SALT LAKE CITY — Grayson Allen survived Summer League. He made it through training camp.
Now as his first preseason action is nearing its end, Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder is challenging the rookie to improve defensively if he wants to see time on the floor during the regular season.
“Right now his biggest adjustment is transition defense, so he’s either going to make that adjustment or he’s not going to play,” Snyder said. “I hope he reads that.”
Allen celebrated his 23rd birthday Monday, then the Jazz returned to practice Tuesday followed by a media training session and a one-on-one chat with Snyder.
In four preseason games, Allen is coming off the bench to average 12.3 points in 19.8 minutes while shooting 50 percent from the field and 52.4 percent from beyond the arc, with 3.3 turnovers per game. His approach to improving defensively in transition is getting it in his mind to anticipate shots in the offense before they happen and sprinting back. That’ll come with experience and using his athletic tools to become a solid defender.
“Coach Snyder wants the team to become elite defensively, so if I’m out there, I need to be a part of that and I need to add to that,” Allen said. “Defense is the first thing that’ll get me either into the rotation or minutes on the court, whatever it is.”
The Jazz are 4-0 in the preseason, but two of those wins came against Australian clubs. The second unit bailed them out during the last victory on Sunday at Portland with a late 24-8 run in the final 4:41 of regulation.
Against Toronto and Portland, Jazz starters have struggled at times defensively, particularly on the perimeter.
Trail Blazers stars Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic combined for 64 points in Sunday’s 123-112 loss, despite sitting out the entire fourth quarter.
Raptors star Kawhi Leonard also lit up the Jazz for 17 points and five rebounds in 18 minutes of Tuesday’s loss to the Jazz, before sitting out the entire second half.
Not only is Snyder challenging Allen to improve defensively, he’s also looking for more out of the entire team, which held the league’s top defensive rating last season (102.9) and holds the top spot throughout the preseason (85.7). Stats can be deceiving, though.
“I didn’t think we played well,” Snyder said after Sunday’s win in Portland. “We didn’t play good defense and a lot of it was just not being focused. There were breakdowns, and I didn’t think we had the level of intensity that we needed on the defensive end.”
The season opener is set for Oct. 17 in Sacramento.
Although Allen is still learning different schemes and terminology, his teammates already love the attitude he developed throughout his four-year college career at Duke. From the time organized team activities (OTAs) began this summer, Allen showed he was ready for the NBA, but he has to continue to win over the coaching staff.
“He has that poise. I was really, really impressed just by watching,” said Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. “He just has that way where he’s not fazed by a lot, and I think that’s going to pay dividends down the line when we get to the playoffs.
"When you draft somebody, you want someone who when the lights come on, they’re ready for it, and I think he’s probably one of the best-prepared college basketball players for that, and you can see that for sure.”
Jae Crowder has also developed a strong bond with Allen as his “vet.” The trio of Allen, Crowder and Mitchell often go through stations together at practice with assistant coach Johnnie Bryant as Allen continues to catch on and compete for minutes.
“He’s just more calm and focused and free, which is good to see out of a rookie player,” Crowder said. “He’s not overwhelmed at all at what’s going on, and that’s good to see."