On the night the Utah Jazz drafted Taylor Hendricks, No. 9 overall in June 2023, the then-19-year-old expressed a feeling of shock after a whirlwind freshman year at UCF.

“One year ago, I wasn’t even thinking about going to the NBA,” Hendricks said. “It’s been a roller coaster.”

He was a good basketball player, there was no doubt in that, but he wasn’t as refined as some of the other prospects in his class. He wasn’t at one of the power schools and wasn’t as highly decorated and didn’t have the same kind of ultrapublicized highlight reels that other players had. But, as his year at UCF progressed, scouts and NBA executives started to take notice of Hendricks.

Hendricks’ raw talent and instincts, paired with his body, length and athleticism, set him apart. Some of the greatest minds around the game knew that Hendricks had the potential to become something great, but it would take a lot of time and patience and confidence. It would mean that Hendricks would need to go from not thinking about the NBA as a possibility to being confident and believing that he belongs in the NBA.

The first hurdle

Developing a feeling of belonging can be difficult for an introvert and it can take more time for a naturally reserved person to open up and show their personality. On top of being a bit of a shy person, who is slow to warm up to people, Hendricks was dealt quite a few blows in his first few months with the Jazz.

First, he missed Summer League. The team wanted to be cautious after Hendricks suffered a minor injury during the predraft process, so they kept him sidelined during part of the offseason. Then, when training camp started, he was met with the realization that even though he was the leading man on teams in high school and college, the NBA was going to be a proving ground where he was no longer at the top of the food chain. Instead, he would need to wait in the wings and become a sponge.

Will Hardy is looking forward to his first NBA ejection
Taylor Hendricks has seen major improvement physically

“Going from college to this, not being the main guy, it’s about having to sit back and watch a little bit more, learn a little bit more,” Hendricks said. “Because even though it’s basketball, it’s a whole new game.”

Landing with the Jazz meant Hendricks would have all the patience and opportunity in the world to learn this new game. No one was going to rush him, but even the team’s patience would come with its own set of challenges.

Hendricks started out his NBA career in the G League, and while there are success stories to be heard from the NBA’s development teams, all too often players see their careers flame out when they don’t get called up from the G League. With a new class of draft prospects rolling in every year, the players that are grinding away in the G League can be forgotten or simply age out of the game.

Of course, the Jazz staff assured Hendricks and his fellow rookie teammate Brice Sensabaugh that they were invested in their futures. The team wanted them to work on their bodies and some fundamental skills, while also learning the Jazz system in an environment that would cater to their growth rather than shine a bright light on their flaws.

The struggle is being able to remain confident in the messaging while seeing that the NBA affiliate team is playing without you — believing that they might not need your unrefined services now, but they will need you in the future.

“I was trying to play perfect because I wasn’t getting many minutes,” Hendricks said. “I didn’t want to mess up.”

The next step

By the time the NBA trade deadline rolled around in February, Hendricks had played in just 13 of the first 52 games of the season. On the heels of the Jazz playing 12 straight games with Hendricks not making a single appearance, trades opened up the roster and head coach Will Hardy proclaimed that Hendricks was going to be thrown into the fire.

“Taylor’s life is very different now,” Hardy said. “Taylor is going to be a part of our rotation. He’s going to be playing every night. How much he plays every night will be determined by how well he plays but his responsibilities now are far different. He will be counted on every night and he’s gonna be held to a very high standard.”

Boom. Just like that, Hendricks went from not playing at all to guarding Kevin Durant, Victor Wembanyama, Jimmy Butler, Luka Doncic — a different star, a different skillset standing in front of him each night.

Still quiet on most nights, Hendricks was impressing his teammates with his determination and dedication to working and learning. John Collins noted that with more reps and some gentle pushing from the others on the team, they would help Hendricks find his voice and a place of comfort on the team.

“We’re going to break him out of his shell,” Collins said. “Just give it some time.”

The nightly defensive matchups were a challenge, but a challenge that Hendricks wanted. Slowly, his confidence was growing, and in that newfound confidence, a willingness to be vulnerable and admit how much there was to learn.

“Defense and screens, it’s really art,” Hendricks said. “Coming out of college, I would have never thought ... like this is a whole new level of defense. It’s really an art.”

He started watching players like Lu Dort, Herb Jones and Mikal Bridges — players that are elite defenders who can fight around screens while hardly getting touched. Hendricks wants to be that kind of defender. The kind that opposing coaches warn their team about.

“They’re different defenders, elite defenders and that’s what I’m trying to be. I’m trying to be mentioned amongst those guys,” Hendricks said.

Opening up

As Collins predicted, with more reps, more time and a feeling of inclusion, Hendricks began to open up. He started getting more comfortable on the court, more comfortable with being uncomfortable and using his voice. Teammates noticed him communicating more and louder on defense, and how that was making him look more confident on the offensive end.

“He’s being encouraged by not only the staff but the players in the locker room. The veterans have done a really good job of engaging him and freeing him up and he competes on every play. Give Taylor a lot of credit, we’re giving him tough assignments, he’s getting thrown right into the fire and he does it without blinking.”

—  Will Hardy on Taylor Hendricks

Hendricks started jawing with game officials, cracking jokes a little more often, asking more questions.

“He’s said more in the last five days than I heard for the first five months,” Hardy said in late March. “He’s being encouraged by not only the staff but the players in the locker room. The veterans have done a really good job of engaging him and freeing him up and he competes on every play. Give Taylor a lot of credit, we’re giving him tough assignments, he’s getting thrown right into the fire and he does it without blinking.”

And taking Hardy’s coaching without blinking is no small feat.

“He gets on us and coaches hard,” Keyonte George said of Hardy. “But he does it because he cares and he wants us to be better, he sees the potential we have.”

It’s that potential that the Jazz spotted in Hendricks during his lone collegiate year at UCF. Potential that they knew they would need to be patient with. It’s that potential and the hope that the Jazz were right about him that has fueled Hendricks through his rookie season. Even in moments when he hasn’t believed in himself, he’s felt lifted up by those around him and it’s allowed him to start to show a bit more personality.

He’s gained strength and skill in the last few months at a rate he didn’t think possible, and all of that has given him the confidence that NBA executives and scouts were hoping Hendricks would be able to develop.

In a few short months, Taylor Hendricks has gone from being shocked that he is in the NBA, to believing that he can be the kind of NBA player that changes the future of a team. He’s not only confident in himself now, but he’s confident about what he will grow to become.

“For the type of player I want to be, getting these reps, going through this in my first year is gonna be very beneficial,” he said. “And I’m gonna master this defense stuff very soon. We won’t be losing too many games. We’ll definitely be playing more than 82.”

Utah Jazz forward Taylor Hendricks (0) passes the ball during an NBA game against the Dallas Mavericks at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 25, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News