SALT LAKE CITY — For Danny Ainge, Justin Zanik and Will Hardy, the construction of the Utah Jazz into an eventual championship contender is still very much a work in progress. With media day arriving Monday, a flight to Hawaii later that afternoon and training camp commencing on Tuesday, nobody really knows who’s going to be the point guard once opening night rolls around.
Then, there are three first-round rookies to work into the mix, a ton of expiring contracts on the roster and significant skill set overlap in some areas on a team that is still somewhat a giant lump of clay waiting to be molded.
This Utah Jazz team projects to be big and athletic and to have one of the better frontcourts in the league. There are also more answers in what is Year 2 of Hardy’s tenure than there were last season when nobody truly knew what to expect. Hardy promises training camp to resemble, in a metaphoric sense, of course, a version of “The Hunger Games.”
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We can see why he would say that. The battle for the starting point guard job is five players deep. Newly acquired power forward John Collins projects as a starter and has been a starter-level player for his entire career. But Kelly Olynyk played well in that role last season, and his fit with star forward Lauri Markkanen is nearly perfect. The roster’s depth dictates that someone with NBA rotation-level ability is going to be left out of the rotation.
On Friday morning, Hardy and Zanik acknowledged the knots that need to be worked out, and they know those knots won’t all be worked out by the end of a preseason slate that begins in less than two weeks. Still, at Utah’s practice facility, the air of optimism was palpable, a feeling that should spill into next week once practice begins.
“Our goal as a staff is to figure out how this group fits together,” Hardy said. “We have new pieces and new roles, and we are going to try and take this team at face value. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to go out there and try and win every night. We know this team will play hard and fight hard and compete.”
What the Jazz have going for them is rather obvious. Last season, Markkanen developed into one of the best small forwards in the league, an efficient scorer who doesn’t need to dominate the basketball to do his business offensively. Markkanen being able to operate without the ball helps Jordan Clarkson, a scorer who needs the ball in his hands. Add in Collins, and Utah’s starting group figures to have three guys who can get you 20 points on any given night. That kind of offensive firepower will help the Jazz during the regular season.
Walker Kessler broke out as a defensive stalwart toward the end of his rookie year and projects as one of the best rim protectors in the league. His length and athleticism, combined with Markkanen’s similar attributes, made Utah imposing up front. There were nights where opposing teams were overwhelmed physically by what the Jazz can put out up front with Kessler, Markkanen, Collins and Olynyk. Clarkson had his best season offensively, became more of a playmaker to supplement his ability to score and forced defenses to respect him more as an all-around offensive threat.
Hardy won’t say so, but at minimum, those five are going to lead the Jazz on most nights, whether or not they all make the starting lineup. They are the core of the team. And they are the five Hardy and Zanik will lean on for leadership on and off the floor.
“The character of the entire group is really high,” Zanik said. “I’m really excited to see how training camp plays out, because we’re going to have a lot of internal competition. I will say it won’t be all figured out by the beginning of camp. This group has a collective resolve to compete with each other but to also pull for each other and help each other improve and develop. And that will be a season-long thing. There has to be a culture of flexibility among the group, because we have a lot of depth and not everyone can play every night.”
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The questions that need to be answered are significant, and they go beyond simply figuring out the point guard spot. Collins is going to be playing a much different brand of basketball in Utah.
The Atlanta Hawks were a heliocentric team around superstar point guard Trae Young, which was effective overall because Young is such a dynamic player. In Utah, the offense is a lot more democratic and based on movement. The Jazz are going to try and get him into spots where he’s comfortable, such as being a roll man, where he’s always been effective. But getting accustomed to being more involved in an offense is going to take some adjustments.
“We want to empower him,” Hardy said.
The Jazz also need to incorporate rookies Keyonte George, Taylor Hendricks and Brice Sensabaugh. The Jazz have to strike the balance on a team hoping to make the playoffs while also trying to develop its draft haul. George has clearly made an impression during summer and enters camp as the rookie most likely to crack the opening night rotation. Hendricks, Utah’s No. 9 overall pick, and Sensabaugh figure to get their opportunities during the preseason.
What the Jazz have to do in the coming weeks is figure out their rotation, where a lot of the pieces fit and who plays well with whom. In that sense, Hardy will do a lot of lineup tinkering as he did last season when they were competitive until March before falling out of the playoff race.
This season, what’s clear is that the Jazz want to take the next step, and there are designs on qualifying for the playoffs, even in what shapes up to be a loaded Western Conference.
(Photo of Jordan Clarkson and Will Hardy: Jeff Swinger / NBAE via Getty Images)