SALT LAKE CITY — Just ask All-NBA First Team member Damian Lillard if the Utah Jazz are a legitimate Western Conference contender this season and the Portland Trail Blazers star will list several reasons why.
“They’ve got a really deep team,” Lillard told the Deseret News.
“You get a center like Rudy (Gobert), a four man like (Derrick) Favors, then you’ve got Jae Crowder and his experience with good teams, played with some of the best players,” Lillard listed. “Then you’ve got Donovan (Mitchell), an up-and-coming star, Ricky Rubio has been a starting point guard in the league for a long time, then you’ve got Dante Exum coming off the bench, holding it down and then you’ve got Royce O’Neale.
“They’ve got a deep roster, and it’s young talent and it’s experienced talent so you’ve got to put them in the mix,” he said. “I think it’s only right you put them in that mix.”
While the national sports world seems captivated by Mitchell and his rising stardom in Utah, the second-year guard knows he isn’t the only one bringing swagger and hype to the franchise.
No, no, no.
He’ll correct you quickly if you believe it’s a one-man show.
“I think it’s everybody,” said Mitchell, the reigning NBA slam dunk champion. “You look at a guy like Jae Crowder, who brings his style to the game, you look at guys like Royce, Ekpe, Ricky, Thabo with the Air Maxes, bringing it all to Utah.
“I think it’s more so all of us doing our own thing collectively to kind of bring it in, and I’m trying to do my part as well,” he added.
Outside of Jonas Jerebko signing with the Golden State Warriors, most of the band is back from last year’s second-round postseason run that ended in Houston, with the addition of rookie guard Grayson Allen out of Duke.
Exum, Favors and Raul Neto all agreed to offseason extensions, while veterans Ekpe Udoh and Thabo Sefolosha also saw their contracts get guaranteed. Joe Ingles adds his unique personality and shooting touch to the squad.
The Jazz will open the season on the road in Sacramento on Wednesday, with 17 nationally televised games on ESPN, TNT and NBA TV scheduled for this season.
They’re also slated to take on Lillard and the Blazers on Christmas Day at Vivint Arena for the first time since 1997. Even R&B singer Chris Brown was spotted rocking the Jazz’s yellow, Nike Statement Edition shorts during a recent pickup game, which is a sign that the team could be crossing over into mainstream popularity.
The @utahjazz are starting to gain some new fans. Check out multi-platinum selling artist Chris Brown hooping in the @Nike Statement Edition Jazz shorts. ( : @cassyathena) #TakeNote pic.twitter.com/eb6qSivM9y— Eric Woodyard (@E_Woodyard) October 6, 2018
“I feel like everyone had a good offseason, everyone got healthy and just having the ability to come back as the team we had last year, there’s a bit of pride that we have behind that,” Exum said. “And obviously there’s going to be a bit of swagger and we know that teams are going to come at us this year and hopefully we step up to the plate every night.”
Much has also been reported about the close-knit bond that guys share on the roster. From going out to eat after events to attending local football games together, everyone seems to get along well inside the locker room.
But for Crowder, who has made deep playoff runs with Boston and teamed with LeBron James in Cleveland, he doesn’t want that nice guy image to affect their play on the court. Last season, the Jazz held the league’s best defensive rating with center Rudy Gobert winning Defensive Player of the Year, but at times during this preseason the starting lineup has appeared out of sync.
Crowder has no problem correcting that once the 2018-19 campaign gets underway.
“I think we’re confident as a team right now,” Crowder said. “That could be hurtful at times if we come out lackadaisical and not respecting the opponent as much as we should but at the same time, we’re a confident team and we know what we can do and we know how good we are but it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t apply it on a nightly basis.”
In addition to the player transactions, some coaching moves also happened within the franchise during the time away. Obviously, former assistant Igor Kokoskov was hired for the head coaching role in Phoenix, while the Jazz brought in the first-ever Greek NBA assistant coach in Fotis Katsikaris in July.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder also promoted assistant Antonio Lang to the front of the bench while welcoming former Jazz point guard Raul Lopez and Vince Legarza to the staff.
As ESPN lists the Jazz at No. 6 in the latest NBA Power Rankings, those outside projections don’t seem to bother Snyder & Co. There will be heightened expectations when the Jazz enter different arenas throughout the season, after last year’s 48-34 finish, but their foundation is intact, which is why Lillard and other NBA peers respect the organization.
“I don’t know that players are necessarily aware of that in the moment,” Snyder said of expectations. “Usually, your team is more mature when you find yourself in those types of situations so I think we welcome the challenge and the opportunity.”