Utah Jazz: Hair just the first change for Fes

Newly blond center eager to improve his game in all-important second year under watchful Sloan
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It's safe to say that the first time he saw the new-look Kyrylo Fesenko over the weekend, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan didn't exactly feel as if he'd dyed and gone to heaven.

Fesenko returned to town for the Rocky Mountain Revue with blond hair, apparently forgetting he plays for a no-nonsense coach who doesn't even allow his players to wear headbands.

Although he was able to joke about Fesenko - "I didn't know who he was. I was totally taken aback by the blond hair" - Sloan clearly would have preferred his 21-year-old center call attention to himself with his play on the court instead of the coloring in his hair.

"He's got a long way to go to make himself a better player," Sloan said. "He has skills, but sometimes the outside things will take you right out of this game. If those things are more important than basketball, that's where you get in trouble."

"A lot of people have skills," Sloan added. "A lot of them are sitting on the sidewalk wondering what happened 20 years ago when they had a chance. He's got to figure out what he wants to do and play basketball or be a clown."

Fesenko said he dyed his hair a month ago in Ukraine. His mother liked it but told him not to keep it. As for Sloan's thoughts, Fesenko paused before answering: "He like it. Some way. He like it some way. But you have to ask him."

A second-round draft pick, Fesenko played in only nine games with the Jazz as a rookie, spending much of last season in the NBA Development League. He also has competition from another 7-footer in Ohio State center Kosta Koufos, the Jazz's first-round pick in last month's draft.

"I think this is a really important summer for me, probably the most important summer," said Fesenko, who went home to Ukraine after the season and then spent two weeks working out at the IMG Academy in Florida.

"I have to play right now because my contract over at the end of this season and I have to make the team, so I will try to play 100 percent, I will try to do everything what coaches expect me to do and just hope the Utah Jazz win."

The Jazz made a nearly $3 million investment in Fesenko last summer - between the three-year, $2.4 million contract he signed and the $500,000 buyout paid to his Ukrainian team - and are certainly expecting more than just a new dye job this season.

"I didn't even recognize him," guard Morris Almond said. "I was like, 'I guess he's going for the Backstreet Boys look.' If that's hot in Ukraine, that's hot in Ukraine. But over here, I wasn't feeling that too much."

After sharing in the blame whenever Fesenko was late last season, Almond joked about wanting to make sure he wasn't around when Sloan saw the blond Fesenko for the first time Sunday.

"I want no part of that," Almond said. "I want no part of that."

There were signs of improvement Monday with Fesenko. After struggling during the first Revue practice last year, Fesenko said he breezed through things this time around. Sloan noted that Fesenko was in better shape and that his attention span seemed longer.

Now the Jazz are facing the challenge of developing both Fesenko and the 19-year-old Koufos at the same time. "I think it'll certainly get Fes' attention a little bit," assistant coach Tyrone Corbin said of the Jazz's newest draft choice.

The Jazz expect Fesenko and Koufos to play together at times, with Fesenko at center and Koufos taking advantage of his three-point shooting and driving as a power forward. Koufos also will play center, with the Jazz having two other big men in Hiram Fuller and Kevin Lyde on their summer roster.

There is the question, meanwhile, of whether Fesenko and Koufos will think of each other as teammates, as competition or a little of both.

"We view ourselves as teammates," Koufos said. "Obviously, we wear the same jersey. We're just here to work hard and make ourselves better."

Fesenko said he welcomed the competition, which he described as inevitable even between teammates who were the best of friends.

"You always have to compete," Fesenko said. "You always have to prove something. You always have to show that you are better. But still, I like him. I like him a lot."