SALT LAKE CITY — Jazz center Derrick Favors had a quick response for a media member who asked if he was surprised at how quickly the younger Jazz players are picking up new coach Quin Snyder’s system.
“Who are the younger guys?” Favors replied, laughing. “I’m still 23.”
Technically, that makes the fifth-year big man one of the younger players. Utah’s average age is 24.1, which makes it the second-youngest roster in the NBA behind Philadelphia (24.0), according to RealGM.com.
“I think everybody is coming along with each other,” Favors said, acknowledging that the reporter was asking about rookies Dante Exum, 19, and Rodney Hood, 22.
“I guess the younger guys, they’re doing good. They’re coming along. They’ve still got a lot of stuff to learn, but overall you can still see the talent.”
Same could be said of the Jazz, who enter tonight’s preseason finale with a better-than-expected 5-2 record.
With the Phoenix Suns in town for this matchup, one question is on everybody’s mind:
Can the Jazz be the Suns of 2014-15?
After being picked to be among the worst teams in the NBA last season, the Jeff Hornacek-coached Suns stunned the hoops world by challenging for a playoff spot and finishing with a 48-34 record.
The Jazz, who are almost unanimously expected to finish in the Western Conference cellar by pundits’ predictions, are optimistic (of course) that they can dramatically improve on their 25-57 rebuilding season of 2013-14.
“Critics are going to say what they’re going to say. We’re still a young team. I feel like we’re still an underrated team in this league,” said Jazz point guard Trey Burke, 22. “We have a lot to prove. We’re working each and every day to get better as a team. I think we’ll shock a lot of people this year.”
In his first season as an NBA head coach, Snyder wants that stunning transformation to begin on the defensive side. To wit, the 47-year-old was asked what he was talking about to general manager Dennis Lindsey and assistant general manager Justin Zanik before conducting his post-practice interview session with the media.
“Transition defense,” Snyder said.
The coach was joking (maybe), but it illustrated what is foremost on his mind with his young team, which doesn’t have a starter older than 24.
Snyder went on to say that he’s liked the way his players have built habits in practice and carried them over into game situations during exhibition play.
Although he isn’t using Phoenix’s success from a season ago as a motivational tool, Snyder believes the Jazz can learn from the Suns, especially because both teams intend to play with a quick pace.
“I think all of us can learn from a young team to utilize your strengths,” Snyder said. “Their strengths are athleticism and their ability to get up and down the floor. Jeff did a great job of identifying that and playing to their strengths.”
Snyder finds himself in that same process now.
Not only has he focused on foiling opponents’ fast-break attempts, but he’s given the Jazz a new, up-tempo look on offense.
Snyder wants his team to run — from the moment the ball comes off the backboard or through the net on defense all the way until they’re busting it back after their own offensive possession.
He insists that the Jazz “play with a pass” to keep defenses off guard. He wants them to use pick-and-rolls to set up scoring opportunities or to move the team into another level of its offense. He views 3-point shots, especially corner 3s, as a valuable weapon to efficiently put more points on the scoreboard and to stretch out defenses to perhaps open up other scoring lanes.
But he also wants to take advantage of the strong interior game the Jazz have with bigs like the 6-10 Favors and 6-11 Enes Kanter.
“We’d like to open it and go,” he said, “(and) then kind of get into another phase of offense where maybe we’re a little more balanced than some other teams as far as our ability to score inside, too.”
It’s all about creating a new identity.
And, yes, trying to win sooner rather than later, like Phoenix did last year when it was supposed to be in a rebuilding season.
“They just came out and played freely,” Favors said. “Guys wasn’t hesitant to take shots, wasn’t too worked about going to the bench. Their coaches let them go out and play the game. I think that helped them a lot.”
While Kanter and Alec Burks have mentioned being a potential playoff team this season and Burke talked about being a shocker, Favors took a more measured approach when asked if the Jazz can be the surprise team of the season.
“We hope we can,” Favors said. “At the same time, we’ve got to wait and see.”
So far, so surprisingly good. Utah has, after all, beaten 2014 playoff teams in the Blazers, Clippers and Thunder in the past couple of weeks.
“Guys are still competing,” Burke said. “Preseason is a good test for us. We’re looking forward to carrying it over into the regular season.”