The Utah Jazz were one of the NBA’s most potent offensive teams last season before the tank began in earnest. With new weapons at his disposal, Will Hardy could build a contender sooner than fans expect.
The Utah Jazz began last season red-hot, shooting to the top of the Western Conference and looking — for a brief moment in time — like surprise contenders in a league with more parody than we’ve seen in years. Reality ultimately set in, and Utah very purposefully tanked at the trade deadline, but the Jazz are not as far from contention as fans expected after the Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert trades.
Lauri Markkanen deserves the bulk of the credit for Utah’s above-average standing. He went from a fourth or fifth option in Cleveland to an All-Star in his first season with the Jazz, blowing expectations out of the water as one of the most efficient isolation scorers in the NBA. Markkanen is the rare 7-footer who can defend the perimeter, score at all three levels, and reliably generate positive outcomes off the dribble.
For Utah, however, last season’s peaks were the result of a total team effort. Will Hardy impressed in his first year as head coach, installing a culture of ball movement and selflessness across the board. Jordan Clarkson had his best playmaking season to date. Walker Kessler chipped in with the best defensive rookie season in recent memory. The Jazz were formidable on both ends.
Were it not for the purposefully orchestrated trade deadline nosedive, the Jazz would have contended for a play-in spot. The team almost did, despite shelling out half the roster for Russell Westbrook and spare parts. Danny Ainge and the front office correctly played the long game, but Utah is prepared to make a run sooner than later. Their moves this offseason confirmed that.
As the new season dawns, here’s what Will Hardy is working with rotationally.
Utah Jazz starting point guard: Jordan Clarkson
Last season was far and away the best of Jordan Clarkson’s career, and he was handsomely rewarded with a new four-year, $51 million contract over the summer. The 31-year-old survived Utah’s youth pivot at the deadline and re-upped in the offseason, establishing him as a core piece for the next half-decade — a veteran to serve as a bridge from the present to the future.
Clarkson has always possessed a talent for putting the ball in the basket, but he didn’t always have the most efficient approach. Last season was the best of both worlds: Clarkson supplied the Jazz with much needed self-creation on the perimeter, but he also embraced his role as a connective passer and off-ball mover. He effortlessly adjusted his approach to match different personnel groups. At times, he was one of three guards on the floor for Utah. Other times, he was running the show.
The Mike Conley trade left Utah without a traditional point guard, a problem the team didn’t remedy in free agency. There are other ball-handlers on the roster Hardy will consider starting next to Clarkson, but to balance the lineup both ways, it’s unwise to start Clarkson next to another undersized guard who doesn’t defend (think Collin Sexton, who split time between the first and second units last season).
Clarkson doesn’t offer much resistance at the point of attack on defense but he supplies decent positional size and enough of a playmaking presence to initiate Hardy’s movement-heavy offense. Markkanen and others will spend plenty of time with the ball in hand, allowing Clarkson to roam, cut, and spot-up from deep. He will share the floor with others guards inevitably, even if it’s not with the starting five.
Primary backup point guard: Collin Sexton
Collin Sexton was productive in his first season with the Jazz, averaging 14.3 points on .506/.393/.819 splits in 23.9 minutes per game. He started 15 of 48 appearances and saw his playing time reach a career low. He’s at risk of losing more minutes this season as the Jazz incorporate No. 16 pick Keyonte George. But, despite a roster stacked against him and more injury hurdles, Sexton’s return from a torn meniscus went about as well as it could have.
The concern with Sexton’s long term outlook is his approach. He’s undeniably talented. Not many 6-foot-1 guards can match Sexton’s scoring efficiency at all three levels. He’s a bursty driver with excellent craft around the rim, unafraid to absorb contact with his muscular frame. The 3-point shot remains top shelf. That said, Sexton isn’t always the most willing passer and despite his well-documented intensity, he remains a poor defender. That’s what will keep Sexton’s minutes at bay in Utah, especially if the Jazz opt to bring him off the bench in favor of a bigger backcourt.
Other players who could receive minutes at point guard: Talen Horton-Tucker, Keyonte George, Kris Dunn
Kris Dunn arrived late last season to fill gaps in an injury-riddled rotation. The results were shockingly positive for the former top-five pick. He averaged 13.2 points and 5.6 assists on 60.6 TS% in 25.8 minutes per game. It was a small sample size — only 22 games — but more than enough to earn Dunn a more extensive look with healthy teammates next season.
Long known for his defense, the lack of a 3-point shot and consistent scoring arsenal is what had Dunn on the verge of obsolescence before his late-season resurgence with Utah. He shot 47.2 percent on 1.6 attempts per game from 3-point range with the Jazz. The sample size factors into takeaways here, but even a remotely functional jumper changes Dunn’s outlook in a big way.