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Donyell Marshall wouldn't be where he is -- the latest great hope to be the missing piece in the Jazz's championship combo -- without Karl Malone lobbying for his acquisition and John Stockton pushing for him to start. But his deeper transformation from Warrior millstone to Jazz keystone started a couple of seasons ago in Oakland when Marquis Marshall, then 4, innocently asked, "Daddy, how come you never play when I go to the games?" Marshall's voice still drops at the memory. "I didn't have an answer because there wasn't one," he says. "All I knew was I didn't ever want him to ask me that again."

Marquis probably won't. Utah's collectively dull off-court lifestyle and sharp on-court execution have awakened the skills that the T-Wolves saw when they made Donyell the fourth pick in '94. At the same time, his long reach and long-overlooked hoops IQ have given the Jazz a pick-and-roll counterpunch that has rekindled title hopes. Push Stockton to the baseline and cut off the kickback pass to Malone, and you've got Donyell slicing through the lane for a backdoor dunk. "I knew Donyell would love it there because he knows the game, and he's athletic," says Adam Keefe, who regretfully replaced Marshall in Oakland in the three-way trade that also sent Howard Eisley to the Mavs.

Malone endorsed the deal, then made sure this would be the first year Marshall didn't just play his way into shape by turning Donyell on to his weight-training regimen. "I couldn't lift my arms over my head after the first day," Marshall recalls. "I haven't worked with Karl since, but I still lift because he'd kill me if I didn't."

While Marshall still packs a paunch, he's reduced his body fat from 17% to 9% and his weight from 245 pounds to 227. The Jazz practice early, so he's working out by 9 a.m. (With the Warriors, he didn't get out of bed until 10.) Now, when he attends afternoon birthday parties with his live-in girlfriend, Leea, and her three kids, he tries to keep away from the cake and ice cream.

Teammates and opponents have noticed the change. Ten games into the season, Stockton was telling Marshall not to settle for a sub's role. Six weeks later, he was in the first five to stay. With Marshall starting and averaging 18.8 ppg and 9.6 rpg in 36 mpg, Utah is 19-4, including a 94-90 comeback win over the Kings on national TV.

Marshall has been so impressive that coach Jerry Sloan has actually considered posting him up at crunchtime instead of going to the Malone/Stockton pick-and-roll. "You need somebody to set a tone," says Sloan. "And he has done that."

Nice assist, Marquis.

Ric Bucher is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail

This article appears in the March 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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