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Moving on, Utah Jazz ready to 'surprise' in post-Hayward era

LAS VEGAS — In 2010, Gordon Hayward led a relatively unknown mid-major school from the obscure Horizon League to the NCAA championship game.

In the ensuing months after his half-court heave bounced off the rim and Duke escaped with a national title, Hayward decided to leave Butler University to play professional hoops, was drafted ninth overall by the Utah Jazz, and began what’s evolved into a successful NBA career.

Fast forward to 2017, and the Jazz organization and Utah basketball fans are reeling from the Brownsburg, Indiana, native’s decision to rejoin his college coach, Brad Stevens, and play for the Boston Celtics.

Those mourning Hayward’s departure, fearing the damage it could inflict on surging Utah’s rebuild project, might take comfort in what happened at Butler after Hayward left.

Against all odds and without their departed star, the Bulldogs returned to the national championship game in 2011.

While the comparison isn’t perfect, the Jazz will be forced to adapt in a similar manner to Butler if they hope to remain relevant in the Western Conference playoff scenario.

Acknowledge the loss.

Adjust the roster as favorably as possible.

Adapt with the talent you have.

Allow new guys to contribute and fill the void.

Advance with a team-first attitude.

That’s the attitude permeating from within the Jazz organization. Sure, Utah would prefer to move on with its All-Star and leading scorer, but the team is not willing to accept defeat as it moves on without him.

Their only All-NBA player from a year ago, rising star center Rudy Gobert, believes the Jazz won’t skip a beat as they plunge ahead without the Boston-bound Hayward. The Quin Snyder-coached squad will continue to focus on improving, competing and winning, not to mention shocking doubters.

“I think people are going to be surprised what we’re going to do this year,” Gobert said. “That’s what I’m worried about — keep going forward and keep getting better.”

Like his outspoken center, Snyder is convinced the best thing the team can do in the post-Hayward era is to circle the wagons and focus on the strengths of those who are on the roster instead of bemoaning the loss of a valuable asset.

“Certainly we will miss Gordon and his many contributions to our team, but I always tell our players that ‘adversity is opportunity in disguise,’” Snyder said in the wake of Hayward's decision to depart. “This is one of those moments and we need to live those words.

“We have a roster of young, talented and resilient players. I am confident that together we will accept this challenge while continuing to strive toward our goal of individual and collective improvement.”

That’s a similar message Snyder shared time and again over the past two seasons when the Jazz were forced to play in shorthanded situations because of injuries. The coach didn’t want players feeling sorry for their situation then, and it’s the last thing he wants them to do going forward.

“To further lament Gordon’s departure does not honor the commitment we have to our current players,” Snyder said. “Therefore, I would like to personally wish Gordon well as he and his family move on with his career. As we move forward, we’ll continue to focus our attention on the place it is most needed and wanted — our players and the entirety of the Jazz organization.”

Considering they lost their leading scorer and Hayward’s 21.9 points a game and have a new starting point guard — Spanish playmaker Ricky Rubio — there are valid reasons why you could pose questions about the Jazz’s offense for next year.

For instance: Will Utah be able to score? And how? And who?

“We’re going to be a little challenged to score,” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey admitted during an interview on the team’s radio station, 1280 The Zone. “That’s why we’re talking about Rodney Hood. I know we’ll compete.”

Considering they return the best rim protector in the game in Gobert and have added a few more defensively skilled players — from Rubio at the point to rookie Donovan Mitchell and Thabo Sefolosha on the wing, to fleet-footed big Ekpe Udoh down low — Utah might not need to score that much to win games.

“We have Rudy Gobert, the best center in the NBA at 25,” Lindsey said. “We think we’ll be able to keep the defensive integrity. We’re confident.”

Unless they pull off a trade for a new small forward before the season starts, the Jazz will hope for the best when it comes to Hood and Derrick Favors healing from injuries that derailed them during the 2016-17 season. The team is also hopeful that Dante Exum and Alec Burks can bounce back and be productive after health issues hampered their progress and play in recent years.

The Jazz will certainly look different this year and not just because No. 20 chose to part ways with his team of seven seasons.

Starting point guard George Hill is now with Sacramento. Backup playmaker Shelvin Mack signed with Orlando. Veteran power forward Boris Diaw will be with another team, as will reserve center Jeff Withey. Forward Trey Lyles was traded to Denver.

Utah will welcome some new faces, including three who came to terms on new deals this past Wednesday — Sefolosha, Udoh and Swedish power forward Jonas Jerebko. Two new rookies — Mitchell, who blossomed into a summer-league star in Salt Lake City and Sin City the past two weeks, and Tony Bradley — have also joined the Jazz.

Those additions — along with the re-signing of restricted free agent Joe Ingles — should help fill in gaps on the wing and in the frontcourt. While the Jazz appear to lack offensive firepower, they're a versatile team that has depth and serious defensive potential.

“Following Gordon Hayward's departure, the Jazz's game plan is now clear,” ESPN basketball analyst Kevin Pelton wrote. “They're going to try to grind out wins with an elite defense and hope thinner teams wear out down the stretch against their ability to go two-deep or better at every position.”

Lindsey pointed out that Hood’s offensive efficiency was actually better when he was on the court without Hayward last year, so that’s something to build on. Hood’s 3-point percentage improved last season over the previous year (from 35.9 percent to 37.1 percent), but his minutes dipped by five a game and he averaged only 12.7 points after scoring 14.5 points an outing the previous year.

“Rodney needs the ball to contribute. He’s a good pick-and-roll, off-the-dribble (player),” Lindsey said. “Reliability and availability will be the two best abilities regarding Rodney Hood. It’s not basketball skills. It’s not character. It’s not intelligence. It’s not knowing how to play. It’s just now he’s moving into a primary role and we think he’ll be able to handle it, but he’s got to be able to prove it.”

Hill will be missed — though he also had injury issues that prevented him from consistently being a force for Utah — but Rubio’s pass-first mentality is congruent with the type of play-with-the-pass offensive style Snyder prefers. That’s one of the reasons why Jazz brass is quite excited about the 26-year-old Rubio. His ability to defend is another.

“I think we’re going to try to maybe play at a higher pace (offensively), especially with Ricky,” Gobert said this week during the Las Vegas summer league. “We’re going to be a defensive-minded team, an unselfish team. I think we’re going to be very fine.”

Lindsey said the Jazz will try to use Rubio in a Jason Kidd-like role (although Kidd was a better outside shooter than the new Utah player).

“We think he has that great intuitive sense and feel and in this case, ironically, great timing on how he makes decisions and sees the game,” said Lindsey, whose comment about irony was in reference to the timing with Hayward leaving.

“If not the most intuitive player in the league, he’s right there from a passing sense. That’s got to permeate the whole organization,” the Jazz GM added. “How people feel about Rudy and Rudy’s defense and how to build around that, we’ve got to capitalize on the same level with Ricky’s passing — lift it and bring life to it.”

The Jazz will count on Mitchell to contribute some valuable minutes using his athleticism and length to pester backcourts on defense and add some offensive punch off the bench.

"We like that he likes to defend,” Snyder said during an in-game TV interview this past week in Las Vegas. “The competitor in him will allow him to play early in his career."

Gobert said he likes the way the No. 13 overall pick reads defenses, passes and doesn’t force plays.

“We’ll see how he adapts,” Gobert said of Mitchell, who had 37 points and eight steals in one Las Vegas game, “but he’s definitely going to play and he’s definitely going to help us.”

Ingles concurs.

"It means more opportunity for our young guys," Ingles told NBA Australia. "Donovan will come in and get to play as a rookie which is rare and we’ll compete and move on. Obviously losing a player like Gordon is pretty big for a club, so we’ll have to find different ways to score and to get guys involved, but I’m pretty confident we’ve got the coaching staff that will be all over it."

The Jazz will also rely on forward Joe Johnson, who showed during the second half of the 2016-17 season and into the playoffs that he’s still an offensive and defensive asset, especially as a power forward.

Gobert knows that most onlookers and NBA experts believe Hayward’s departure will be a devastating blow to the Jazz, who had all sorts of positive momentum building. While Utah is considered to be too deep and experienced to return to the 25-win level where it started this rebuild process several years ago, the Jazz aren’t expected by many to return to or improve on last year’s 51 wins and second-round playoff appearance, either.

The Stifle Tower acts as if he almost dares people to be critical or skeptical.

“If I was listening to projections, I’d probably be playing in France right now,” the French center said. “I’m just worried about the team. We’ll see. Most people don’t even know. They talk, but they don’t even know.”

Lindsey isn’t focusing on trying to prove naysayers wrong this season. He wants to focus on the positive pieces the Jazz have. Intrinsic motivation can be more powerful and long-lasting than extrinsic motivation.

“The extrinsic stuff is way secondary and overrated. It can be a narrative that we’ll rally,” he said. “We’re going to come together because we have high character and a lot of talent and Quin’s a really good leader, and he’ll organize our group.”

The Jazz GM isn’t out of touch with reality, though. He knows this season is going to present some challenges that wouldn’t have been there if Hayward had decided to stick around with the guys he’s been in the trenches with for years.

“Is there a period right now where there’s some unknown and discomfort?” Lindsey asked. “Absolutely.”

Butler felt that same uncomfortable uncertainty in 2011.

Years later, the Jazz can only hope they respond as well to Hayward's departure as the Bulldogs did.