This past offseason was one of the most important summers in Utah Jazz history.
This offseason won’t budge that level of change, but nevertheless has the potential to be profoundly significant in its own right.
Not that you’ll catch the decision-makers on the team assigning any special meaning to this summer other than taking up space on the linear timeline of their metaphysical to-do list.
“The next thing is always the most important thing,” general manager Justin Zanick explained jokingly as he and CEO Danny Ainge addressed the media after the season.
If we’re to go on like this literally, next on the calendar is the NBA Draft Combine, which will be held May 16-18 in Chicago. There, at least, the team’s think tank was a little more forthcoming about what their upcoming process would look like, which should be known considering the Jazz are slated to have three first-round picks this year.
So how much stock do they put in the combine?
“Some. yeah We’ll have 10 or more of us anyway,” Ainge said. “We’re going to spend a lot more time watching [the prospects] there collectively, with groups, and evaluate them. And we’ll have a lot of time in the combine and in draft workouts to get to know them up close and personal.”
Zanick noted that while on-court skills are key, of course, player interviews will be no less important, given that the team is looking to find out “which ones can fit our culture and our timeline front line,” as he put it.
Head coach Will Hardy, speaking just before the front office staff, said that now that the season is over and he’s getting up to speed with prospect film review, he intends to go to the combine and lend his vision and voice — though and in a limited role to the process.
“I’m in talks with Danny and Justin. I’m going to start studying some of these guys in the project, but [be] fully aware of the fact that the work they’ve done all year studying these players, there’s no way I’m going to catch up before the draft,” Hardy said. “So, you know, I’ll give information and obviously continue to have a conversation with them, but they know these players in a way that I don’t. So obviously I’ll follow their lead and try to contribute along the way.”
Ainge continued that theme, noting that while it’s important to get Hardy involved, he can’t have an overly large role given that all of his focus this past year has been on the players he already had in house.
“I will say, though, it’s dangerous — coming in for one practice or one interview,” Ainge said. “Will’s contribution will be important, but it cannot outweigh what Chuck did [Terrell, senior director of basketball intelligence] did, traveling around the world and following these boys from the time they were 17 years old. We have a lot of guys who have put in a lot of time.”
And this will continue.
In addition to meeting the players at the combine, the Jazz intend to bring many players to Salt Lake City for workouts, although they have made it a point this summer — for competitive reasons — not to disclose who will be visiting their Zions Bank Basketball team headquarters on campus.
In recent years, when armed with a pick or two, the organization has been prolific with the number of invitees it has attracted. This year, armed with pick No. 16 (from the Wolves, for the Rudy Gobert trade), No.. 28 selection (from the Sixers via the Nets, for the Royce O’Neale trade) and their own pick – currently projected at No. 9, although it may go up or down a bit in the upcoming draft lottery – they will host a lot of players.
“A lot of draft training, with the ability to bring in more people [because we have] multiple picks,” Ainge said before interjecting a joke. “Get in people we’re looking for the 28th pick [because] we can tell them we’re looking for him for the ninth pick. Just kidding, all you agents are listening.
Those close-up looks will be even more important, Ainge said, because of the huge disparity between the college and NBA games.
Especially when it comes to scoring the ball.
“The game is different — it’s like we’re starting to look more like the European game than the college game,” he said. “The distance is not good. Honestly, I think defenses are better than offense, [so] when there are really special offensive players, they stand out. But yeah, defenses are a little bit better than offensive linemen in the college game right now.”
However, a team’s talent evaluators will, of course, strive to strike the right balance between assessing what a player has to offer right now and what his potential might be in the future.
As perhaps best illustrated by the Most Improved Player award presented to 25-year-old forward Lauri Markkanen last week, the organization firmly believes that the capacity for continuous development is always there.
No two players’ paths are ever the same.
“Good players who end up going undrafted, good players who end up needing a few years, some of them start really fast early on and then fall away,” Zanick said. “So you just try to get to know these guys as much as you can, and then … You project a human performance at 18, 19 or 20 years old. They will all move in different timelines.
The team could be in line for its first top-10 selection since taking Dante Exum at No. 5 overall in 2014. The team has a 4.5 percent chance to win the first overall pick and the right to select French phenom Victor Wembayama, who considered a unique talent for a generation.
After that exit interview, Zanik and Ainge said it has not yet been decided who will represent the Jazz at the draft lottery, which will be held on the first night of the May 16 combine.
Many executives representing their teams in previous iterations have been known to wear lucky totems in an attempt to appease the basketball gods and move their organization into a higher draft slot.
Do the people who make decisions at Jazz have something along those lines?
“I’m not that superstitious,” Zanik replied.
“We’ll take money,” Ainge joked. “But not too much.”