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Devin Harris knew exactly what was coming.

As soon as the Jazz point guard walked onto the court Friday morning to warm up for practice, Harris picked up a ball and smiled.

Bring it on, the grin said. Fire away. I'm ready.

The questions poured in. What was it like playing with Josh Howard in Dallas? Did the Jazz dig for dirt when they asked you about his background? What makes the controversial small forward tick?

Harris didn't budge. Was Howard guilty of being too truthful and too direct during his shadiest Mavericks days? Sure. Did he occasionally mess up and cross the line? Of course.

But that was then, this is now. Harris said the 31-year-old Howard is a good, hard-working teammate who loves what he does for a living. More importantly, the once-bad kid is a "good dude."

"Obviously he's got some things in his past, and I thought he'd matured since then and I thought he was a player who could really help us," Harris said. "He's coming off an injury the last couple of years with a knee, but I've been working out with him in the summer and know he's fully back. I thought he's a guy who could really help this team and take us to the next level."

Which is the same reason Jazz General Manager Kevin O'Connor placed a bet on Howard. If the eight-year veteran pays off, he's a one-year steal for Utah.

Like Jazz trainer Gary Briggs and strength coach Mark McKown, O'Connor lived through the 1998-99 lockout. He knows what's coming: a compressed schedule, chaotic travel, injuries, frustration and exhaustion.

While many NBA teams are still piecing together an incomplete roster, the Jazz are overloaded — 18 players are fighting for a final cut that'll likely top out at 13-15. Technically, Howard's addition was just one more tweak to a team hoping to blend experience with youth, find a little luck, and shoot out to a fast start via a soft January schedule. But Howard's signing could represent a sea change for the small-market Jazz, as they mix and match with the goal of winning games while simultaneously building for the future.

"When we sat down and spoke to each other we tried to be honest with him about what it was and what it wasn't," O'Connor said. "I said, 'You write down the names that we've got and you see if there's an opportunity. You understand what we're going to do. We're not into giving [up] a season and playing young kids. We're into winning, and that's why I'm here sitting with you.' "

Howard is seeking redemption, attempting to bounce back from two off years in Washington some thought marked the slow decline of his once-promising career. O'Connor acknowledged Howard is rusty and out of rhythm.

But with the rest of the NBA also creaking along, the Jazz believe Howard can be up to speed by the time Harris, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson are leading Utah to early-season victories.

"He was teasing me," O'Connor said. "He said, 'You still running autos?' I said, 'Yeah, we're gonna run some of that version of it.' He said, 'God, that was tough to defend.' So he understands and knows our system a little bit."

As for any lingering issues from Howard's past, everyone from Raja Bell and Earl Watson to coach Tyrone Corbin said the veteran will receive a clean slate as soon as he puts on a Jazz uniform.

Why trust what you read in the newspaper or see on ESPN's "SportsCenter" about someone's personal life, Bell wondered.

Watson said he heard nothing but horror stories about All-NBA guard Gary Payton before he joined him in Seattle. Then Watson "only saw the best" in The Glove.

"The main thing for [Howard's] situation is he's coming to a team that's really high on character," Watson said. "So it's kind of like follow the leader, so to speak. It's kind of hard to steer this team in a different direction without standing out, without feeling uncomfortable, without being called out. At the end of the day, we all want to win."

bsmith@sltrib.comTwitter: —

Jazz at Portland

preseason opener Monday 8 p.m.


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