As Utah Jazz head coach Will Hardy was preparing for Saturday’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans, he decided to put out a starting five that no one could have predicted — John Collins, Keyonte George, Ömer Yurtseven, Kris Dunn and Simone Fontecchio.
While Collins and George figured to be starting, and the players knew that there would be subs in the starting unit due to injury and illness for Lauri Markkanen and Jordan Clarkson, the other three were surprised but delighted when they learned the news on Saturday morning.
They were also eager to show that they belonged and eager to play their hearts out, which is exactly what Hardy was counting on.
Hardy could have chosen to play a number of other players in that starting unit — Walker Kessler, who was making his return on Saturday after missing three weeks with an injury; Ochai Agbaji, who has played in the starting unit six times this season; Talen Horton-Tucker, who started out the season in the starting unit; Collin Sexton, who has started in 223 NBA games; Kelly Olynyk, an 11-year NBA veteran.
Instead, Hardy chose two players who played in a combined 31 NBA games last year and a player who only moved to the NBA from overseas last season. And it worked.
No free minutes
Many times last season Hardy said that he didn’t “believe in free minutes,” that players don’t deserve to be on the court just because of their name or the size of their contract. Of course, last season the Jazz weren’t really concerned with winning so that philosophy never really materialized in a tangible way.
But this year, Hardy has not been secretive or sugar coated what he expects from his players or what can happen if he isn’t seeing improvement and effort.
“The only two things that I care about are play hard and pass. And we’re at a point now where if you’re not willing to do both of those things, you cannot play for the Utah Jazz.” — Jazz coach Will Hardy
“The only two things that I care about are play hard and pass,” Hardy said before the Jazz’s recent loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. “And we’re at a point now where if you’re not willing to do both of those things, you cannot play for the Utah Jazz.”
A rough start to the season and signs of improvement and readiness from George, a rookie, led to him supplanting Horton-Tucker in the starting lineup. Needs against different matchups have meant Agbaji or Olynyk have started.
But lately, the Jazz have become offensively stagnant, settling for isolation possessions and more dribbling than passing and have been lacking effort and execution on the defensive end — quite the opposite of “play hard and pass.”
He’s warned after sloppy games that if the Jazz players aren’t able to clean up things on the court that the coaching staff would need to rethink who is playing and when.
“I’m a man of my word, and we will do what we think is best for the team,” Hardy said. “We need to continue to hold everyone accountable to our standards on both ends of the floor. And that doesn’t mean that anybody has to play perfect. It’s an imperfect game, I’ve said that a lot. I expect there to be mistakes in the game. But the number one thing for me is always going to be our competitiveness and how hard we play.”
The Jazz coaching staff knew that even if the starting unit that walked onto the court on Saturday was less talented, they would play hard and they would do everything they could to ensure a good shot at the end of offensive possessions.
“I say play hard and pass and I say it in that order for a reason,” Hardy said. “Nothing is ever set in stone. We talked last year about how I don’t believe in free minutes, and I don’t. I think that some of the guys that were on the floor tonight are showing that they’ve earned some minutes and that they’re willing to make sacrifices for the team.”
The result? A 105-100 win over New Orleans in which Yurtseven, Dunn and Fontecchio were tone setters and played every bit as hard as Hardy expected.
Hardy kept his word. And if it wasn’t clear before, the message is clear now. If you aren’t going to play up to Hardy’s standard, a standard the players are expected to hold themselves to, then they are putting their place in the rotations at risk.
Of course, when Markkanen and Clarkson are ready to rejoin the fold and Kessler has worked his way back to full health and conditioning, it is expected that they will return to the starting lineup and that Collins and George will be there with them.
But, as Hardy said, nothing is set in stone. This Jazz team was expected to be better than their 5-11 record suggests and the development of the longterm players of this roster is dependent on the players around them playing at a high level. So, as we’ve seen, Hardy is going to make the decisions that are best for the team, even if it hurts feelings or shocks along the way.