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Utah Jazz analysis: The basement-dwelling Hornets, judging players too early in their career and the dog days of the season

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Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier (3) fumbles the ball behind Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) during an NBA game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.

Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier (3) fumbles the ball behind Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) during an NBA game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.

Ryan Sun, Deseret News

The Utah Jazz beat the Charlotte Hornets on Monday night, and it absolutely felt like the Jazz were playing the Hornets in late January.

What can the Hornets do to get better?

It’s cliche for a reason to say that the worst game of the season is one against the Hornets in late January. The Hornets are bad, and they’ve been bad for a long time.

They’ve made the playoffs three times in the last 18 years, and each time they’ve been bounced in the first round.

They’ve given inflated contracts to bad players, made bad deals and they haven’t been able to make any splashy acquisitions that might entice other players to go to Charlotte.

It’s a place that NBA players literally plead to not be traded to because they know they won’t have a chance of winning if they end up there.

They are the worst 3-point shooting team in the league, they have one of the worst overall field goal percentages and they just aren’t good at really anything.

After losing to the Jazz 120-102, the Hornets have the third-worst record in the league and are clearly one of the teams hoping to get a shot at the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft and to be able to bring Victor Wembanyama into the fold.

But how good is that for the Hornets? Or the NBA?

Sure, having Wembanyama would make them better than they currently are, but I wonder if a team like Charlotte would be able to even keep Wembanyama past his rookie deal, and how happy would the NBA be with a star like him stuck on a mediocre team in Charlotte?

He could end up being one of the first huge stars to sign a qualifying offer and decline an extension in order to leave. Or, if he signed an extension and the Hornets couldn’t actually surround him with a good team, he could easily demand a trade.

The Hornets have some cap flexibility coming in the next couple of years, but we don’t have evidence that they are capable of making good, big moves and bringing in good players. The biggest moves they’ve made recently was signing Terry Rozier to a bad deal and getting Gordon Hayward, who is a shell of his former self.

I could absolutely be wrong and the Hornets could get Wembanyama and he and LaMelo Ball could be super fun and they could attract big time free agents and then win titles. But, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Are we judging players too early?

Prior to the game on Monday, Hornets coach Steve Clifford was asked if he was surprised by the emergence of Lauri Markkanen in his fifth year, and his answer is something that I’ve been trying to preach for years.

“I think it happens all the time,” Clifford said. “I think that’s a misnomer about our league. It’s like when people talk about player development it’s like it’s only for the 20- and 21-year-olds.

“The best players get better every year. … LeBron (James) gets better every year and look at Steph (Curry), he wasn’t 19 when he was an MVP candidate. For whatever reason people think that player development is only for the young guys. It’s not at all.”

When I asked Jazz head coach Will Hardy what his thoughts were on the subject, he echoed Clifford’s sentiments.

“I’m glad nobody judges me based on who I was when I was 22,” Hardy said. “You can always improve and I think these guys as players, there’s a lot of pressure coming into the league. You’re highly touted, you can be a high draft pick and you’re 19 years old, and I think back to when I was 19. Just like who I was as a person, and how could you possibly be fully ready for all of that? Because you are still growing as a player but as a person as well.

“I had a coach one time tell me, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be known as the coach that never judged a player too early?’ They can get better and we see it all over the league. You see guys that they’re at their first stop and people start saying like, ‘Oh, he’s a bust,’ or he’s this or he’s that and it’s just easy to make those snap judgments.”

There are players who are going to be drafted in June and you are going to hear people say that at 22, or a player who was in college for multiple years, that they are what they are and they have a certain ceiling. It’s just not a fair assessment and a lot of it depends on situation and mental fortitude and coaching and teammates and a million other factors.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thought Markkanen was going to be the player he is today this year or that he would even get to this point in his career, but here we are.

The dog days of the season

The Jazz had one of the toughest and most road-heavy schedules in the league to start the season and they’ve been fortunate to have a lot of time at home this month.

They’re heading out for a game in Portland on Wednesday and then they don’t have another road game until Feb. 10.

We’re just past the halfway point of the season, and to be able to have this much time at home and to not have to travel for the All-Star break is actually incredibly beneficial for the Jazz.

“It’s definitely nice this time of year,” Hardy said. “Especially as fatigue is starting to set in, you start getting around the 50-game mark and guys’ legs are starting to get a little tired, so to not get on planes and to be home around your family, it gives you the ability to have a little bit of balance, mentally.”

It’s also interesting to think about these days from the perspective of a rookie. Ochai Agbaji said that Hardy spoke to him recently and made sure he realized that he still has an entire college season to play when it comes to number of games.

Agbaji and Walker Kessler are just starting to get used to the rhythm of an NBA schedule, and understandably, it’s been mentally tiring.

For many of the players, the All-Star break can’t come soon enough.