SALT LAKE CITY — Rodney Hood wasn’t expecting to run so much. Dante Exum had anticipated the day for years, minus the getting-yelled-at part. And Utah Jazz players didn’t focus one iota of attention to offense.
In other words, there were elements of surprise in the first official practice of the 2014-15 season.
“It was good. It was tough,” said Exum, the Australian point guard and fifth overall pick of the 2014 NBA draft. “Coach (Quin Snyder) was on everyone making sure everything was right, introducing the key things he wants to focus on this year.”
And, yes, that included some running.
“We ran a couple of sprints, which I didn’t think they did in the NBA, really,” said Hood, the small forward from Duke who was selected 23rd overall in the first round of June’s draft.
The big eyebrow-raiser of the camp-opening practice wasn’t how players got an occasional earful or were made to run. An even bigger surprise was that the Jazz completely zeroed in on defense.
“It’s very different. We didn’t run a play (on offense) all practice,” Jazz big man Derrick Favors said. “Everything was basically defense — defensive rotations, where to be at, how to guard your man, different schemes. The whole practice was basically defense.”
Especially transition defense, one of the culprits for Utah finishing ranked last in the league in defensive efficiency for the 2013-14 season.
“It’s the first part of any defensive possession,” Snyder said. “If you’re not back in transition then you don’t get a chance to play any other type of defense.”
In his first season as head coach, Snyder is committed to changing the defensive culture in Utah. That, Jazz management believes, is a critical step that must be taken en route to the championship-contending level the team hopes to reach.
“We’re focusing on defending,” Snyder said between the day’s two practice sessions. “I think that’s where we’ve got to begin.”
It starts on the offensive side of the court. Snyder wants his bigs to pound the glass for offensive boards and then to beeline it to the other end if that doesn’t work. Meanwhile, it’s up to the rest of the team to hurry back to slow down fast-break and early-offense attempts.
But, Snyder insisted, it’s more than just physically hustling.
“It’s habits. It’s mental hustle. If you’re not quick to react, you’re late and you can’t catch up. It’s like a sprint — whoever gets out of the gate quickly has an advantage,” the new Jazz coach said. “Especially if you look at the point guards in the West — the ball’s coming at you pretty quick. We’ve got to have the bigs also to form a wall, so people see bodies and see a crowd (and) they don’t see space and the rim.”
Fourth-year big Enes Kanter said defense was the first thing Snyder talked about in a locker room meeting before practice, too.
“I think the important thing right now is defense. Just go out there and just give yourself 100 percent on defense,” Kanter said. “We have special, talented guys who can score the ball. But team defense is teamwork. Every five guys has to do it. It’s going to take some work, definitely. I have to be more in shape. We all have to be in better shape.”
While the Jazz have talked about improving their defense in years past, Favors said things feel a bit different at the beginning of this camp. The players seem more committed. The focus on that end of the court is sharper.
“We’re more focused on defense this year than previous years. Everybody came out here and we’re committed to playing defense,” Favors said. “It’s a very unselfish team. Everybody wants to share the ball. Everybody wants to see everybody do good. It feels like it’s a different feeling in the gym.”
On an individual basis, Favors said Snyder wants him to “play defense like I’ve always played, just with the team.” That includes helping teammates when they get beat off the dribble, adjusting to get back on D quicker, and being more vocal, something coaches tried to get him to do last season.
Kanter, who averaged a double-double over the last month and a half of 2013-14, knows he has left much room for improvement on the defensive end. He said it’s catching on, too.
“Last year, I didn’t have much knowledge on defense. But now this year with Coach Quin, (he) has given us that energy. It’s just come naturally,” Kanter said. “You just want to play defense. Of course, offense is fun. Everybody wants to play offense. Defense is becoming fun too for me.” Hood, a 6-8 small forward, said the coaches are stressing that he should “make athletic plays,” including swiping down lobs, being physical and rebounding.
Exum said the coaches also talked about getting three players back quickly in defensive transition to foil fast breaks.
“As a young team,” he said, “if we can get the D-trans and put them in a half-court and make them play, it gives us a better chance to win in the long run.”
The 6-6 playmaker hopes to be able to use his elite quickness and size to pester opposing point guards, although the raw 19-year-old anticipates a challenge getting used to the physicality of the NBA. He said that might be harder to adapt to at this level than running the offensive show.
“Defense is one of those things where it’s physical, guys are running off, using their body to get open, get to the basket,” he said. “I think that’s going to be one of the tough things.”
And, yes, he’ll hear about it when he doesn’t get back quick enough or try hard enough on the defensive end. That, Exum admitted, happened Tuesday morning.
Jokingly asked if he got yelled at in his first practice, Exum smiled and softly replied.
“Yeah, I did,” he said. “On the base line.”
Not to ruin any future surprises for the rookie, but it won't be the last time.