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Elijah Hughes’ focus is on defense during summer league with the Utah Jazz

The Jazz would love nothing more than to have Hughes develop into a wing defender who could be trusted and has an NBA frame and the strength to do it.

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Utah Jazz forward Elijah Hughes shoots over San Antonio Spurs guard Justin Turner during an NBA Summer League game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

LAS VEGAS — Elijah Hughes is one of the lucky ones at the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League. 

There are some players in Sin City this week who will get G League deals, maybe even some two-way contracts. Others will end up playing overseas, while many won’t have the luxury of being paid to play basketball.

Hughes, who played his college ball at Syracuse, already has a deal with the Utah Jazz. He’s guaranteed the full amount of his $1.5 million contract for the upcoming season. That contract does not guarantee him playing time, however. That’s something he has to earn.

After a rookie year in which nights with injuries or DNPs were more familiar to him than time on the court, Hughes wants to prove himself to be a versatile scorer worthy of NBA minutes. But more than anything, he wants to prove that he can defend on an NBA level at multiple positions.

“The typical Syracuse stigma is that guys don’t play defense and guys can’t guard, so I want to break that stigma,” Hughes said. “Also I have a lot of pride. I want to hold my own. If people are trying to get me on switches, I want to be able to hold my own.”

The Jazz coaching staff would love nothing more than to have Hughes develop into a wing defender who could be trusted with meaningful minutes. At just 23 years old and standing 6-foot-5, Hughes has an NBA frame and the strength to go with it.

Hughes has been a part of the Utah Jazz Summer League squad that has gone 3-0 despite not having any lottery picks or highly touted prospects on the roster. The Jazz have won their games largely through a defense-first approach, and Hughes has had some nice sequences on that side of the ball.

“Eli has a big body, and for him it’s learning to play angles defensively,” Jazz summer league coach Bryan Bailey said. “If he continues to learn to play angles and cut guys off with his size, he’ll be a good defender.”

That’s why this summer is really important for Hughes. Opportunities are limited during the NBA regular season for developing players to show their growth, and without extended time on the court, it’s hard for players to continue to improve.

“The best thing for a player’s growth and development is to be on the floor,” Bailey said.

The opportunity that teammate Trent Forrest was afforded last season, when Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley were both injured, was likely a small beacon of hope for some of the Jazz’s younger players.

It’s not like anybody is hoping for their teammates to be injured. Rather, the situation with the Jazz served as a reminder that younger players have to keep working and stay ready, even when the minutes aren’t there, because opportunities can come when you least expect them.

That’s why defense is so important to Hughes. While he is a pure scorer and wants to be recognized for that, he knows that versatile and consistent defense is how he can have staying power in the NBA, and staying in the league is what he wants.