Will Hardy gets flustered every time I ask him if he thinks he is doing a good job. He laughs a little, makes jokes and deflects as much as possible. He doesn’t want to take credit for the Utah Jazz’s successes and certainly doesn’t want to come across as arrogant.

Hardy, who is closing in on the final days of his first season as an NBA head coach, tries to dodge the question, insisting that he isn’t the one who gets to decide whether or not he’s been successful.

I push back, telling him that everyone is able to evaluate themselves and knows whether or not they’re doing a bad or good job.

“There’s people that work with us and with me — people that I work for — there’s an entire team of players that I’ve coached all year and you can ask them what they think,” Hardy said, before conceding a sliver of pride. “I will say though, I am proud of how this year has gone. In no way am I not walking out of the season with my head held high.”

Well, since Hardy has so far refused to answer the question, I have asked the people that he works with, the people that he works for and the players on the team, and the consensus is that Hardy has done an incredible job in his first year.

Everyone matters

When the Jazz came together for training camp before this season began, Hardy was uniquely positioned at the helm of a team that was a clean slate, which has its advantages and disadvantages.

Building chemistry with 14 new players, most of whom had never played together, was going to be difficult. Knowing that the front office was likely to make changes midseason made the ground a little less stable. But building a culture from scratch would be easier than trying to change one that was already in place.

The first part of that foundation for Hardy was creating an environment that didn’t leave anyone on the outside.

“We wanted to make sure that everybody on the roster felt like they were a part of the team,” Hardy said. “The NBA at times can be very top heavy. You have the star players, they have the ball the whole time, everything kind of revolves around them, all we talk about is them and then there’s kind of everybody else. We wanted to create an environment where everybody felt like they were a part of the team.”

That was quickly accomplished, and for the lasting evidence of that environment, look no further than the Jazz’s final home game of the season, a 118-114 win over the Denver Nuggets.

With the starting rotation and multiple other players sidelined because of injuries or rest, the Jazz played the reserves and the players at the back end of the roster. It led to a career-high 28 points for rookie Ochai Agbaji, a career-high 23 points for Luka Samanic, and a career-night for two-way player Micah Potter, who finished with a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double.

After the game, unprompted, Hardy made it a point to give Potter some postgame praise.

“Micah Potter, who we have not talked about really any this year, has been on a two-way the whole season and he is as professional a young player as I’ve ever been around,” Hardy said. “He stays ready, knows the gameplan, is locked in, cheering for his teammates, yelling out the defense on the bench every game that he’s here, and he hasn’t gotten a ton of minutes. Tonight he plays 21 minutes and gets a double-double.”

There’s a reason that a player like Potter, who is at the very end of the roster, is still that engaged, that willing to participate and make his presence known when he isn’t getting a lot of opportunities on the court, and the reason is that he felt like he was a part of the team.

The same can be said for Kris Dunn, who as soon as he joined the Jazz on a 10-day contract, felt like he was welcomed in, despite his tenuous contract situation.

“He made me feel like I was part of the team,” Dunn said. “Through the workouts, off the floor — it’s a great group, a lot of good character guys. And, his system, he wants everybody touching the ball. When everybody touches the ball, I mean, you feel like you’re a part of the team. You feel like you’re doing something great out there.”

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Growth

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone on the Jazz roster who hasn’t grown or matured or increased their value on the court in some way, from top to bottom, and Hardy is at the center of that growth.

It was Hardy who told Lauri Markkanen that he was impressed by what he’d done with the Finnish national team and that he wanted Markkanen to expand on that with the Jazz.

It was Hardy who challenged Walker Kessler to fix his footwork and improve as a screener.

It was Hardy who brought along Agbaji on a different path, asking him to get reps in the G League before inserting him into the NBA rotation.

It was Hardy who gave Talen Horton-Tucker a chance to showcase his strengths, who gave Dunn a chance to flip the script on his career, who knew that there was something worth taking a chance on in Samanic, who led a team that no one believed to play in 51 games that were within five points in the last five minutes.

Hardy won’t be the one to step up and take the credit for these things, but if you ask the players how much credit Hardy deserves, it’s an easy answer.

“I think really, all of it,” Agbaji said. “Without him putting me in the position, him trusting me to do those things … then I wouldn’t have the chance or been given the opportunity.”

Constant

This team has gone through multiple changes and challenges.

Don’t forget that the team Hardy was coaching to start the 2022-23 season included Mike Conley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker — all players who were rotational pieces. 

In his first season as a head coach, Hardy got everyone on the roster to buy into his vision for the team, not once, but many times over.

There was the trade deadline that shook up the roster and saw one of the most beloved leaders of the team shipped off. Then there was the myriad new players, and the caution with which the team was treating injuries, which changed who Hardy was able to play.

When you take a few steps back from where this team is finishing the season, and try to look at the whole arc of the season, it becomes clear that the most unifying and consistent part of this team has been Hardy and the way he’s been able to connect with the Jazz players.

Throughout the season there have been many times that it would have made sense for the Jazz players to hang their heads and lose hope, to lose sight of the future. But Hardy was the constant that kept the mood light and the sights trained on the bigger picture.

With Hardy leading the way, this team finishes the season on the outside of the playoffs, but looking ahead with belief that next year they’ll be right in the mix.