As the final moments of the 2014-2015 Utah Jazz season sadly tick down, it is accountability time. Back in October, this writer took the opportunity to jot down some predictions for this season. Some were bold, others were conservative. Without further ado:
Breakout year for Alec Burks: In an exciting season with so many ups, Alec Burks’ injury was one of the few downs. While there are high hopes that the shoulder surgery he underwent will solve some long-lasting issues, it caused the athletic and entertaining guard to call it a year after just 27 games. Like many of his teammates, Burks had early struggles adapting to head coach Quin Snyder’s system. That is not to say anything about the players or Snyder; new styles and philosophies rarely are learned in a short period of time. Burks seemed to have a harder time adapting. From an eye test, it felt like he was uncertain about some aspects of the team’s offensive and defensive schemes. On the season, Burks averaged 13.9 PPG, 4.2 RPG and 3.0 APG and was shooting just 40.3 percent from the floor. Despite playing over five minutes more per outing, his scoring dropped a touch. Burks saw his PER (from 15.8 to 13.1), True Shooting Percentage (from .547 to .524) and Usage (from 23.9 to 20.9) all decrease. One of the more alarming numbers was his difficulties finishing around the basket — one of his fortes. After being in the 60s each of his three campaigns, including a career-high .644 last season, Burks was just at .506. There were positives, though. Never has Burks shot so well on free throws and 3-pointers. He hit 82.2 percent from the charity stripe on nearly five attempts a game. He shot more from downtown than ever and did so at a 38.2 percent clip. Burks also crashed the boards, including a few nights with double digit rebounds.
It should be noted, however, that his production was solid in December1: 15.7 PPG (41 percent shooting, including 40 percent on 3s), 3.1 APG and 4.1 RPG. That is a good indicator that he would have continued a slight ascent over the subsequent months. Clearly Alec Burks did not have a breakout year. But one of the big storylines next season will be how he returns, as well as how he acclimates back in with his teammates.
Burks will lead the Jazz in scoring: Just a little off on this one. Even if he was healthy, though, Gordon Hayward was exceptional, playing elite, aggressive basketball most of the season.
Utah will be a top-12 shot-blocking team: Few people could have predicted the incredible defensive progress Utah has made this season, including yours truly. While it was very realistic that the Jazz could rise a few spots in the NBA’s rankings, no one foresaw being the cream of the crop post-All-Star break. Not only did Utah crack the top dozen, thanks to the emergence of Rudy Gobert and the continued growth of Derrick Favors, they were threatening to also be the top shot-blocking team in the Association. The Jazz are tied for second with 6.0 swats a game. With Gobert being the starter next season from day one, look for Utah to be the NBA’s rejection leaders.
Trey Burke will be a top-10 assist man: Trey Burke was 22nd last season at 5.7 APG, but was only one assist behind the #10 player. He showed a solid ability to distribute the ball as his rookie season waned. Things were quite different his sophomore year. My prediction would be a jump to 7.0+ APG, and that was obviously way off. For the season, Burke is averaging 4.3 dimes per game. Even before Snyder opted to make a switch between him and rookie Dante Exum, Burke was at 4.9 APG. The role change from starter to sixth man helped Burke’s game slightly in some areas, but because he was asked to be the bench’s primary offensive threat, his passing dropped.
Rudy Gobert’s wingspan will still be 7’9″: Nailed it. Well, it actually may have increased. Or perhaps it just feels that way to the Stifle Tower’s opponents2.
No extensions come Halloween: Half of this prediction was spot-on. Apparently, the two sides in the Enes Kanter talks were very far apart — both in terms of dollars and desires to strike a deal. Who knows, given what is known now about Kanter’s disdain for his situation in Utah, how strong discussions ever were. Dennis Lindsey and the Miller family were able to ink Burks to a four-year, $42 million deal, which includes incentives that could boost the contract’s value to $45 million. Yet another reason why eyes will be on Burks this upcoming season.
Mehmet Okur’s presence, whatever that may be, will be a boon for Kanter: It certainly is nice to see Mehmet Okur back with the Jazz. Always a beloved player, he had done some positive things in the community. Moreover, as the Jazz have done in several instances over the years, he has helped connect the past with the present. Okur probably did some positive things for Kanter3, too, but it may not have been enough to prevent the latter from demanding a trade. It would be interesting to hear Okur’s take on the way the young Turk burning bridges with the Jazz front office, staff and former teammates.
Steve Novak will not play much: It is clear that Snyder has a proclivity for stretch fours, given the way Kanter and Trevor Booker were encouraged to shoot treys. Even so, Novak’s deficiencies on defense and the boards kept him from seeing any substantial on-court time. His Jazz career resulted in just 109 minutes. Novak was purely a situational player. The sharpshooting forward was coming on before he was moved to the Oklahoma City Thunder, evidenced by back-to-back 12-point games.
Gordon Hayward’s shooting will return to his career marks: To be exact, I predicted 45 and 37 percent from the floor and from long-distance. It appears Hayward will finish at 44.5 percent field goals and 36.4 percent on 3-pointers. Not too bad. While Hayward probably would like to see those a bit higher, one of the season’s highlights was the way he rose to the challenge of being the team’s go-to guy. It was an exceptional season for a player who looks to be worth every penny of his max contract.
Utah will open with 15 on its roster: True, as the Jazz claimed Joe Ingles and Jordan Hamilton off waivers prior to the season opener. While there was an ever rotating cast of characters toward the end of the bench, Utah employed 15 players for a vast majority of the season.
Utah’s All-Star Weekend Representation: I predicted that Burke would once again “compete” in the Rising Stars challenge. That he did. I also noted to keep an eye on Gobert. Thanks to his dominant effort in the outing, the rest of the NBA started to watch him much more closely. It was also predicted that Exum would not make it, but Hood would. Just the opposite occurred. True to my prognostication, no Jazzman earned an All-Star game roster spot, though Hayward was mentioned in passing.
Rookie performances: From October: “Hood will be viewed by many as one of the big steals of the 2014 Draft.” While his early play did not lend much to that assertion, the way he has emerged the past two months has validated it. Hood has shown the ability to be a versatile scorer with a deadly outside shot. He has battled injuries, but he is a big part of the Jazz’s future. Exum has had a fair share of growing pains. His playmaking abilities and his aggressiveness have been much better the past several weeks, though he has a long way to go in both areas. Not predicted, but Utah has benefited from some nice contributions from fellow rookies Ingles and Elijah Millsap, with Bryce Cotton coming out of no where to be a very pleasant surprise. It is also safe to say that no one thought the Jazz would have seven rookies in the fold.
Snyder will turn a lot of heads: If the Coach of the Year award was based solely on the second half of the season, Snyder would be right up there. The way he has elevated the team’s defense, gotten great and improved play from so many young players and instilled a confidence in his squad has been completely terrific. He has invigorated this franchise and helped produce an excitement that is palpable. Few teams played as well after the All-Star break. In fact, he has the team playing .667 basketball. Snyder is clearly the right person for the job and as he grows in his head coach role along with his players, it will be exciting to see what transpires in Salt Lake City.
Other unforeseeable predictions:
In reviewing this list, it would appear that I batted about .500. We’ll take that. In closing, this has been one of the most memorable seasons in my 27 years of following the team. The Jazz played with heart, hustle and emotion. Hayward and Favors became cornerstones, while Gobert was a revelation. There are a number of things that will need to be addressed this off season, and it will be one the fan base will watch eagerly. We’ll finish with one last prediction: the future is bright with even better seasons ahead.