Spring Training: Why the Stretch Run Matters

March 5th, 2015 | by Dan Clayton
(Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

(Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

A significant chunk of basketball still remains in the 2014-15 season. Sure, 22 games — or six weeks, as our friends from the other side of the Rockies reminded us1 — might seem paltry. But that means a quarter of the season is left for players to develop, influence their value, or just plain show the world what they can do.

The Utah Jazz have probably seen what they’re going to see from a lot of their core guys this year. That doesn’t mean there aren’t intriguing subplots to watch all over this team. But for most of the roster, we kind of know what they are in the immediate term. Nothing’s going to happen in the last month and a half that’s going to drastically change the way we view Gordon Hayward, for example. But that’s not true of everyone.

For some guys on the roster, this last chunk of competitive ball could be extremely valuable. Whether it’s to gain momentum, mojo or money, there are players with a lot of reasons to keep their feet on the gas pedal. I’ll unveil them, in reverse order of just how important I think this stretch is in defining their next steps.

Honorable mention: Jeremy Evans. Finally back on the fringes of the rotation. This might represent the pending free agent’s last chance to establish himself as a rotation piece for the Jazz.

Honorable mention: Rudy Gobert. It’s hard to imagine The Stifle Tower taking another leap mid-season after already shattering expectations. But I’ll still be interested to watch his last 22 for a couple of different reasons. First, it’s just fun. He’s the toast of Jazzland right now, and has become part of the broader conversation about Utah around the League. Second, I’m interested to see how much of the Jazz’s new defensive identify is sustainable, and Rudy’s a big key to that.

Honorable Mention: Elijah Millsap. Lil Sap, as I like to call him, will likely be back next year because of his flexibility-friendly contract. But whether he comes back to compete for a rotation role or to audition for a job depends largely on whether he can use these remaining games to polish his offensive game.

Now, the two guys who can make the most of the last 22 games.

#2: Dante Exum. Will we finally get The Exum Game? Will Exum earn a game ball in my imaginary rankings? Will he have moments that make us say, “Oh, THAT’s the guy they drafted fifth overall?”

We all know what we’d like to see out of Exum over the final 22: more aggression. There’s a great profile on Exum over at SI featuring a visual representation of where Exum spends his time on the court. That graphic confirms what you see nightly: Dante parks in the corners a lot. The column sheds a lot of light onto Exum’s current mindset.

The biggest problem I see is not his pass-first instinct. Right now he’s trying hard not to disrupt the flow, so he’s more focused2 on remembering and executing steps than on finding an opportunity for himself. And that’s not a bad place to start. Because later on down the line, the steps will become second nature and he’ll be able to start seeing things. I’m fine with that.

The larger problem is that when there is daylight in front of him, he’s not attacking it. But he seems to have an idea of what he needs to do to capitalize. Here’s a quote from that SI piece:

“I’ll come off an on-ball [screen] and the middle of the floor is open. It’s just me and my guy. Instead of using body contact to go through him, it’s more I just kind of kick it on and pass it, which frustrates me in a way. But it’s just about getting rid of that habit that I’ve created and trying to be strong all the way through. I think it’s not even a confidence thing. I think I have the confidence to go do it, I just think it’s being more aggressive and having that mentality to go out and when I get the opportunity, take it.”

I believe him. Here are a couple of stills where Dante could have turned on the burners, but didn’t.

Exum still 1

Exum still 1

This is a transition play where Exum has one guy to beat, and Ty Lawson doesn’t appear to be watching him that closely. At the very least, he could drive hard left and see if Gallo would commit, freeing up Gordon Hayward (just out of frame) on the baseline. Instead, Exum trails off to the right and initiates a set that results in a Joe Ingles airball. Or there’s this off-ball example:

Exum still 2

Exum still 2

This exact same play action resulted in a nice alley-oop dunk for Exum during Summer League, but he has stopped making that play for the hoop.

It seems like these are two plays where “X” had a lot of space to operate, but simply held back, somewhat frustratingly.

Or is that maybe on purpose? Are Dante and his coaches perhaps holding back on some of those things? I’ve had a theory that maybe they want him to avoid using his speed as a crutch so they’re asking him not to do certain things so that he can develop other aspects of his game, like practicing piano with your weaker hand so that later you can bring two virtuoso hands together and produce masterpieces. Andy Larsen asked Quin Snyder if there was any such strategy with Dante, or if his lack of aggression is just a symptom of his youth and inexperience.

Here was Snyder’s answer:

“Probably both. I think there’s always priorities with your game. If you’ve got a great fastball but you can’t throw it over the plate, you better throw a strike before you can throw a curveball. That’s kind of where Dante is.

“There’s things that he’s doing and he needs to keep continuing to do better, but there’s also things… You can’t avoid: if he’s open, he’s gotta shoot. I think one thing, his finishing in the midrange area… just his decisions in that area of the court. That’s a tough place for a young point guard in the NBA. You’ve got guys all around you, so that’s an area. Obviously the defense is huge. That’s something that I’ve put at the top of the list and he’s responded to that.”

That’s a bit more nebulous than I was hoping for, and stops short of answering whether they are making a focused effort to get Exum NOT to use his elite speed while he lets other attributes catch up. But it’s interesting to me that as Snyder delineated Exum’s areas for improvement, he didn’t say, “I want him attacking the rim more.” He mentioned midrange decision-making and taking open shots. That borderline confirms my theory that Snyder wants Exum to leave his jetpack in the locker room for now and instead focus on the finer points of NBA basketball.

It would be fun, though, if we saw what carte blanche could do for Exum, even a couple of times in the final 22 outings3. Dante had some nice individual outings right after the starting lineup change, and maybe with another slight nudge the Jazz can unleash more of that potential.

#1: Rodney Hood. These games aren’t more important for anyone than they are for the Jazz’s other first-round rook.

Through no fault of his own, Hood has only appeared in only half of the Jazz’s games so far. He hasn’t had a lot of opportunities to work on a feel for the game, and yet he’s been promising, especially of late.

He has hit 52.6% of his attempted threes (2.7 per game) since returning to the lineup seven games ago, and he has also shown, albeit more sporadically, the ability to put the ball on the floor and create off the bounce, for himself and others.  When you can shoot, get to the paint, and distribute, you’re a pretty complete offensive package that has to be respected.

Hood is no slouch on the other end, either. Generally speaking, he does good work at staying in front, and when he does get beat, he’s usually not out of the picture because of his size and length. That’s encouraging, since one of the bigger worries about him centered around collegiate metrics that historically have signaled a difficulty for perimeter players to translate their game athletically to the NBA. To wit, Hood looks as though he belongs with this class of athlete, and the Jazz have defended pretty well with him on the floor since the break.

The mistakes he does make usually have to do with quick reads. He sometimes makes the wrong split-second decision, and it’s hardly fair to indict him for that given that he’s still under 600 minutes as a pro. Over time, you’ll see fewer of these costly momentary lapses. Pay close attention to the Favors-Hood transaction here:

Here, the Jazz are obviously trying to switch everything behind Rudy Gobert. Favors knows this, so as Tyler Zeller heads to the lane, Fav gets ready to “hand off” Zeller to Hood. But Hood looks momentarily confused4, and in the nanosecond it takes him to realize what’s happening, Zeller gets the inside track. That (combined with Gobert not guarding the inbound tightly) spells disaster, as at that point there’s little the Jazz can do to keep Zeller from the rim.

This would be a cardinal sin if this were a playoff game or a late-season battle between contender. The beauty of the Jazz’s situation is that it costs them little in a game like this one, and gives Hood the chance to develop the mental velocity so that, the next time around, this read comes easier.

And then, of course, there are the pragmatic reasons why these are important moments for Hood. This summer, the Jazz may find themselves making calculations about what their future wing rotation entails. If opportunities arise to acquire a wing scorer, then that likely means making decisions about Hood and Burks, or Hood and Millsap, or Hood and Ingles. I’m sure Utah wants to make those decisions with as much information as possible.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

3 Comments

  1. Matt says:

    Great article. Unleash the Exum!

  2. Paul Johnson says:

    In the last few games, Hood has not only looked like an extremely competent backup at the SG position, but has also looked like he has potential to be a very good starting SG as he gets acclimatized to the NBA.

    • Dan Clayton says:

      Agree, he looks like he’s finally getting enough consecutive games to find a rhythm. Most of the areas he’s struggling a bit are things that will come with time — like knowing when to go and when to stay, getting turned around on rotation, etc. I’m encouraged.

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