The early season success of the Utah Jazz shocked the NBA world, took many by surprise and changed how many viewed the post-Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert team.

“So, moments of the season where you have injuries, it gives you an opportunity to see other guys. It gives them an opportunity to show kind of what they’ve got and what they can bring to the table.” — Jazz coach Will Hardy

Instead of counting the number of losses, people were looking at the wins the Jazz were racking up, and instead of wondering who the Jazz might land in upcoming drafts, there was evaluation of how well players like Lauri Markkanen, Kelly Olynyk and Mike Conley were working together on the court.

In all of the excitement, one of the highest priorities this Jazz team has been tasked with started to become an afterthought for many on the outside. The Jazz have to figure out which players on this roster can be a part of the next era of great Jazz basketball.

Winning now is fun and has its advantages, but the Jazz brass have been clear in that they are working toward long-term goals.

Though Conley has been superb for this team, his recent injury and absence have done two things: serve as a reminder that he is 35 years old and on the tail end of his career; and open the door for the younger players who still have potential to grow into something more.

While on the outside the focus has been on the players at the top of the Jazz rotation and roster, internally there is incredible interest and investment on players like Collin Sexton, Talen Horton-Tucker and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

“I don’t mean this in a bad way — I haven’t thought about Mike once in the last three or four days. This is who we have, and it’s about this group right now,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “The hardest part at this level is that you have 15 pro basketball players on your team and not all of them can play.

“They’re all good players, they wouldn’t be here if they weren’t. So, moments of the season where you have injuries, it gives you an opportunity to see other guys. It gives them an opportunity to show kind of what they’ve got and what they can bring to the table.”

Recently, when asked about Sexton, Hardy repeated something that he has said before when speaking about the growth of all three of these young players.

“The road of progress is not a straight line — it goes up and down,” Hardy said.

That’s the jumping off point for this conversation, for discussing the growth, the growing pains, the learning curves, the strengths and the weaknesses of each player. That’s the mantra we should keep in mind when asking, when it comes to those three players — Sexton, Horton-Tucker, Alexander-Walker — what do they bring to the table? What have we seen so far during their Jazz tenure, and what is the next step in them realizing their full potential?

Collin Sexton

Utah Jazz guard Collin Sexton looks for an opening around Detroit forward Isaiah Livers at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

It’s hard to know what a player’s personality or their daily approach is going to be like before you really get to know them. I’m not sure what I thought Collin Sexton was going to be like, but for some reason, his general demeanor and personality have surprised me.

Sexton is incredibly competitive and fierce. Those things were obvious just by watching him over the years. What was not as clear though, is how hard he is on himself.

That can be said about a lot of players. It’s become a bit of a sports cliche to say, “they are their harshest critic” about any player. In all honesty, that can probably be said about every person, in or outside of the sports world. But Sexton does seem unique in how much he beats himself up for mistakes and how much pressure he puts on himself.

After any one of the Jazz’s losses this season, Sexton can be seen in the locker room, muttering and shaking his head while looking at the box score. More than once during any game Sexton will hang his head and be visibly frustrated with his own miscues. He has been described by teammates and coaches as a perfectionist.

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But Hardy is quick to point out that basketball is imperfect and mistakes are a part of the game that have to be accepted and used toward improvement. He doesn’t mind that Sexton hangs his head, but he wants Sexton to understand the why and how of every situation so that he can build off of it.

One of the most important things to remember with Sexton is that he was sidelined after knee surgery for nearly a year. His games with the Jazz have been his first since early November 2021. So not only is he re-acclimating to the NBA and reminding himself what he is capable of on the court, but he is also being asked to do things that he hasn’t been asked before.

The Jazz have a lot of players who can create for themselves and who can shoot the ball efficiently, but the Jazz are trying to find out who they can depend on as high-level decision makers.

“I think Colin has made tremendous strides on the offensive end,” Hardy said. “I think we’ve seen his playmaking take a huge jump here lately, involving his teammates and his decision making has really grown.”

One of the concerns when looking at Sexton with the roster that the Jazz have was that he was going to require the ball a lot and wasn’t going to necessarily mesh well with the other players who are also ball-dominant.

But, after the first 10 games of the season, Sexton’s assist numbers have shot up to career-high levels. In the games since Conley’s injury Sexton has averaged 6.9 assists per game — more than double what he has averaged at any other point in his career.

He still has work to do in that area. He has a natural ability to speed past a defender and find his way to the rim, but he often is met there by larger players who prevent him from finishing. Also, he can get tunnel vision at times and miss open teammates when he goes downhill.

But, by utilizing his athleticism and ability to get a first step on a defender, he is learning to balance playing for his teammates and playing for himself.

“I think the next evolution for Collin is his consistency on the defensive end of the floor,” Hardy said. “He can really pressure the ball and can really get through screens and it just comes down to doing it more often. … So, we’re going to be pretty demanding of him on that end.”

Talen Horton-Tucker

Utah Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker drives on Detroit guard Jaden Ivey at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Many of the same things that have been said about Sexton’s game can be said of Talen Horton-Tucker.

He is a ball-dominant player who needs to learn how to play within a system and play for his teammates. And again, like Sexton, Horton-Tucker has quickly progressed in that area while with the Jazz.

In a short amount of time, he has shown that he can make good reads and that his offensive abilities and knack for getting to the rim open up the floor for the rest of the team, and he is more than capable of making laser-perfect passes.

But, don’t forget that “progress is not a straight line.” As Horton-Tucker has been asked to play more point guard, his focus has been on orchestrating the offense and unintentionally that has led to him playing more on the perimeter than the coaches would like.

“His decision-making has progressed very well,” Hardy said. “I think lately, he’s maybe settling a little bit for jump shots. That’s not all his fault. Partly that’s the spots that he’s been in on the floor and the time that he ends up getting the ball.”

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Though Hardy trusts Horton-Tucker’s ability to shoot, it’s clear that he is at his best when he is attacking. Using Horton-Tucker as a primary ball-handler does not need to come at the expense of his aggressiveness with the ball. Those things can go hand in hand.

And, for a third time, like Sexton, the Jazz want more from Horton-Tucker on the defensive end, because they know how valuable he can be with his size.

“Talen has a special frame to play defense with his wingspan and his strength,” Hardy said. “He really understands angles and can get through screens. So, we just want to see growth from both of those guys on that end of the floor at the point of attack. … When you go back and watch the film, there’s a lot of stuff right at the point of attack that needs to be cleaned up and it’ll keep us out of some bad spots.”

Because of Horton-Tucker’s time in the league and the fact that he physically looks older than he is, it can be easy to forget that just this past week he turned 22. He is younger than Sexton and Alexander-Walker, and so it might take more time for Horton-Tucker to find the right rhythm to unlock his entire toolbox.

The good news is that just in a couple of months, both Sexton and Horton-Tucker have shown that they not only have the ability to change and improve, but they have shown the desire to.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker

Utah Jazz guards Ochai Agbaji (30) and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (6) after a basket against the Memphis Grizzlies in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Sexton and Horton-Tucker are more downhill-playing guards who can play with an attack-first mentality, which will benefit them in their playmaking. That makes them very different from Conley, who is more of a traditional point guard and is a natural playmaker in every sense of the word.

Alexander-Walker has shown that he might have some of the skills that can be more tempo, pace and movement-based, like Conley. Against Golden State, despite going 0 of 6 from 3-point range, Alexander-Walker was a +2 in plus-minus, and that was due to his movement with the ball.

“He came in that Golden State game and really got the ball moving for us and did some great stuff,” Hardy said. “Nickeil has been dealing with a little bit different situation than the other two in terms of a consistency of opportunity. So for him, it’s just trying to find some rhythm and confidence on that end of the floor.”

Confidence and understanding have been where Alexander-Walker has been trying to grow the most this season. He has talked more than once about trying to add value even when the opportunities are limited and to give himself the grace to make mistakes.

Those qualities, while not transferable directly to a box score, do not go unnoticed by the coaching staff.

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Alexander-Walker has been praised for his attention to detail when he’s not even in the game. On nights when Alexander-Walker has been a DNP-CD, he’s still been active in huddles and offering perspective from what he’s seen watching from the sideline. His engagement and willingness to adapt to whatever role the team needs could actually end up paying dividends for the 24-year-old.

Defense is where Alexander-Walker excels, and he’s shown this season that he’s reading offenses in a new way. He’s developed a knack for feeling out screens and drawing offensive fouls from the player he’s guarding, and those kinds of plays can be real momentum changers.

On the offensive end, consistency in shooting and execution is where he still needs the most improvement.

Some of the consistency could be related to being in rhythm and getting more time on the court that does not come in short bursts. As far as the execution goes, there are times when Alexander-Walker has the right idea and is making the right play, but is just off the mark either sending a pass too high or being a second late on a passing lane.

“It’s very hard to play basketball and really short stretches,” Hardy said. “You get three and a half minutes and by the time you start sweating, you get subbed out.”

For all three players, this stretch without Conley has been a chance to fine-tune some of the stuff they have been working on. This won’t be the only time this season that they are presented with more playing time, and there’s a chance that if the growth continues, they could find themselves with an even larger role in the future.

As we move through the season, it’s important to remember Hardy’s words — that “progress is not a straight line.” Sexton, Horton-Tucker and Alexander-Walker are not going to transform their games and realize their full potential overnight.

Early signs have indicated that there is more that hasn’t been unlocked, but there is still a long way to go.

Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy talks to Talen Horton-Tucker during break in play against the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday, Oct. 31, 2022, in Salt Lake City. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News