SALT LAKE CITY — Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors are the undisputed leaders of this Utah Jazz team.
Both entering their sixth NBA seasons, the 6-foot-8 Hayward is generally regarded as Utah's best all-around player with his ability to fill up the stat sheet with points, rebounds and assists, while the 6-10 Favors is arguably Utah's most consistent performer with his steady scoring, rebounding and defensive prowess. Both of these guys definitely know how to play, and play well, on both ends of the court.
And yet, while some folks figure that the Jazz will only go as far as Hayward and Favors carry them, it's their supporting cast that may very well determine just how successful this youthful franchise will be in the 2015-16 season and future seasons to come.
That cast includes 7-1 center Rudy Gobert, 6-1 point guards Trey Burke and Raul Neto, shooting guards Alec Burks and Rodney Hood, swingman Elijah Millsap, and role players like forwards Trevor Booker, Joe Ingles and Trey Lyles, and backup centers Jeff Withey and Tibor Pleiss.
Those are the guys who, when they're on the court, must each raise the level of their game if the Jazz hope to gain ground on the rest of the teams in the deep Western Conference and emerge as a playoff contender.
Gobert, a dominating defensive specialist, has looked somewhat sluggish during the preseason, adversely affected by his time spent with the French National Team. But in Thursday night's preseason finale, a 20-point victory over the Denver Nuggets, the big fella finally busted out with a 14-point, 10-rebound performance that bodes well for the Jazz moving forward.
"I tried to set the tone defensively right from the beginning and make sure I help my teammates and make sure we play physical," Gobert said. "... No matter who plays, we have to have the same intensity and communication, and we had it tonight. Now we have to have it for the next 82 games.”
“I think we have talked about Rudy trying to get his energy and his focus back after a long summer," second-year Utah head coach Quin Snyder said. "It’s a credit to him, you could tell in the locker room before the game. The way he was looking at me when we were giving the pregame discussion and the film. He invested in a way today from the moment he woke up to the game. When you invest like that, the odds are you are going to play well.”
Perhaps the biggest and best surprise of the preseason has been the play of Burke, who was pushed to a backup role by the emergence of Dante' Exum last season, then moved back to the forefront of Utah's guard line during the offseason when Exum suffered a torn ACL this summer and was sidelined for the coming season.
"The one thing that is great is that Trey Burke is playing great," Snyder said following Thursday's win, in which the NBA rookie Neto started at the point and Burke came in off the bench. "... Trey has been focusing on defending, you guys have seen that, and he's had good energy. Trey's been doing a lot of good things on the court."
Burke, entering his third NBA season, has made the most of his second opportunity to prove himself and insists he doesn't care whether he starts or comes in off the bench.
"I have just been letting the game come," he said. "That is what coach has been telling me to do. He tells me to really focus more on defense and, on offense, let the game come to me and find guys out there.
"I am trying to stay in the paint as much as possible to see what the defense gives me, just making the right read. I'll keep watching film and getting better."
Neto, too, says starting isn't essential to him so long as he keeps learning and improving — and the team wins.
“I like to play," he said. "It doesn’t matter who is on the court with me, but it’s always, I don’t care if I’m in the starting lineup, I just enjoy playing.
"I really don’t care if I’m starting next game or not. I just want to keep improving and keep practicing every day and ... do my best every minute I’m on the court.”
The tandem of 6-6 Burks and 6-8 Hood provide a solid one-two punch at the two-guard spot, each with a different skill set. Burks, coming off season-ending shoulder surgery last year, is a guy with great athleticism and body control who can slash to the basket and either finish or get to the foul line, while the left-handed Hood is a terrific outside shooting threat.
"Rodney's been coming off the bench, maybe playing as well as anybody on the team," Snyder said. "And that gives us a real anchor there."
Hood's confidence level has grown considerably since last season, which was his rookie year.
"It's a hard thing to do, but my teammates have a lot of confidence in me," said Hood, who scored a team-leading 23 points in Tuesday's preseason loss to Oklahoma City. "My coaches have a lot of faith in me. I just need to continue to go out and do it."
Booker is a rugged 6-8 power forward who gives the Jazz some much-needed toughness and fierce physical and emotional intensity; Ingles is the wise-cracking Australian who does a lot of things well and provides a great locker-room presence; Lyles is a promising 6-10 rookie from the storied Kentucky program; Millsap can play either shooting guard or small forward and makes the hustle plays, much like his older brother (and former Jazz fan favorite) Paul; and Withey and Pleiss provide a pair of 7-footers who can spell Gobert in the middle.
Coach Snyder says one of the best things about this group of players is they don't seem to mind sacrificing their individual statistics, wants or wishes in favor of the greater good — team success.
"We're still trying to figure out how to best utilize our guys and, as I said, that's a process," he said. "... The thing that we have is a group that I think understands the value of the team is bigger than any one of us. And they are willing to do what needs to be done.”