Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) blocks the shot by Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) during the second round of the NBA playoffs and game 3 in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 6, 2017.
It took the Utah Jazz five years to get back into the NBA playoffs this past season. The team’s focus on internal development resulted in the cultivation of homegrown stars with exponential upside.
But once the Jazz were eliminated in the second round by the eventual champions, the Golden State Warriors, the optimism became clouded by uncertainty.
Gordon Hayward, the team’s only All-Star, fled Salt Lake City to join the Boston Celtics, leaving the Jazz with a giant void and years of lost progress.
Having delayed his decision four days after the beginning of free agency, Hayward inadvertently put the Jazz in a tough spot with limited replacement options available. The players Utah wanted to target came off the board before Hayward published his blog.
Utah remained patient and finally decided to fill its roster out during the NBA summer league in Las Vegas — almost two weeks after losing Hayward. The Jazz agreed to deals with forwards Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udoh. Utah also signed relatively unknown forwards Royce O’Neale and Eric Griffin.
Unless general manager Dennis Lindsey makes an unexpected move, the Jazz will likely head to training camp in September with the following players on their current roster.
The projected starters
Ricky Rubio, point guard: The Jazz were the third-worst scoring team in the NBA last season, putting up 100.7 points per game. George Hill, though, provided much-needed scoring relief at the point guard position. Hill averaged a career-high 16.9 points in his only season with the Jazz.
Hill agreed to a deal with the Sacramento Kings and the Jazz replaced him with Rubio, who’s historically one of the worst shooters in the league’s history. To avoid being last in points production, the Jazz are going to need Rubio — a career 10-point per game scorer — to increase his output in that aspect of the game.
Rubio is still one of the best passers in the game, averaging 9.1 assists last season. He’s a maestro with the ball in his hands and will connect with Rudy Gobert on a regular basis.
Rubio will fill the playmaking need, but scoring will remain an issue unless Rubio somehow finds a shooting stroke.
Rodney Hood, shooting guard: Per-36 minutes, Hood averaged close to 17 points last season. He’s a long, effective defender and has a tendency to shoot plenty of threes — over five per game. In a way, he’s going to be Hayward’s replacement in Utah.
Talent isn’t an issue for Hood. He just needs to be able to stay healthy and on the floor. It’s not an ideal first-option offensively, but Hayward became a star after being thrust into an uncomfortable situation following Deron Williams’ departure. Hood is in a similar situation. There’s no better development tactic than having a player learn through mistakes on the court. Hood is entering the final guaranteed year under his contract, so this season will be the most important of his career to date.
Joe Ingles, small forward: Once thought of as a borderline NBA player, Ingles was rewarded for his stellar play this offseason with a four-year, $52 million contract.
Ingles was one of the NBA’s most efficient 3-point marksmen last season — he was a top-five shooter, making 43 percent of his shots from deep — and his role will expand with Hayward gone.
Shooters have gotten paid in the past and have fallen flat the year after getting massive paydays. Ingles has to prove his breakout season wasn’t a fluke.
Derrick Favors, power forward: Utah reportedly shopped Favors around before the NBA draft, but he’s still on the roster and will likely remain the starter alongside Gobert.
Utah’s frontcourt makes analytically driven pundits sick. Neither Favors nor Gobert can make a shot consistently outside of 5 feet. In a league dominated by 3-point shooting and big men who can space the floor, Utah lacks versatility.
The Jazz seem to be running with the idea that the pace of the game will be determined by them — not the opponent. Utah will play slow, old-school basketball. Both Favors and Gobert are solid interior defenders and will pose matchup issues with their size.
It’s a different approach, but the Jazz seem confident in their giant frontcourt. Favors is a low-post scoring threat, but like Hood, has to stay healthy. Favors is also entering the final season under his contract.
Rudy Gobert, center: At times last season, it was implied that Gobert — Utah’s only All-NBA player — was actually the leader of the Jazz. Now there’s no question about it.
Gobert, 25, is arguably the best center in the NBA. The NBA has become perimeter oriented and the Jazz are going to be one of the only teams led by a big man. But Gobert has the skill set to dominate.
In terms of importance, Gobert was always the No. 1 player in Utah. Unlike Hayward, Gobert’s production won’t dip if his shot isn’t falling. With a record-breaking 7-9 wingspan, Gobert is an imposing defender who can anchor a team in the paint.
The Western Conference is deep with loaded teams and a few that didn’t make the playoffs, like the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets, will be looking to make the jump. But as long as Gobert is in town, the Jazz should be in good hands for the foreseeable future.
Donovan Mitchell, shooting guard: If teams could re-do this year’s NBA draft, Donovan Mitchell, who the Jazz traded up for with the 13th pick, might be a top-five selection.
In two games with the Jazz in Las Vegas, Mitchell averaged 28 points per game and appeared "NBA ready." He’s by far the most explosive player the Jazz will have on their roster — and really, the most explosive they’ve had in quite some time.
At 6-3, Mitchell is somewhat undersized for his position, but his 6-10 wingspan will make up for it. He’s displayed an improved ability to create shots for himself and could play some backup point guard if needed. He’s an all-around stud and a five-star prospect who will help lessen the pain caused by Hayward leaving Utah.
Dante Exum, point guard: Entering his fourth season with the Jazz, it’s make or break for Exum. The luster he had as the fifth pick in 2014 is kind of lost. He’s no longer going to be treated as a project. Shelvin Mack agreed to a deal with the Orlando Magic, opening more minutes for Exum as the team’s primary backup.
This summer, Exum has been mentored by Warriors great Baron Davis. Utah needs to see return on its investment, otherwise his time in the NBA could be cut short. Exum made less than 30 percent of his threes last season and was a liability. Becoming an average shooter would propel Exum as one of the more dynamic backups in the NBA. The physical tools are there. Exum just has to find a way to use them.
Joe Johnson, small forward: At 36, Iso-Joe has found a way to stay relevant by changing his role. Normally a small forward, Johnson will spend some time at the four spot in Utah.
In the playoffs, he showed that he can still score in crunch time. Utah eased him into a more expanded role, but that might not be the case next season. Finding scoring will be troublesome for the Jazz, but Johnson will be an option, even at this stage in his career.
Alec Burks, shooting guard: Utah was riddled with injuries last season and Alec Burks was one of the many who suffered from it. Burks averaged a career-low 6.7 points last season.
Over the past three seasons, Burks has appeared, on average, in 33 games for the Jazz. He can be a solid rotation player and the Jazz shouldn’t give up on Burks yet. But the clock is ticking. Utah will count on Burks for offensive production. Per-36 minutes, Burks averaged 18 points in 2014.
Tony Bradley, center: Gobert was third in minutes per game last season among centers, so Tony Bradley won’t be asked to do a lot for the Jazz next year. He’s only 19, but has the size to match up with any big in the NBA. But at this point, he’s not very polished. Jeff Withey remains a free agent and isn’t expected to re-sign with the Jazz. If nothing else, Bradley has the size to replace Withey.
Thabo Sefolosha, small forward: Defensively, the Jazz are going to be atop the NBA next season — and Sefolosha will be one of the main reasons why.
Nothing Sefolosha does on the floor is flashy. He’s a career 35 percent 3-point shooter and averaged 6 points throughout the course of his 11-year career.
But as a defender, Sefolosha creates havoc. The Jazz had the second fewest steals in the NBA last season, and Sefolosha will help them create turnovers. Anything the Jazz can get from Sefolosha offensively will be an added bonus.
Jonas Jerebko, power forward: At 6-10, Jerebko is the only big man on Utah’s roster who can hit shots from outside the paint. A career 35 percent 3-point shooter, Jerebko could have a career resurgence with the Jazz, who will ask him to play a relatively major role next season.
Jerebko, 30, averaged a career-low 3.8 points for the Boston Celtics last season.
Ekpe Udoh, power forward: The Golden State Warriors don’t whiff on many high draft picks but selecting Ekpe Udoh with their sixth overall pick in 2010 was their biggest blunder in recent history.
Udoh washed out of the NBA after five quick seasons, found stability with Fenerbahce (a professional Euroleague Turkish team), and now he’s back in the NBA.
Udoh had success in Turkey, earning a Euroleague championship and Final Four MVP. He’s long, athletic and will provide depth as a backup. Like Favors and Gobert, Udoh can’t shoot, but will protect the rim.
Raul Neto, point guard: Neto’s contract for next season is only partially guaranteed and it remains to be seen if the Jazz will pick it up. Utah recently waived Boris Diaw and could do the same with Neto to create roster space. Playing just 8.7 minutes last season, Neto hasn’t had much of a role with the Jazz.
Eric Griffin, power forward: Griffin is a high-energy, shot-blocking big man who could actually earn minutes with the Jazz, although he’ll spend most of his time with the Jazz’s developmental team — the Stars. Besides Mitchell, Griffin was Utah’s most impressive player in summer league. He can do a little bit of everything and his game resembles former Jazzman Trevor Booker.
Royce O’Neale, small forward: The Jazz will have to either cut or trade someone from the team, as the NBA only allows for 15 standard contracts and a couple of two-way deals, to fit in their most recent signing.
O’Neale averaged about five points for the New Orleans Pelicans in summer league and made 15 percent of his threes. The production wasn’t there, but the Jazz must’ve seen something in O’Neale that most didn’t.
Joel Bolomboy, power forward: Bolomboy blossomed with the Stars last season, but that didn’t translate to a successful summer league. Bolomboy dealt with a knee injury, averaging just six points and six rebounds. Utah has a crowded frontcourt and Bolomboy will have to have an outstanding training camp to play real minutes next season.