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Bojan Bogdanovic playing exactly how Jazz need him to play. Here’s what has changed

It wasn’t long ago that the Jazz sharpshooter was mired in ‘the worst stretch’ of his career. My, how things have improved.

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Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic is showered with water from Donovan Mitchell after the Jazz defeated the Denver Nuggets at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 7, 2021. Since Mitchell became sidelined with an ankle injury, Bogdanovic has elevated his game to new heights.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

When the Utah Jazz beat the Denver Nuggets on May 7 and poured water over the head of Bojan Bogdanovic in celebration, the Croatian forward was beaming not only because he’d just scored a career-high 48 points in a big game. There was a lot more behind the smile and the joy of his teammates.

The Jazz are often viewed as a team that is led by its trio of All-Stars — the dynamic offense of Donovan Mitchell, the calming playmaking of Mike Conley and the defensive anchoring of Rudy Gobert. But the Jazz need more if they want to make a run at an NBA title and Bogdanovic is a key part of the equation.

“He’s a huge part of what we do,” Joe Ingles said of Bogdanovic. “We want him to be aggressive and to be aggressive on both ends of the floor. We want him taking open looks. We want him to get downhill and finish at the rim.”

That’s why Bogdanovic and his teammates are so happy. During the first three months of the season, it seemed as if Bogdanovic might not be ready to take on a bigger role. But as the playoffs near, he is playing some of the best basketball of his career. More responsibility has been thrust upon his shoulders and he’s responded by being more of a well-rounded player than many expected.

“I have more confidence,” Bogdanovic said. “I’m playing better. I’m shooting the ball better and I’m getting in the right shape in the right moment right now, right before the playoffs.”

Bogdanovic entered the 2020-21 season after spending the previous nine months away from his teammates, away from being able to practice, away from the game almost entirely. After having season-ending surgery on his right wrist in May 2020, while NBA the season was suspended, Bogdanovic wasn’t able to join the Jazz in the Orlando bubble for the 2019-20 playoffs.

Then, during the shortened and strange autumn offseason, he had to rehab in almost complete isolation. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging there were restrictions on how much interaction players could have inside team facilities. It wasn’t until December 2020, just before the 2020-21 season was set to begin, that Bogdanovic was finally able to get back on the court with the Jazz for the first time since March 11, when Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test shut the league down.

The good news was that the time away had meant his wrist was healed and he was cleared to play full-bore. But getting back to being himself on the court was tougher than he’d anticipated.

Bogdanovic wasn’t being very aggressive on the court, he worried about taking a hard fall onto his surgically repaired wrist, he struggled to play with a brace or tape on his right hand and was hesitant with his shot. He was forcing his way into tough shots, not playing with confidence and his shooting numbers started to dip.

Through the month of March, Bogdanovic shot 36.4% from 3-point range. The last time he’d seen his 3-point efficiency dip below 37% was in the 2016-17 season.

“This is probably the worst stretch of my career shooting the ball,” Bogdanovic said back in March. “I’m kind of making bad decisions — when to shoot and when to kind of calm down and wait for the shot to come to me.”

Bogdanovic said he was fighting with himself and that it was hard to have confidence when he knew he wasn’t playing the right way. With just six weeks left in the regular season, Bogdanovic kept his head down and pushed through his struggles. Things had just started to click when the Jazz’s first major injuries of the season occurred.

On April 16, Mitchell went down with a right ankle sprain, and less than two weeks later Conley re-aggravated the nagging right hamstring that the Jazz tried so desperately to be cautious with all season.

The Jazz were going to be without two of their three All-Stars for a majority of the home stretch of the season, putting into jeopardy the team’s position at the top of the standings.

There was pressure for Bogdanovic to take on more of a role than the team already needed from him. But that pressure did not bring Bogdanovic down. Instead, Bogdanovic stepped up and became the leading offensive man the Jazz would need to finish out the regular season.

The player the Jazz had desperately needed and wished they’d had when they blew a 3-1 lead in last year’s first-round playoff series against the Nuggets has now emerged.

In the 12 games following Mitchell’s injury, Bogdanovic is averaging 23.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.1 steals per game, while shooting 50.8% from the field, 43.3% from 3-point range and 90.2% from the free-throw line.

“I know he’s gone through some rough patches throughout this year, but everybody has their slumps and it just shows how resilient he is. Not changing who he is, and knowing that what he has, it works. And he just came in every day and stayed consistent and he powered through.” — Georges Niang on Bogdanovic

“I know he’s gone through some rough patches throughout this year, but everybody has their slumps and it just shows how resilient he is,” Georges Niang said of his teammate. “Not changing who he is, and knowing that what he has, it works. And he just came in every day and stayed consistent and he powered through.”

On Monday, the NBA announced Bogdanovic had been named Western Conference Player of the Week, the first time a Jazz player has been given that honor by the league for the 2020-21 season. That stretch (May 3-9) included three 20-plus point performances from Bogdanovic, including his career-high 48-point outing against the Nuggets.

It’s not just that Bogdanovic’s efficiency has gone up that is such a good sign, it’s his all-around play. He’s been reading defenses more effectively, playing through contact with confidence rather than hunting for foul calls, making plays for his teammates, dissecting pick-and-rolls, posting smaller players, getting a first step on bigger players and crashing the boards in critical situations.

Just as the Jazz knew they would need more out of Bogdanovic in the absence of Mitchell and Conley, they know things will need to shift once the Jazz’s two All-Stars return to the lineup.

Bogdanovic will have fewer touches and less of a leading role in the offense when the team is at full strength, but that’s not a concern for the Jazz or for Bogdanovic because it’s less about the production that Bogdanovic has shown in recent weeks, and more about his approach and confidence.

“I think he’s in a great place mentally,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “When he receives the ball he’s making good reads and if he’s got daylight he shoots it.”

That’s the Bogdanovic the Jazz need moving forward. That’s the Bogdanovic the Jazz need in the playoffs, no matter who is on the floor.