Staff Scrimmage: Writer Panel Weighs in on Jazz MVP, Big Improvements & More

October 16th, 2018 | by Salt City Hoops

Gobert sets the tone for the Utah Jazz, our panelists say. (Gene Sweeney Jr., via ESPN.com)

A panel of SCH writers usher in the Jazz season with a quick discussion around key players, big improvements, and Utah’s early schedule slog. 

Who will be the Jazz’s most valuable player this season?

Steve Godfrey: It is tempting to go with Donovan Mitchell, but I’m sticking with Rudy Gobert. Perhaps
the better word would be most impactful, but the Stifle Tower is the current anchor to this team with his defense and demeanor. The entire system and structure within the Jazz is built around a defensive identity that stems primarily from Gobert. When he is healthy, the Jazz are elite — which is why 70-plus game season would be huge.

Riley Gisseman: Gobert. Since he was drafted, the Jazz defensive rating has gone from 30th to 14th to 7th to 3rd to 1st. Their win totals have followed the same pattern, climbing from 25 wins in 2013 to being named a top-five team in ESPN’s latest Power Rankings. Rudy completely turns the opponent’s offense upside down and allows teammates to pressure opponents into taking bad shots. Obviously, Mitchell brings power to the offense where there’s practically nothing else, but Rudy stands for the identity of the team.

Thatcher Olson: To me the only two answers are Gobert and Mitchell. Mitchell will win some games for the Jazz, and should see a moderate improvement this year, but the team begins and ends with Gobert. A healthy Gobert will lead the Jazz to the best defense and a top record. His ability to dominate the game on the defensive end combined with his overlooked skills on offense makes him the clear MVP for the Jazz – notwithstanding a surging Mitchell.

Dane Coles: I’ll avoid the obvious answers and surprise even myself with this pick. Alec Burks. I think many of us believed he had fallen out of Quin Snyder’s lineups because he didn’t fit the system. His wild and erratic play is not characteristic of a Snyder team. But seeing what he did in last year’s playoffs and hearing the reactions from preseason so far, Burks could be a serious factor for the Jazz bench this year. The deep bench will not only retain leads but extend some with excellent guard play, specifically from Burks and Dante Exum. Burks will bring pace and a scoring threat that is much needed to this team now that he has learned to play within the system. Burks will be big for the Jazz this year. 

David J. Smith: Even during Gordon Hayward’s ascendancy to All-Star status and Mitchell’s incredible rookie campaign that took the NBA by storm, Gobert has been and will continue to be the team’s most valuable player. It was not serendipity that the 29-6 flourish to finish the season coincided with the Frenchman’s return to health. Not enough can be said about his defensive dominance. He is the hub of all that the Jazz do on that end of the court. Add in his ability to finish around the rim, his screen assists and his work on the boards and you have the team’s heart and soul. 

That said, if Gobert is #1, Mitchell is a stellar #1b. The sophomore will be poised for an even bigger season. All eyes will be eager to see what the kid does in 2018-19. 

Which Jazz player is poised to make the biggest step forward in terms of development?

RileyRoyce O’Neale is primed for another step into the limelight as he’s gone from a borderline roster player to one who was starting in the biggest games of the post-season. He has all of the tools to become a starter-caliber player. Expect Royce to be the first man off the bench and to make the most of that role, and if he can show up in a big way in spot-up three situations then he’ll be taking the biggest step forward this season.

Steve: Exum. The 23-year-old played a full season as a rookie, but hasn’t since. When the Jazz resigned “X” this offseason (three years, $33 million), they were betting on upside, potential, and health. We still don’t fully know what Exum can do offensively or defensively. We don’t know where he fits on this roster, let alone what his ideal position would be. He needs a big year this year in order to find NBA life, set
expectations, and (somewhat) showcase why he was a former No. 5 pick.

Dane: Grayson Allen. Sometimes you have to put away all the analytics and just watch a player. Don’t get me wrong, I love analytics. But when I watch Grayson, I see someone who is not overwhelmed or scared of the big leagues. Snyder has been clear that if his transition defense does not pick up, he won’t play. But under Snyder, Grayson will progress on defense. So much so that he will play valuable minutes before the All-Star break. He also adds another offensive weapon that the Jazz have needed. Between Allen and Burks, the Jazz will have serious scoring ability on their bench.

Thatcher: The two players with the biggest room for improvement are Exum and O’Neale, and both will have the opportunity to improve greatly and win more minutes in a crowded wing rotation that includes Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, Thabo Sefolosha, Allen and Burks. (Though realistically you could see this group playing any position from 1-4 on a nightly basis.) Of those two, I choose O’Neale. He burst onto the scene with his defense last year, and should be more consistent this year. Exum has the higher theoretical ceiling, but production is what will matter, and I predict O’Neale will see a more consistent jump in performance.

DavidGiven Utah’s tremendous coaching/player development staff and the players’ drive, there are several possibilities for this. In limited time last season, Exum showed the basketball world just a glimpse of some of the abilities that made him such a high draft pick. His defensive prowess was on display against the Rockets, and he showed the uncanny talent of getting to the basket. He clearly has a lot to work on — consistent jump shot, better handle and more effective finishing at the basket. But he showed confidence in running the team during the preseason. I expect a nice jump in the team’s — pun intended — X-factor. Also expect O’Neale to step up in a major way.

Who’s somebody whose minutes will be squeezed and who won’t have as big a role as he otherwise might?

Steve: One of Crowder, O’Neale or Sefolosha will have limited minutes at times. Those small-ball wings are all similar in size, but each have a unique offensive palate they bring to the table. I loved O’Neale’s development and progression towards the end of the season and playoffs; I’m excited with the idea of Sefolosha returning from injury to bang with forwards and switch positions; and I admired the toughness and grit that Crowder brought into a game. Who gets what minutes in what games and what matchups? Man, good luck Coach.

Riley: Sefolosha is being put into a situation nobody wants to be put in. He’s forced to miss five games to start the season while Georges Niang will soak up the extra power forward minutes. If Niang continues to shoot lights out (he was 8/16 in the pre-season and shot 46% in the G-League last season), Thabo may be the one taking an unforeseen step back.

DaneThe more I think about it, the more I feel bad for Snyder having to manage these minutes. Having options is great for this team and especially this coach. Snyder is one of the best in game managers in the NBA and it wouldn’t surprise me if he had already laid out a million different scenarios of who will play in those moments. Because of the way he works, I don’t particularly believe one player will suffer a big loss; Snyder will take it game by game and minute by minute. Crowder may see diminished minutes if the Jazz find success in playing extra small lineups. Even O’Neale could see a very slight drop if Allen can offer both an offense and defensive punch. 

Thatcher: Burks. Though reports say he has looked great and is healthy, there are just too many wings. The Jazz have invested in the future of multiple other players, and I see players like Exum and O’Neale getting minutes before Burks. I could see Burks being involved in a midseason trade for his expiring contract as the wing depth on the Jazz is too great. He does provide a unique scoring and creation skill some of the wings are lacking, but unless he really impresses and is consistent, I don’t see him having a big role this year in a healthy rotation.

DavidSnyder has some tough decisions to make. This is one deep roster, with guys at the end of the bench more than capable of contributing. Sefolosha’s return is an understated development for the team. He adds one more stout, versatile defender to the mix. he was perhaps the most consistent Jazzman during last season’s tough start. He ran the floor, helped keep the offense moving and hit from the perimeter. That said, given his age and his return from injury (plus the five-game suspension to start the season), I think there will be many nights the coaching staff rests him or limits his time. Come postseason, though, Sefolosha will be an important cog for Snyder. 

What game in the early part of the Jazz’s schedule are you most looking forward to?

Steve: The Golden State game is a no-brainer, but I’m more curious to see how the Jazz matchup against the Rockets in Houston (October 24). Before the Jazz can be seen as a threat to the Warriors, they first need to overcome the team that defeated them last spring. Houston lost defense and depth but added Carmelo Anthony and retained the back-breaking backcourt of Chris Paul and James Harden. The Jazz stood pat. Are they inching closer to Houston’s tier? Could they overtake them for a second or third seed? An early test could give us a few clues.

RileyI’m thrilled for the home opener. The Jazz are taking on the reigning champs in the second game of the season and if they can steal this one, I think they’ll be riding momentum for weeks to come. The Warriors aren’t likely to go 100% as it’s both a regular season game and one where they’ll be getting warmed up to the upcoming season and the way the Jazz come out will likely set a tone for the start of the season.

Thatcher: I’ll skip the obvious answer (Warriors) and say the Nuggets. This game is a few weeks into the season, and both teams should be rust-free. Though the Jazz are getting some preseason hype for top four (or higher) in the west, I think Denver will be a good test. The Nuggets could be a team pushing the Jazz in record. They have a potent offense and a young core that is improving. They cannot be overlooked.

DaneEvery night in the west is tough and the first month has the Jazz going against the top two teams in both conferences. The Warriors game intrigues because, generally speaking, Snyder’s team has typically performed better during the second half of the year. If the Jazz want to compete for home court in the loaded west, they will need to have a complete year. Sure they could go on a run like last year, but I’m sure Snyder doesn’t want to rely on that. Playing well against the Warriors on national television will give credence to the move of keeping the same team together for another season. 

David: The early season will be a test, to say the least. Utah faces a majority of the NBA’s elite over the first six weeks of the year. The games that most would say stick out are the tilts with the reigning NBA champion Warriors and the team that ousted the Jazz in May, the Rockets. Most would say these two squads are head and shoulders above the rest of the West, but it will be interesting to see what statements the Jazz can make early. It will be an early gauge to see how big the continuity of the roster will be. 

The other obvious game is Hayward’s return to Salt Lake City in November. There should be quite the environment in Vivint that evening. 

Predict the Jazz’s record over their seven October games?

Steve: The Jazz will be at home twice in the month of October and travel to the other five games. Golden State and Houston pose the biggest challenge, which is where I see the Jazz losing. Another big game is at New Orleans, but I’m giving the Jazz that win. Overall, 5-2 through Halloween night.

Riley: I think we’ll see the Jazz come out hot this season, stealing a game against Golden State, and continuing that momentum through the seven October games. I’ll predict them starting the season with a record of 5-2 and with losses to a still-Jimmy Butler-led Timberwolves and a motivated Rockets – although the Pelicans, Mavericks, and a healthy Grizzlies team will likely cause the Jazz problems. 

Dane5-2. The Jazz suffer back-to-back road losses to Houston and the Pelicans which ignites some “way too early playoff implications” chatter. A few early conference losses are bound to happen, it’s not the end of the world. This will just be an earlier eye-opener as to how hard the west is actually going to be this year.

Thatcher: This will not be an easy start to the season. With five road games and four against playoff teams, I think they will be lucky to start off with a bang. But I’m going with the bold prediction. This is a Jazz unit with continuation from last year, and they’ll catch a few teams by surprise and go 5-2. 

DavidWhile the start is road-heavy, several of those outings look winnable. Sacramento appears ready to once again King, Dallas will take some time to gel (a team to watch by season’s end, in my opinion) and Minnesota is team dysfunction right now. Visiting Houston and New Orleans will be battles. I predict Utah will split the GSW and Houston games and enter November 5-2.  

One Comment

  1. Don says:

    Best player? Gobert #1, Mitchell #2.
    Most valuable player? Rubio. When Rubio is on the Jazz win, when Rubio is off they lose.

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