful team, and always will be. Most successful coaches at any level are a bit older – they’ve been through the works, they’ve been tried and tested, and know what it takes to help guide a team to victory.  The young players in Utah this season are lucky to have such great veterans who are able and willing to help teach them the NBA game.

Hopefully, in the years to come, Utah’s young players will be able to return the favor to the new young guys.

Spencer is an avid sports fan and fisherman. He’s a lover of classic rock and Sundays filled with football. You can find him on Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant
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