Every season is a story – each game a page, each quarter a paragraph, ever evolving toward a final meaning. The Little Team That Could in 2003-04. The Apocalypse that was 2010-2011. Last year’s Crucible of Tyrone Corbin.
This season’s story has just begun. We are on page one of the prologue, not even into the story proper, but already every Jazz fan is using what we have learned to guess at what is in store once the real story starts. Based on the small sample that is the preseason, these are the things I will watch for this year as I believe they will determine how we understand this season when some team1 lifts the Larry O’Brien trophy in June.
1. USG% of Hayward and Favors
Throughout the preseason, Derrick Favors’ usage (24.48) has hovered notably above Gordon Hayward’s (21.13).2 This is a reversal of last season, which saw Hayward (23.1 USG%) laden with responsibility for the offense and Favors (20.8 USG%) sometimes disappear on that side of the floor. The result of the reversal: BOTH are more efficient scorers than last season. Favors’ effective field goal percentage has jumped two percentage points in spite of greater offensive prominence while Hayward’s has skyrocketed nearly 14 percentage points!
Usage this preseason is much more what I have wanted to see from these two players since they joined the Jazz, and this may be the number one thing I watch for this season: how do the Jazz’s best two players distribute opportunity and responsibility on the offensive end of the floor?
2. Is Dante Exum a Taller Tony Parker or a Weaker Derrick Rose (with less hops)?
I’ve been a vocal skeptic of Exum as a point guard. The preseason has mitigated some but not all of my concerns.
While others focus on Exum’s shooting (with trepidation) and passing (with exultation), I will be watching his ball possession skills, particularly on the interior of the defense. In high school, Exum played like Derrick Rose,3 penetrating at will and finishing from all angles. He cannot be that in the NBA, in spite of his speed. He simply doesn’t have the elevation or strength to finish like Rose or Russell Westbrook, players Exum has identified as comparable to his own style.
If I were the Jazz, I would have Exum on an hour a day prescription of Tony Parker film.4 Like the Spurs superstar, Exum has both mercurial quickness and lightening speed. But unlike Rose, Westbrook, and John Wall, he lacks the strength and elevation to finish over or through contact. Instead, he will need to develop the ability to maintain his dribble in the congested paint and finish with quick floaters before defenders are in position to contest his shots – both hallmarks of Parker’s orchestration of the Spurs’ offense.
I’m encouraged by several floaters Exum has cashed in during the preseason, as well as a few instances of more demanding ball handling while using body position rather than simple speed. But Exum’s 29.59 turnover percentage is simply unacceptable given the fact that he has typically played with at least one other ball handler (such as Alec Burks) who has orchestrated the offense. His first match-up with Chris Paul ended, predictably, with Paul repeatedly taking Exum’s lunch and forcing the rookie to thank him for the privilege. To be the Jazz’s point guard of the future, he has to learn to guide an offense against players this caliber, sometimes utilizing sustained periods of dribbling. I’m dying to see how he holds up in this regard this season.
3. Are the Jazz Really This Good at Transition Defense?
Lots has been said on this already. We saw a few cracks in the armor of fast break prevention against the Suns, but overall, this point of emphasis by the coaching staff paid off in spades in the preseason. In the pressure of the regular season, when the world’s greatest athletes are fully invested and young Jazz players face fatigue, bodily wear, and discouragement through a long 82-games, how will their energy and focus in this regard hold up?
4. Trey Burke: Complete Ball Handling Guard?
I found Trey Burke really impressive in Summer League.5 I’ve never worried too much about Burke’s shooting because I watched enough of him at Michigan to know the young man can shoot.
Instead, I noted his improved willingness to attack the hoop (especially when the jump shot wasn’t falling) and defend with greater persistence and focus. He even fought through screens admirably. He’s continued both in the preseason, showing both better ability and effort in these areas essential to filling out his game. He’ll never dominate in these ways, but if he simply ceases to be a liability in these areas, it will help the Jazz immensely.
5. The Three P’s and Enes Kanter
It hasn’t been phrased exactly this way, but the essence of Quin Snyder’s system and philosophy to basketball is all about decision making. He trusts players to make many decisions in the course of play, and expects them to make them quickly and correctly. This, more than anything, will challenge the methodical game of Enes Kanter.
While most focus on how many threes Kanter puts up (and makes or misses, depending on your optimism), I will be watching the smaller decisions: How long does the ball stick in his hands? How quickly does he move to set a screen or clear the post within the flow of the offense? How aware is he of defensive assignments and rotation? With both the expectation and opportunity to gain a finer grasp of the game, how will Kanter do?
6. Alec Burks, Go-To Guy?
I’m not in Ben Dowsett’s class when it comes to being an Alec Burks fan, but I’m elated at the prospect of Burks finally getting freedom to show just how good he can be. And I believe he can be very good. In fact, there is a possibility that Burks uses this season to develop into both the team’s top scorer and the nearest thing it has to a lock down perimeter defender. Can he be that good? I think so.6
7. Rudy Gobert and the Second Look
There are some things you simply cannot prepare for in practice, and Gobert’s 9’7” standing reach is two such things.7 I suspect he will give the Jazz a real advantage in initial meetings with many teams who simply won’t be prepared for how much he impacts a game by being long and active, especially on the defensive end.
Repeat match ups may be a different story as teams, better aware of the Frenchman’s strengths and weaknesses, start to game plan against him.
8. Rodney Hood’s Passing
This guy is already on my list of top steals in the draft, and I’m dying to see how he blossoms in Snyder’s offense. He is a three level offensive threat (at the hoop, mid-game, and long distance), but he’s also a very underrated passer. Over the course of the season, he will get a chance to log significant minutes due to injuries and the ebb and flow of so many games, and I expect him to show a remarkably well-rounded offensive skill set perfect for the Jazz system.
I don’t typically put too much emphasis on single stats, either for players or teams, but I’ll be watching this one with interest this season. Will the emphasis on transition defense mean a correlated hit at the Jazz’s ability to crash the offensive glass? Maybe, but I think they’ll hold up just fine here.
10. Forced Turnovers
In Snyder’s system, there are going to be periods of near chaos as young players learn to operate responsibly with so much freedom. One thing that should make this more palatable is some corresponding chaos inflicted on opposing offenses by more forced turnovers than in the past. Between Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors guarding the rim, Alec Burks and Gordon Hayward picking pockets, and Trey Burke holding up better at the point of attack, I expect this team to improve markedly on last season’s second to last ranking in opponent turnovers.
11. Trevor Booker’s Defense
Is there a Jazz fan out there who hasn’t become a full fledged fan of Booker already? I hope not. That fandom may be tested this season when Booker faces bigger, offensive-minded opponents. How will his defense hold up? Your guess is as good as mine.
12. Quin Snyder’s Endurance
Snyder is my guy. He was at the top of my list as soon as his name was mentioned as possible head coach following the Jazz’s decision not to retain Tyrone Corbin. As a result, I’m not surprised at all by the Jazz’s drastic improvements made in the preseason, be it in regard to player attitude, offensive activity and cohesion, or defensive focus.
But as bullish as I am about Snyder, there is one area where I remain cautious: how will he react to mistakes? It may be hard to remember, but Tyrone Corbin’s training camps and preseasons started off encouragingly as well. Corbin talked of defensive adaptation, forcing players baseline rather than to the center of the floor. The Jazz displayed activity and energy and fast, easily appreciated pace of play. For all Corbin’s faults in the eyes of many fans, much of the intent was there. But it withered under frustration of young players’ erratic natures, slips of focus, and simple mistakes.
The same will afflict this year’s team; at times, it will feel like a full assault on a first time NBA head coach. He will get frustrated. He will feel his control of situations spin out of hand in moments of inexperienced chaos. He will be tempted to restore a greater level of order, even if that order comes at the expense of player development and the principles of his own system.
When this happens, how will he react? Perhaps more than any other single factor, this may determine the ending of the 2014-15 Jazz story.