SALT LAKE CITY — Are the Utah Jazz good at drafting players?
In a quest to answer that question ahead of the 2020 NBA draft, in which the Jazz hold the 23rd pick, I decided to go back and look at the Jazz’s first-round draft picks of this millennium.
A few things should be noted before we get into the weeds. I’m not evaluating the Jazz’s ability to make draft-night deals that pay off. I’m not looking at the team’s success and whether it hinged on one player’s production. League success is about a lot more and has a deeper construction than just draft picks.
Also, there are always going to be more draft prospects that peter out and never amount to the hyped-up potential that teams hope for than there will be draft picks that turn out to be exactly the players that are promised. If 60 players a year were as great as their pre-draft potential suggests, the NBA would be a league full of only Hall of Famers instead of stars, role players, surprises and busts.
That said, some teams are just better than others at identifying talent, and some teams get lucky with their second-round picks that end up being major contributors despite being sleepers in the draft.
So with all of that in mind, how have the Jazz fared in the first round of the draft over the last 20 years, and have they been able to identify lasting talent?
The 2000 draft was the first with Kevin O’Connor at the helm of basketball decisions and led to (coincidentally) the 23rd pick being used for high school phenom DeShawn Stevenson. He was incredibly athletic, defensively gifted and looked to be on the path to greatness.
After four years of clashing with the coaching staff and doing nothing of particular note on the court, the Jazz shipped him off to the Orlando Magic. He’d later end up on the Dallas Mavericks’ 2011 championship roster, but he also had some off-court actions that were hard to ignore throughout his 13-year career.
In 2001, the Jazz selected Spanish point guard Raul Lopez, who had been compared to legendary Jazzman John Stockton. He stayed overseas for a year, missed the 2002-03 season after ACL surgery and then played just under two seasons with the Jazz before also being traded. He did fine as a backup point guard, but it was nothing over the top or overly impressive. In 2018 he was brought back to the Jazz as a coach to help out guard Ricky Rubio, but that relationship was about as long as Lopez’s playing time in Utah.
There were numerous draft misses over the next couple years, with Curtis Borchardt as the No. 18 pick in 2002, Sasha Pavlovic taken 19th overall in 2003, Kris Humphries 14th overall in 2004 and Kirk Snyder taken 16th the same year. All four of them would become middling players at best over their careers, which started out with brief stints in Utah. The most that can be said is that Humphries will be remembered more for his three-month marriage to Kim Kardashian in 2011 than anything he did in the NBA.
Then, in 2005, with the third pick in the draft, the Utah Jazz selected guard Deron Williams.
In Williams’ six seasons with the Jazz, he averaged 17.3 points per game, was the leader of four consecutive Utah playoff teams starting in 2007 and was just as good as advertised.
Many thousands of words have been written about the relationship and strife between Williams and head coach Jerry Sloan, and there are many Jazz fans who will blame Williams for Sloan’s departure from the team, and that’s fair. But Williams was a great player for the Jazz and made progress and improvement each year he was with the team.
When drafting a player, especially in the lottery, teams are really just hoping for contributors who will continue to grow and not hit an early ceiling. If you’re lucky, you get a star. If you’re really lucky, you get a superstar, but those don’t come around often. Williams was a star for the Jazz no matter what his departure from the team was like.
Ronnie Brewer was drafted 14th overall out of Arkansas in 2006 and started out slow in his rookie season. Then he had exactly two and a half productive, gritty, efficient seasons in his eight-year career, and those were spent with the Utah Jazz.
If you’re going to have a draft pick not end up being a star, you at least don’t want their best years spent on the team that they’re traded to, or that they later sign with in the offseason. For example, it’s not easy for Jazz fans to watch Stevenson never rise to his potential in Utah and then go on to be a nice role player for the championship Mavs. Brewer’s best years, even though they weren’t eye-popping, were the ones he spent with the Jazz. That’s at least something.
From 2007 to 2009, the Jazz’s first-round selections were Morris Almond (25th, 2007), Kosta Koufos (23rd, 2008) and Eric Maynor (20th, 2009), all of which were praised as having huge potential and were compared to some pretty elite players, but much like the first-round picks from 2002-04, none really amounted to anything, unless you factor in Almond breaking D-League records, which is of no help to an NBA team.
The 2010 and 2011 drafts were arguably the best of the O’Connor draft era for the Jazz, which ended in 2012. The No. 9 overall pick of the 2010 draft was Gordon Hayward. Having steadily improved over the course of seven years with the Jazz before unceremoniously leaving in 2017, he was an excellent pick.
There’s no telling what he could have done for the Jazz had he not left in 2017, but that’s not really what we’re talking about here. During his seven seasons in Utah, Hayward averaged 15.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, and his final year with the Jazz has been the most productive of his career.
In 2011, the Jazz took Enes Kanter and Alec Burks with the third and 12th picks, respectively. Looking back, both players probably went a little higher than they should have, but both are still active and major contributors in the league — lasting talent identified by the Jazz.
The 2013 draft was the first of Dennis Lindsey’s tenure with the team and, boy, did he start things out with a bang. The Jazz ended up with the ninth pick, Trey Burke, and the 27th pick, Rudy Gobert.
Obviously finding a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and one of the faces of the franchise in Gobert with the 27th pick was a cosmically great selection. The Jazz saw the development that was possible and bet on the foundation and instincts that they saw in a player that was passed over by 26 other teams.
Burke was a little over-hyped, but he is still in the league and has maintained pretty consistent numbers despite moving to multiple teams over his six years as a pro. There are plenty of lottery draft picks that don’t end up contributing as Burke has, and there are plenty that are quickly forgotten, but when the Mavericks recently needed a substitute player in the bubble, they didn’t hesitate turning to Burke.
Many in Jazz nation are still not done grieving over Dante Exum, the fifth pick in 2014 who has been plagued by injury since the Jazz selected him and never was able to get the time on the floor or the consistency in his health to develop into the player his explosive athleticism suggested he could be.
Though the circumstances with each player are always different, this was a case, again like that of Stevenson in 2000, where the hype never amounted to what it was supposed to. Had Exum not had so many injury problems, things might have turned out differently, but it’s hard to look back at the 2014 draft and see that a defensive standout like Marcus Smart, the heart and soul of the current Boston Celtics, was taken at No. 6 and the Jazz took Exum ahead of him.
Rodney Hood was also a first-round pick in 2014 at No. 23 overall, and his talent and growth were good enough that the Jazz later used him as part of a multiteam trade to get Jae Crowder. If not for his talent and friendly contract after being a late first-rounder, the Jazz wouldn’t have been able to have the leverage they did in those negotiations.
In 2016, the Jazz got Trey Lyles with the 12th pick. Hold that thought and fast forward to 2017, when the Jazz traded Lyles and the 24th pick to get the 13th pick, Donovan Mitchell — Rookie of the Year runner-up, Slam Dunk Contest winner, all-around rising star and currently the Jazz’s best player, who is an All-Star and looks on track to have a long and illustrious career.
I know that above I said this wasn’t about evaluating the team’s ability to deal, and it isn’t. Lyles’ potential was so high and believed to be untapped in a way that he was enough to sweeten the deal to get Mitchell, who is the Jazz’s best draft pick of the last 20 years. That’s about identifying talent and others agreeing on the potential in that player.
Mitchell was such a massively good draft pick that it masks what happened later in the draft that year when the Jazz got the 28th pick, Tony Bradley, in exchange for the 30th and 42nd picks, Josh Hart and Thomas Bryant.
Bradley could very well end up being better than Bryant, but so far this is looking like a miscalculation, especially considering how much of a contributor Hart is and that Bryant has started in more games than Bradley has played over the last three years.
Since the Jazz’s 2019 first-round pick was packaged in a deal to get Mike Conley, the most recent first-round pick we have to look at is Grayson Allen. He, too, was a part of the deal sent to Memphis the following year for Conley, and there is a chance that he continues to develop and turns into a reliable, regular rotational player who has a long career. I don’t see that happening, but that’s just one woman’s opinion.
So what can we glean from the Jazz’s last 20 years of first-round draft picks? They’ve had a handful of players who have really made a name for themselves in the league and been absolutely excellent picks, but so have most other teams. Outside of that, Utah has only had a couple of players who have had lasting careers that have been meaningful rather than at the end of a rotation.
To put an even finer point on it, I’d say that the Lindsey era of Jazz draft picks have been better than that of the O’Connor era, which was mostly composed of players who never lived up to their pre-draft hype. Though some of Lindsey’s selections will take a little longer to see whether they end up being worth their draft position, he has hit and hit big more than once over the last few years.
This year’s 23rd pick could end up being really important to the overall construction of the team, and if Lindsey, general manager Justin Zanik and the rest of the scouting staff can find someone that contributes regularly for the next few years, it will go a long way in not only the future success of the team but also in cementing Lindsey’s reputation for making good decisions.
Have the Jazz been good at drafting first-rounders over the last 20 years? Today I would say that they’ve done a fine, but not an excellent job, but the 2020 NBA draft could change that answer.