SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah Jazz won’t look drastically different when the team plays its first preseason game against the Lakers on Sunday in Honolulu, but their best player might.
Gordon Hayward has had a different air about him in training camp. He looks bigger and said Thursday he considers himself “one of the best in the league” regardless of position. That statement in itself is very un-Hayward-like, but that’s exactly what the Jazz need.
The team didn’t sign a high-profile, big-money free agent over the summer and needs Hayward to play at an All-Star level to realize any playoff hopes.
“He’s just really assertive,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “He’s attacking the rim. I think he’s getting more and more comfortable with himself as that player and that leader.”
One of the things Hayward has focused on is closing out games. The Jazz are talented enough to compete on a nightly basis and should be in a lot of close games. That’s where Hayward comes in.
“Sometimes you need to be able to go to a guy and just tell him to get a bucket,” he said. “It’s never going to be the same (in practice). There’s nothing like closing a game with 20,000 fans and everybody’s watching you. It’s hard to emulate, but you kind of have to envision it in your mind. It’s something that mentally you can just visualize and just continue to work on over and over and over.”
Hayward, who averaged a career-high 19.3 points last season, also worked on his post moves and is prepared to play small-ball for stretches.
The sixth-year player is clearly on a mission after a summer of growth that included the birth of his first child.
Other things to watch during the Jazz preseason:
FLEXIBLE FAVORS: Snyder said forward Derrick Favors has practiced harder than anyone so far. The 6-foot-10, 265-pounder has high expectations for himself after a summer dedicated to extending his range and becoming more of a playmaker. He’s developed additional post moves, wants to be an active passer from the mid-post and consistently hit jumpers from there and beyond – but not quite out to the 3-point line. Favors is also entering his sixth year and wants to play at an All-Star level after averaging 16.0 points and 8.2 rebounds last season.
“This is the year that I want to come out and really dominate,” Favors said.
REPLACING DANTE: Starting point guard Dante Exum is out after tearing his ACL playing for the Australian national team during the summer. There are concerns about how the team will adjust defensively. No other point guard on the roster has the length of the 6-6 Exum. Former first-round pick Trey Burke is expected to start and said he learned to be a true professional during the offseason and believes better habits on and off the court will translate to his best season. Brazilian rookie Raul Neto and former D-Leaguer Bryce Cotton are expected to be the other point guards on the roster.
BURKS BACK: General manager Dennis Lindsey considers forward Alec Burks the Jazz’s free agent addition. Burks missed most of the season following shoulder surgery after signing a four-year extension in 2014. He averaged 13.9 points last season and adds a scoring punch that was missed. The preseason should give an idea how Snyder plans to use Burks and second-year player Rodney Hood.
SHORT ON TIME: The Jazz held their first preseason practice Tuesday, per NBA rules, just five days before their first preseason game. By comparison, the NFL has about a month between the start of camp and preseason games. Snyder said he’d like to have three weeks, but the current setup means they have to make the most of their time.
“You have to prioritize,” Snyder said. “For us, it’s really me wanting to see how much slippage there’d been in certain aspects of our game.”
QUOTABLE: Snyder said the Hawaii trip presents some challenges, but he also hopes it provides some bonding moments.
“I’m not saying Gordon and Fav have to go for a long swim together to bond,” Snyder joked. “But I would like to see Alec hula.”