SALT LAKE CITY — With Saturday night's game against the Denver Nuggets, the Utah Jazz completed the first quarter of their 2016-17 season.
Yes, the Jazz are 21 games into their 82-game grind and, at 12-9, they're three games over .500 — not bad for a ballclub that started the season by playing seven of its first 10 games on the road and continues to be plagued by a seemingly endless series of injuries that has sidelined key players for sizable chunks of time.
OK, so playing one-fourth of the games might not tell us too much yet about how this entire season will eventually play out. After all, the first quarter of a basketball game rarely, if ever, determines the game's final outcome.
But after 21 games, we've already seen some definite trends and telling signs from this Jazz team that are pretty strong indicators of what's to come in the weeks and months ahead.
And as the Jazz prepare to play a road game Monday night against the Lakers in Los Angeles, here's what we have learned about their roster thus far:
• Gordon Hayward has arrived as an All-Star-caliber performer.
A lot of media folks in this market have been clamoring for Hayward to receive All-Star consideration over the past couple of years but, in all honesty, he was on the fringe but didn't deserve it yet.
He does now.
After missing the first six games of the season with a broken finger, Hayward has certainly made up for lost time. A string of three straight 30-plus scoring games has pushed Hayward's average to a career-best 22.8 points per game; he's also contributing 6.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game, and he's shooting a superb 91.4 percent from the foul line. In Saturday's victory over Denver, he poured in 21 points in the third quarter alone.
That said, Jazz head coach Quin Snyder continually raves about Hayward's defense as arguably the strongest and most important part of his game this year.
If he keeps this up, this should finally be the time for Hayward's all-around talents to receive that All-Star recognition that has eluded the 6-foot-8 forward, who's now in his seventh NBA season. And re-signing him to a new deal after this season is Job 1 for the Jazz front office.
• George Hill makes a huge difference in the Jazz's performance.
When the veteran point guard missed eight games with an injured thumb earlier this season, the Jazz sputtered to a 3-5 record over that span. When he came back, they promptly went on a four-game winning streak and, when he was forced to sit out last Friday's game against Miami with an injured toe, Utah saw its winning streak broken with a home-court loss to a lousy Heat team.
Coincidence? I think not.
In the 11 games he's played in, Hill has averaged 20 points and a team-leading 4.2 assists per game, and he seems to bring a steadying influence, determined tenacity and critical cohesiveness to the court that is often lacking when he's not out there.
Bottom line, the Jazz are 8-3 with Hill on the court, and just 4-6 when he sits. He looks like one of the best offseason acquisitions they've made in years, and re-signing him beyond this season should also be a top priority.
• Rudy Gobert is emerging as one of the best young centers in the league.
The 7-foot-1 Stifle Tower, once known as primarily a shot-blocker and rebounder, is steadily improving his all-around game and gives the Jazz not only one of the league's best interior defenders and rim protectors, but also a guy whose strong desire to become a better scorer, passer and overall player will only continue to pay dividends in the years ahead.
• Rodney Hood can be a big difference-maker.
The third-year shooting guard has become a great option on the offensive end, and when he can get that long-range, left-handed shot of his in a groove, it provides the Jazz with a mighty potent weapon that makes them that much more difficult to defend. His 6-8 size and length can be a factor on the defensive end of the floor as well.
• Trey Lyles is a capable replacement for injured Derrick Favors.
Though Lyles won't likely ever be the rebounder or interior defender that Favors is, he's a better outside shooter and a bigger threat from beyond the 3-point line than Favors, which allows the Jazz to spread the floor on offense when he's out there. And keep in mind that he just turned 21 years old in November.
• Dante Exum has a long way to go to become the player he and the Jazz hope he'll be someday.
The Jazz love Exum's 6-6 length on the defensive end of the floor, but his offensive game and decision-making are still a work in progress. Missing all of last season with a torn ACL seems to have stalled that process a bit but, still, he's only 21 years old, so don't give up on the kid yet.
• Joe Johnson was a solid offseason acquisition who, along with Hill, brings a vital veteran presence to a young Jazz ballclub.
Johnson's been a star in this league for 15 years, and he's still showing why. Johnson, along with Boris Diaw, Joe Ingles and Shelvin Mack, have shown the ability to either start or come in off the bench and be effective role players either way.
• The Jazz miss Favors and Alec Burks, but they've learned to live — and win — without 'em.
Though Utah would have a better and much deeper lineup if and when Favors and Burks are healthy enough to return, the Jazz have adapted to their absence.
The addition of Johnson and Diaw during the offseason became more critical when Favors was sidelined with recurring knee problems, forcing him to miss 10 of their first 21 games. Burks, meanwhile, has yet to play this season.
• Finally, if we take Utah's current winning percentage and project it over an 82-game schedule, it calculates to roughly a 47-win season.
Though 47 wins would be a nice improvement over last season, don't be surprised if this year's team winds up winning closer to 50 games, and maybe more, as they learn to play together and, through added experience, young players like Lyles, Gobert and Hood continue their trajectory of improvement.