We have to avoid pie-in-the-sky (thinking). We need to have our feet on the ground. We need to commit ourselves to (player development and the system). I think we get there in a workmanlike way. – Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder
SALT LAKE CITY — Questions. You have questions about the Utah Jazz, don’t you?
Why, of course.
Fans do. Reporters do. The Jazz do.
Some verbal answers came Monday when the team participated in its annual media day circus to kick off training camp.
If “Are the Jazz excited about the 2014-15 season?” was your question, that was answered both enthusiastically and often as all 19 players, new coach Quin Snyder, general manager Dennis Lindsey and team president Randy Rigby met with the media horde at Zions Bank Basketball Center.
“We’re excited about the start of camp today,” Rigby said in the first interview Monday. “I think it’s really a new era for Jazz basketball.”
Lindsey’s opening remarks echoed Rigby’s: “We’re excited about the start of the season, and we’re honored to be representing the Jazz and this community.”
“I think,” Snyder added, “everybody’s really, really excited to get it going.”
So it seems.
Many other pertinent answers, of course, won’t formulate until the Jazz get on the court in practice situations and especially in games. That process begins Tuesday morning when Utah hits the hardwood for the first of three consecutive two-a-day sessions.
“It’s exciting definitely to be here and be back in Utah,” said Jazz small forward Gordon Hayward. “I think we’re all itching it get it going (Tuesday).”
“I can’t wait,” said Jazz rookie Dante Exum, who was picked No. 5 overall in June’s draft. “I’ve trained a lot of my life and I’m ready to start playing some games. I know we play one next Tuesday, and I’m just looking forward to that.”
With that excitement level established, here are some of the biggest questions the Jazz face heading into training camp for what is shaping up as a pivotal season in the franchise’s 40-year history.
• How will Snyder do in his first season as an NBA head coach?
Since being hired to replace Tyrone Corbin in June, the former Duke point guard and Missouri coach has made it clear he intends for the Jazz to “play with a pass,” to play with good spacing, to play with good pace and pick-and-rolls, and, yes, to play much better defense than the NBA-worst version Utah displayed last season while going 25-57.
“We need to work at it in practice to try to improve our habits, and then to see it translate into a game as the year progresses,” Snyder said. “Hold everybody accountable, try to build it that way.”
Though he has a solid basketball pedigree and has trained under top-tier coaches, including Mike Krzyzewski and Gregg Popovich, Snyder said that doesn’t mean success is guaranteed just by his arrival in Utah.
“We have to avoid pie-in-the-sky (thinking). We need to have our feet on the ground,” Snyder said. “We need to commit ourselves to (player development and the system). I think we get there in a workmanlike way.”
One thing that resonated loudly Monday: Snyder has a team that’s ready to follow him.
“At the end of the day, Coach is our leader,” Hayward said. “We’re definitely behind him 100 percent. That’s what we’re most excited about — him and what he brings to us as a team. He’s kind of brought it the past two weeks already. We’re excited to follow his lead.”
• Just how good/bad will the Jazz be?
Showing they’re a unified front, both Lindsey and Snyder used a similar phrase when talking about the organization’s expectations: “process-oriented.” For now, building the foundation the right way is more important for the team than where the Jazz are in the standings.
“Of course everyone wants to just measure it on wins and losses, but I think we’re going to have a lot of smaller victories as we watch how the team unfolds as how they start incorporating and internalizing our new offense and our defense, and seeing them then apply what Coach Snyder and the staff have been teaching them,” Rigby said. “We’re going to watch for the improvement and the step-by-step development that the team does during the season.”
Returning players were more willing to be bold in their predictions.
“I don’t know if I want to say promise,” Jazz big man Enes Kanter said, smiling. “I just really want to bring back the playoffs to Utah.”
That hasn’t happened since Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap led Utah to the postseason in 2012.
“I feel like we can (make the playoffs),” Jazz guard Alec Burks said. “The talent here is unbelievable, especially being young. I feel like we can definitely do it.”
Added point guard Trey Burke: “I think the fans need to be patient with this team, but I think we have the talent to give the fans what they want.”
Lindsey certainly appreciates the exuberance of some players and the wise call for patience from others.
“We doubled down on the youth movement,” he admitted of his roster that only has one guy with a guaranteed contract over the age of 26 (Steve Novak, 31). “We have to grow a lot of young players up simultaneous, but we look forward to the challenge.”
• What will the starting lineup be?
Snyder didn’t give specifics, but a good starting point for a first unit would be the returning players with the most playing time from last season: Burke, Burks, Hayward, Kanter and Derrick Favors.
The new Jazz coach said he looks forward to letting players battle it out for playing time and roles.
“I think you have to have competition,” Snyder said. “Individually and externally, competition helps make you better. That’s got to be true of lineups, of playing time and all of those things.”
• Can Hayward be The Man now that he has The Contract?
Hayward signed a $63 million deal over the offseason, shedding the burden of uncertainty while adding a mantle of responsibility and high expectations. And while he was one of the few NBA players to average 16 points, five rebounds and five assists, the versatile swingman struggled with shooting, consistency and frustration during his fourth season.
“I think he can get better. I think he’s committed to do that,” Snyder said of Hayward. “Sometimes the growth process is hard. There will be things that he’ll fail at just naturally, but in doing that he has a real opportunity. We don’t need Gordon to play it safe. We need him to let it out.”
The 24-year-old Hayward, who got married and worked out with Team USA in a busy offseason, is ready to do just that as he enters the next phase of his career.
“I’ve always had high expectations of myself. I don’t see there being more pressure in that regards,” he said, speaking of his contract. “They trust me as a player and I trust my capabilities as a player. I think the only pressure there is really is pressure to succeed, pressure to grow as a team.”
• How will the big man situation play out?
Favors and Kanter struggled to play well together at times last season, especially early on, but Snyder sees that combo as being one of the Jazz’s many enticing weapons.
“I think we have some unique combinations that we’re capable of putting out on the floor, Enes and Derrick being one of them. They’re both unique players. They’re both big,” Snyder said. “Certainly those two guys playing together, absolutely, they can do that and I think they can do a good job at it.”
The Jazz are also eager to see the continued progression of second-year center Rudy Gobert, who played brilliantly at times during summer league action and took the world by storm in some games during the FIBA tournament with France.
• How will the new guys fit in?
This goes along with the previous question in the sense that free agent pickup Trevor Booker and trade acquisition Novak both figure to play in the regular rotation. Both forwards bring differing skill sets, with Booker being more of a power player and Novak having the ability to light it up with the best of them from outside.
Lindsey mentioned both by name when asked which new guys can make an impact.
“Trevor Booker. He’s established residency here. He’s been a very hard worker during our open-gym period,” Lindsey said. “I think Steve Novak as being one of our more experienced guys, he’s got some great leadership and when I say this some good character and personality to the locker room. I would hope that (leadership help) will take place. Quin needs some support in those areas.”
• Point guard of the future: Burke or Exum?
Because of Exum’s inexperience and age — he turned 19 over the summer — Burke certainly has an advantage at this point. To wit, Lindsey spoke about the Jazz wanting to establish a baseline — effective habits, strength, etc. — for the highly touted Australian rookie to improve upon looking ahead to next year.
“Then,” Lindsey said, “we’ll let his play individually relative from the team kind of dictate where we go from there.”
Snyder plans on playing Exum with Burke in the backcourt, although their shooting limitations could make that an offensive liability in situations. The coach also wants Burke to improve his defensive prowess after a rough rookie year in that area. Overall, though, it seems the former Michigan star has the edge for now.
“(With) his ball security (and) his natural inclination to make the right pass, I think he’s underrated as a point guard,” Lindsey said of Burke. “I think there were some strides late in the season defensively.”
• Will this be a breakout year for Alec Burks?
The fourth-year guard from Colorado, who’s as confident as he is athletic, sure seems to think so. He spent the offseason working on his strength so he can respond better after being pounded — and often falling on the court — when attacking the rim. And he plans on continuing to use his energetic burst and acrobatic skills to score in Snyder’s open system.
“It fits lot. Play with pace. Play in the open space. That’s what I do,” he said. “The sky’s the limit for myself. That’s the kind of expectations I have for myself. I’m very confident in my abilities.”
By the way, Lindsey said the Jazz have begun to have contract extension talks with the agents of both Burks and Kanter. They have until the end of October to come to terms or the players will become restricted free agents next summer.
• So, after all that, are the Jazz still excited?
Snyder is. He likes the group he gets to call his first team in the NBA after toiling as an assistant in Atlanta, Russia and with the Lakers following stints as head coach at Austin (D-League) and Missouri.
“They’re going to be fun to coach,” he said.
The feeling is mutual from the players, who are full of optimism and energy heading into camp.
“Just seeing the versatility we have, the new coaching staff, the new guys — the rookies (Exum and Rodney Hood) to the guys that we’ve picked up (Booker, Novak, Carrick Felix and Toure’ Mury), I definitely think this team is much better than what a lot of people expect us to be,” said Burke, who formally apologized for nude photos of himself that were circulated Monday.
“We’re working hard every day,” he added. “We’re all excited to be back out there on the court and start a new season.”
Once the initial excitement wears down, though, there are even more questions:
Can Favors become a more dominant player on both ends of the court?
Can Kanter really incorporate a 3-point game into his arsenal?
Will Hood, the 23rd pick of the June draft, make a bigger impact than Exum?
Can the Jazz’s youth trump its inexperience?
And who are the top draft prospects for 2015 just in case the answers to many of those questions aren’t positive?