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Al Jefferson was in the ninth grade the first time he saw Mo Williams play. Williams was the star senior at Murrah High School in Jackson, Miss., and Jefferson, who grew up an hour away in Prentiss, wanted to catch a glimpse.
"I thought he was the best player in the world," Jefferson said.
In the first week of training camp, much has already been made of Williams' return to Utah, where he spent his rookie season in 2003-04. Perhaps the key to the team's chemistry, however, is the preexisting relationship between Williams and Jefferson.
Even before the Jazz acquired Williams in a four-team trade in June, the two trained together in Jackson and ran an annual two-day camp for elite high school players in Mississippi.
Much has changed in the eight years since Williams left Utah, both for the veteran point guard and the Jazz. The franchise has reassembled its once-stable roster, and rebuilt it around players such as Jefferson. As for Williams, he has spent a career as a starter around the NBA, playing next to stars such as LeBron James and Chris Paul.
"As a rookie," Williams said, "I was happy to just get five minutes a game, or even to get on the court. I was just happy to be in the NBA. Now it's more of an experienced aspect and trying to win a championship."
This summer, Jazz coach Ty Corbin flew to Jackson to visit Jefferson and Williams, one of three key offseason acquisitions for the Jazz.
Corbin coached Williams with the Jazz summer league team in 2004, his first with team, less than two months before Williams signed an offer sheet with Milwaukee. Beyond that fleeting introduction, the two needed to feel each other out.
In the Mississippi heat and humidity, they played golf.
"One thing about being on the golf course," Williams said, "you get the opportunity to step outside the box and talk about things outside basketball. So we got an opportunity to just talk to each other. Who are you? Who am I?"
Corbin won that day and Williams admitted he remains winless in three rounds against his new coach. But it opened the dialogue between two men expected to guide the Jazz into whatever their future holds.
"He's learning what I'm asking for from the guys and from himself and the other leaders on this team," Corbin said. "He's a talker; it will help us going forward."
By the end of the team's first practice on Tuesday, Williams was on his way to establishing himself within the Jazz's structure.
"He's aggressive, he's vocal," veteran guard Earl Watson said. "He plays with a lot of energy. You can see that through his actions and his facial expressions. To me, I like that, because that's how I play. To me, that's a piece that we need."
Williams will turn 30 in December, and enters the season as the presumptive starting point guard.
He returns to a starting role after backing up Chris Paul last season with the Clippers. Williams came off the bench in 52 games last season, after starting all but five of the games he played in the previous six seasons.
"It was tough at first, Williams said. "I think overall it helped me become a better leader because I can speak to guys that may be in a position I was in last year and how to handle it."
But Williams was eager for a larger role. He said, "Once I can't stay in front of somebody and all I can do is shoot 3s, I'll be happy to play 10 minutes a game."
Mo Williams file
Age • 29 Position • Guard
How acquired • As part of a four-team trade, in which the Jazz sent their trade exception to Dallas and the Clippers received Lamar Odom from the Mavericks.
Career • Drafted No. 47 overall by the Jazz in 2003 NBA Draft. … Played in Utah, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Los Angeles before being traded back to Jazz. … Was an All-Star in 2009. … Has career averages of 13.8 points and 4.9 assists per game.
Jazz notes • Veteran guard Jamaal Tinsley fights through pain to earn playing time. > D2