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Jeff Withey was an insurance policy.
Now the Jazz are seeing how much coverage he actually provides.
With the Utah Jazz's defensive dynamo Rudy Gobert sidelined indefinitely by a knee injury and the team's ability to stop other teams taking a massive hit in the process coach Quin Snyder inserted the backup big man Withey into the team's starting lineup Thursday night against New Orleans.
The results? The 7-footer chipped in four points, three rebounds and a block in 17 minutes against his old team. It wasn't anything that's going to get him mistaken for Gobert. But Withey did defend the rim in Gobert-esque fashion: The Pelicans converted just one of their eight tries at the hoop with Withey there.
"You don't ever want to get minutes by someone getting hurt," said Withey, a late-summer free agent signing who played his way onto the roster despite not having a fully guaranteed deal at the start of camp. "But when that happens you think, 'It's time to get mentally sharp and just go out there and give it your all and prove to people that you deserve to be on the floor.'"
In limited action, Withey is trying to make his case, but whether he is in line for more minutes remains to be seen. The same goes for when next we'll see him in the starting five.
Snyder said he was not in "experimental mode" but rather "adjustment mode." And the move Thursday helped the Jazz match up against the Pelicans' outsized duo of 6-10 Anthony Davis and 7-foot Omer Asik. Those types of towering front-court duos aren't as regular in the NBA landscape as they once were.
But in starting three different lineups in their last three games, the Jazz still seem to be in search of answers to their defensive woes since losing Gobert. Yes, they have faced stiff Western Conference competition in two close games against the Oklahoma City Thunder and a tough Spurs team in San Antonio (to cap off a brutal stretch of five games in seven nights, no less). But for a team that has prided itself on defending, the Jazz know they have underperformed.
"We're not even close" to where the Jazz want to be defensively speaking, forward Gordon Hayward said after Thursday's 10-point loss to the Pelicans. "Just too many breakdowns. Like I said, just jumping on shot fakes, letting guys go middle, just not really executing our system, and we've got to find a way to do that."
Missing Gobert appears to be a huge part of those problems. So perhaps Withey might be a chance to give the Jazz a more familiar look, putting a shot-blocking center at the rim and letting Derrick Favors slide back to the power forward position.
Snyder isn't buying that it's that simple. "He is a good player and a very active, capable defender," the coach said last week. But, Snyder said, "I'm not sure that necessarily translates, just plugging in Jeff for Rudy. … Jeff has a role and so do our other bigs. There are a lot of directions you can go. I don't think there is anything right now that is screaming this is what we need to do to be better defensively. It is a lot of little things that everybody has to do. As much as I like Jeff, Jeff is not going to erase all of those things."
The Jazz have lost six of their eight games since Gobert went down with a grade-2 MCL sprain, an injury that keeps some players out up to eight weeks. In the two weeks Gobert has missed to date, the Jazz have been the league's fifth-worst defense, allowing more than 111 points per 100 possessions.
Withey, 25, is on his second team in three NBA seasons. His movement on the offensive end of the court can be clunky. Defensively, he's proved to be a good shot blocker in limited action, but he's averaged only 10 minutes a game for his career.
"With Rudy out, I kind of already know my role: to be that guy in the middle, the anchor," Withey said.
Still, he knows he can't simply replace Gobert.
"Coach just wants me to go out there and play as hard as I can and do the little things," Withey said. "He's not expecting me to go out there and average crazy numbers or anything like that."
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Utah Jazz vs. Denver Nuggets
P At Vivint Arena
Tipoff • Friday, 7 p.m.
TV • ROOT Sports
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
About the Jazz • Losers of four straight and desperately missing the defensive presence of center Rudy Gobert, who is out indefinitely with a knee injury. … Beat the Nuggets 96-84 earlier this year in Denver. … Guard Rodney Hood bruised his right knee against the Pelicans and said the injury was "pretty painful," but he went through the Jazz's light practice on Thursday.
About the Nuggets • Come to Salt Lake with a record of 11-14 and having won five of their last six games. … Former Jazzman Randy Foye scored a season-high 19 points Tuesday to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves. … Forward Danilo Gallinari is healthy and leading his team in scoring with 17.5 points a night.