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How far can contrarian, big, defensive Jazz go in the West this season?

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the Jazz as the focus

We know the NBA buzzwords, the trends. Small ball. Offense over defense. Play fast. Teams have to have men who can spread the floor with their three-point shooting. Teams want undersized power forwards who play more like wings. The offense is to run a pick-and-roll to force a switch, then isolate and let your best shot creator attack the mismatch.

The Utah Jazz are none of that.

They are contrarian, a throwback. And they are one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA.

Utah is defensive team that starts a twin towers front line where neither can really step out and space the floor with their jumper. Utah’s starting power forward, Derrick Favors, is a power forward in the classic sense. They run a motion offense, and only 5.3 percent of their offensive attempts came out of isolation last season. They don’t play at a high pace, they prefer a game that grinds down, physically but also mentally.

They are not following the small ball trend, and that’s a conscious decision.

“Golden State has driven a perception that the whole league is small…” Jazz coach Quin Snyder told NBC Sports last season. “Because Golden State’s been the best team, you’re forced to match up with them, and then people will try to play small, but if you’re playing small just because someone else is, and then you’re not playing your best players, that’s a tough question. Do you chase a mismatch or do you play the way you play?”

Utah plays the way it plays. And with that, most pundits have them as a top-four team in the West (Vegas books have them with the fourth highest under/over win total in the West at 48.5), and some around the league wonder if the Jazz can beat a diminished Rockets’ squad this season.

However, does their style also have a ceiling? Utah’s defense stymied Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs last season, but the spacing and pace of the Houston Rockets proved to be too much — it was hard to keep Rudy Gobert on the court against those smaller lineups, and Houston’s switching defense stalled out the Utah offense.

If the question is “can we beat Golden State and Houston the way we play?” then 12 teams in the West — and 28 teams across the entire NBA — are asking that same question. Utah believes it can, or it can at least threaten them, by just doing what they do better.

If the Jazz are going to live up to a top-four slot, a few things have to happen, and it starts with Rudy Gobert staying healthy. He missed most of the first half of last season with knee injuries — not chronic things, but both times because a player fell into him — but once he was back and right Utah went 29-6 to close out the season. He won Defensive Player of the Year because of how dominant he was during that run.

Obviously, the reason for the hot finish was Utah’s incredible defense: After the All-Star break it allowed just 96 points per 100 possessions, by far the best in the league. That defense could get better this season: a healthy Gobert all season, plus full seasons out of Jae Crowder and Royce O’Neale, plus players with another season in the system.

The surprise for the Jazz last season was a respectable offense (16th in the league), which came about because rookie Donovan Mitchell played like an All-Star, 20.5 points and 3.7 assists per game. Mitchell impressed everyone, but sometimes players with strong rookie campaigns plateau their second season, not growing and making the next leap some expect. Utah, to take a step forward, needs him to grow.

Around him there are solid veterans who knew how to play the game — Gobert running the rim, Joe Ingles spotting up at the arc and moving the ball to the right man on closeouts, Ricky Rubio figuring out how to adjust to the motion offense then thriving in it as a distributor (after the All-Star break he averaged 15 points a game, shot 40.9 percent from three, and had 5.6 assists a night), and Derrick Favors getting his buckets.

Utah didn’t make big moves this summer but believes it has added some firepower. They re-signed Dante Exum over the summer and believe (more than anyone else) he is healthy and ready for a breakout year. They drafted Grayson Allen, who showed at Summer League he’s more than a spot-up guy. They get a full season of the solid Jae Crowder.

Utah is counting on continuity.

That and defense will alone not be enough. The Jazz need health, and they need the offense to get better — a few more easy buckets in transition would help. The Jazz were 19th in the NBA in percentage of offense that started in transition (stat via Cleaning The Glass) and while that’s not bad for a team that wants a defensive game, a few more easy transition buckets a night help.

The Jazz also need to better handle switching defenses — the elite teams they want to challenge in the West switch a lot, and to beat them in a seven-game series Utah has to score more comfortably against the switch. That doesn’t necessarily mean a James Harden back-it-out-and-isolate play, but to do it in the context of the motion offense requires precision and ability to exploit the smallest mistake the Jazz did not have last season.

The Jazz are going to be the Jazz this season — contrarian, grinding, and a nightly defensive force. That can take them a long way, especially in the regular season.
If it can get them where they want to go in the playoffs is a much tougher question.

Jazz’s quiet summer could lead to triumphant season

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

I believe in the Utah Jazz.

Know who else believes in the Utah Jazz? The Utah Jazz.

The biggest difference is their confidence extends to Dante Exum, who understandably struggled as a teenage rookie but then missed 166 over the next three years. Utah gave Exum a three-year, $28 million contract – a big bet on a player who has proven so little. Exum is just 23, and he has shown flashes. I just haven’t seen enough of him due to his injuries. But the Jazz should know him better, and to a certain degree, we must defer to their behind-the-seasons evaluation.

But keeping intact the team that surged once Rudy Gobert got healthy and crushed the Thunder in the playoffs? I’m here for that.

Utah might be the NBA’s second-best team (behind the Warriors, of course). The Celtics, Rockets, Raptors, 76ers and Thunder are also in the discussion. But don’t count out the Jazz, who spent to keep a good thing going.

The Jazz re-signed Derrick Favors ($16.9 million) and Raul Neto ($2.15 million) for high salaries in order to get them to attach unguaranteed second seasons to their new deals at the same salaries. Utah also guaranteed the now-expiring contracts of Thabo Sefolosha ($5.5 million) and Ekpe Udoh ($3.36 million).

The result: A team with a lot of depth and a lot of flexibility.

If the Jazz want to keep chemistry again next summer, they can. If they want to chase bigger stars who might want to play with the promising and charismatic Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz could do that, too.

Exum is the big locked-in cost, and I’m treating him like I do most rookies – including Utah’s No. 21 pick, Grayson Allen – in these evaluations. Even though the decisions are monumentally important,  it’s just too early to assign much credit or blame,

The Jazz appear set to pick up right where they left off last season. That’s a good thing.

Offseason grade: C

Top 10 standout players from NBA Summer League

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LAS VEGAS — For NBA teams, Summer League is less about whether a young player is good or not, and far more about benchmarking where they are and seeing what areas that player needs to work on going forward. It’s a first step.

But some of those first steps are more impressive than others.

After watching a dozen days of Summer League games — in person in both Salt Lake City and Las Vegas — here are 10 players who stood out to me. This list is not all-inclusive by any means — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Grayson Allen, and Trae Young would get an honorable mention here — nor is it just a list of the best players I have seen. Instead, this is a list of players that turned my head, or those of scouts/team executives that I spoke with, because of their success and what they have shown in Summer League. It’s a list of guys who caught my eye.

Here is my Top 10 for 2018:

1) Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis Grizzlies). From the minute he stepped on the court in Salt Lake, he looked like the future of the NBA five — he can drain threes, runs the court, is strong and physical inside, and can get up and block shots. In Utah he averaged 15.7 points per game and five boards a night. Interestingly, through much the summer games the Grizzlies tried to pair him with a true center, seemingly getting him used to playing the four next to Marc Gasol come next season. Jackson looked a little tired and struggled some in Las Vegas — especially the night he battled Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba on his fifth game in seven days — but he worked hard and still made plays. The Grizzlies may have something special with him.

2) John Collins (Atlanta Hawks). Everyone already knew he was  good — he made NBA All-Rookie second team and averaged 10.5 points and 7.3 rebounds a game shooting 57.6 percent last season. However, after watching in Las Vegas and Salt Lake, he has shown the potential to be a future star, his game is improving. He’s averaging 24 points and 8 boards a game in Vegas, playing good defense in the paint, but more importantly he has shown improved three-point stroke and handles. He’s done for the summer, but in limited games he showed he should be on this list.

3) Deandre Ayton (Phoenix Suns). Yes, the No. 1 pick should be good, but he has looked like a man among boys going up against some of the other rookie big men in Las Vegas. Ayton pushed Bamba around all game long, for example. He’s averaging 16 points a game on 67 percent shooting, plus 11 boards a contest, and he’s got versatility to his game. There’s work to do on defense and passing, but he has the potential to be special.

4) Kevin Knox (New York Knicks). He’s looked like a rookie at points, he’s blown everyone’s doors off at others. Tuesday’s game against the Lakers was the perfect example: He started 0-of-6 from the floor and finished the night with seven turnovers. He’s got work to do. However, he finished that Laker game with 22 points and was 5-of-7 from three, he’s got the athleticism to get by guys with a first step and he can finish. And he’s just 18. The Knicks may have another crucial rebuilding block with Knox.

5) Jonathan Isaac (Orlando Magic). He was a roll of the dice at No. 6 in the 2017 draft, a guy with a lot of potential but a project, then he missed most of his rookie season with injuries. Nobody seemed exactly sure what Orlando had. In Vegas he has turned heads with his play —14.3 points and 7 boards a game, he’s physically a lot stronger and his shooting stroke is smooth. He has banged inside and held his own with Memphis’ Jackson, and has just been a better athlete than everyone he’s gone up against. Pair him along the front with Bamba and Aaron Gordon, and that is an interesting team in Orlando. And when was the last time we said that?

6) Josh Hart (Los Angeles Lakers). He might be the MVP of Summer League so far, averaging 23.3 points per game and just running the team like a pro. Which he is — he showed he could do this with the Lakers last season, but asked to take on more of a scoring role in Vegas he has stepped up. Bottom line, there’s a reason every time a team talks to the Lakers about a trade they want Hart thrown in the mix. He’s got a lot of fans around the league, and that has only grown this summer.

7) Wendell Carter Jr. (Chicago Bulls). I will own it: I was not high on Carter Jr. coming into the draft, but he has impressed in Las Vegas. As expected, he has a versatile and polished offensive game with a nearly unstoppable turnaround from the post, ability to score with either hand, range on his jumper, plus he is a surprisingly good passer. The book on him coming into the draft was defensive questions, but he has been better on that front than expected — he works hard and is athletic enough to be disruptive. We will see how he fares against NBA-level competition on that end, but the work ethic and tools are there.

8) Harry Giles (Sacramento Kings). He was a low-risk gamble pick by the Kings at No. 20 in 2017, a guy who was maybe the top player in his class as a high school sophomore until the injuries hit (ACL, MCL and a meniscus tear in his left knee, plus another surgery on his right knee). The Kings took him and red-shirted him last season, but in Vegas he has been impressive and solid (12 points and 7 rebounds a game in Sin City). He looks like he could be a rotation NBA big man (at least, the Kings think he can be more than that), someone Sacramento can count on besides Marvin Bagley III. Giles has been a pleasant surprise.

9) Jordan Bell (Golden State Warriors). He’s only on this list for one reason. Yes, he’s looked good in limited Summer League run — the guy was playing serious minutes in the NBA Finals a month ago, of course he looks good going against a bunch of non-NBA players. What got him there was this one moment against the Jazz.

(To be clear, Bell and Donovan Mitchell are tight, and Mitchell thought this was funny.)

10) De'Anthony Melton (Houston Rockets). He could end up being a second-round steal for the Rockets. Melton didn’t play last season at USC (he was the guy at the heart of the FBI probe) so he slid down to 46th overall. In Vegas he has looked like a quality rotation guard, averaging 16.3 points, 7 rebounds, and 2.7 steals a game. Guard minutes are tight to come by on the Rockets this season, but he’s going to make the opening night roster and will get his shot.

NBA Summer League notes from Salt Lake City

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SALT LAKE CITY — The NBA’s official, all 30 teams are there, Summer League kicks off Friday in sweltering Las Vegas. But before that buffet of games, there are a couple appetizer Summer Leagues, ones that are a little smaller but packed with intrigue of their own.

I’ve been in Salt Lake for the Utah Summer League the last few days, here are some of my notes from the previous 48 hours:

Trae Young has a lot of work in front of him. A lot of development to do. The No. 5 pick came in hyped by fans and some scouts, but just watching him through two games it’s clear he has a lot of fundamental things he needs to do better before he can start to live up to anything near those lofty expectations.

It’s not the 2-of-16 from three for two games that is the most concerning, he’s a better shooter than that, but rather his need overall to adapt to the speed, length and athleticism of the NBA game. His shot seems rushed, and come October the defenders he will see nightly are better than the guys here (with all due respect to Javon Carter and Derrick White). Young has to both get stronger and learn how to better use his body to create space to get off his shot on drives. He needs to find a comfort level with the pace and the pressure.

He can get there, he made adjustments in these games, but after watching his first couple of days it’s clear he has a long way to go.

The Hawks praised his decision making and Young echoed that.

“For me the biggest thing is he’s making the right plays,” coach Lloyd Pierce said. “There were a ton of possessions last night where he made the right play. There were a ton of possessions tonight where he made the right play.”

“My main thing is right now to make the right plays,” Young said. “The rest of the team isn’t knocking down shots that we’re going to eventually hit. I’m excited we’re getting the looks we’re getting, we’re just not knocking down shots right now. Eventually, it will come, and when it does it will come fast.”

The shots will come. The additional games in Las Vegas will help Young. But like the rebuilding Hawks team, there is a lot of development, a lot of work to do before the results they want start to show.

• A year in the Spurs’ development system has been good to Derrick White — the combo guard spent much of last season in the G-League, with some cups of coffee (139 total minutes) with the big club. In Utah he looked like he deserved more, he has improved considerably in the past year. Last summer the speed and athleticism of the other players seemed to have him second-guessing himself. No more.

Tuesday night he was 7-of-15 from the floor with 21 points plus had nine assists. He’s been strong in both of their games in Utah.

“Derrick is a good basketball player,” said Spurs Summer League coach Will Hardy. “We’re trying not to pigeonhole him as a one or a two. He can play off the ball as a two. I think tonight we saw he can handle the ball, Atlanta pressed and trapped for the majority of the second half and Derrick was our primary handler. I think that makes him unique. He’s got sort of an old-school feel to his game in the sense he’s just a good backcourt player, and that gives him some versatility because he can play with a lot of different guys.”

White, the No. 29 pick of the Spurs in the 2017 draft, is a story of overcoming expectations. Out of high school he had no D1 college offers and just one at D2, but he grew five inches at D2 school and eventually transferred to Colorado, only to make first team all Pac-12. As a 23-year-old draftee teams were concerned before the draft about how much he could improve, but this year at Summer League the answer has been “plenty.”

We could be seeing more of him in the fall.

• We had our first coach’s challenge of Summer League — Lloyd Pierce of the Hawks challenged a clear path foul in the first game Tuesday. Sure, his team was down 16 points with 1:31 left, but it was a coach’s challenge.

He lost it. Pierce currently has the worst record in the NBA in coach’s challenges (at 0-1, but still).

Jaren Jackson Jr. is going to be very good. Yes, it’s two Summer League games and those matter about as much as the points on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” but his shooting stroke, handles, and shot blocking are a great combo in the modern NBA. Through two games he’s scored 39 points, shot 10-of-17 from three, and has been the best rookie in Utah. And it’s not just the threes that impress.

Tuesday’s second game was closer to what we can expect of him most nights — 10 points, eight rebounds and a couple of blocks, including one down the stretch of the game that was athletic and helped preserve the Grizzlies win.

“He’s a defensive-minded player and he’s an extremely talented player,” Grizzlies Summer League Coach J.J. Outlaw said. “Defense travels. You’re not always going to have your jumper, you’re not always going to be able to score points, but he was able to help us out and make some plays defensively.”

Like every rookie, there is a lot of development work ahead for Jackson, but in his case you can quickly see where he fits in the modern NBA.

• Both Grayson Allen of the Jazz and Lonnie Walker IV did not play in their teams’ second games on Tuesday for rest.

• Javon Carter is making fans. The hustle guys who defend in Summer League games — which are stylistically glorified pickup games — stand out, and that is what Carter has done. In the first game he was one of the reasons Trae Young started 0-of-10 from three, Carter was in his grill and taking away Young’s air (on some shots, others Young just mixed).

I don’t know how things will work for Carter when the skill and athleticism levels jump in the fall, he struggled at moments down the stretch against Utah when it got tight, but he is going to put in the work and you know Grizzlies coaches will want to keep a guy like that around.

• Great advice from Naz Mitrou-Long, the former Iowa State player who spent most of last season in the G-League (and dropped 19 points with eight assists Tuesday night), had some fantastic advice for other rookies looking to make an impression in Summer League:

“If you come here and take every single shot when the ball touches your hands, it’s not going to benefit you. I know I personally came in here last year thinking ‘I need to average 30 in this thing’ but nobody does that, and it’s for a reason. You’re playing high-level talent. Find out what your organization wants, find out the right way to play basketball and do that. Max out your potential in your role.”

• The Utah Summer League is the kind of experience was old school in a good way. It was small, intimate, with a couple of games a day and a chance for fans to get closer to players — and the NBA guys who show up to watch — than happens in Las Vegas now.

Also a plus: A passionate, loud home crowd. Tickets are cheap ($8 for some in the lower bowl and that is for both games) so people turn out. Tuesday night the Jazz were getting blown out by 26 to the Grizzlies, but battled back to make it a game late (and even took a brief lead). The crowd was large and loud. They cared. That added an energy and passion to the game usually missing in other Summer Leagues.

Throw in that Salt Lake is a great city to visit — walkable downtown, impressive food scene — and I’m going to try to make it back if they keep doing this.