At an NBA team’s media day, the opening salvo to a grueling season, there is an order to things.
On Monday, Gordon Hayward had posed for all of the pictures and given all of the interviews — except one with the team-owned radio station. He was ready to go, but was told by a Jazz public relations staffer that it wasn’t his turn. Rookie point guard Trey Burke was next. Unless, Hayward was told, the team’s leading returning scorer wanted to pull rank.
Hayward pulled rank.
That’s the thing about the fourth-year Jazz swingman, and the other three members of the roster who make up the group of players excited bloggers have dubbed the Core Four: They don’t have to wait anymore.
Hayward spent three seasons in and out of the starting lineup. Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter previously made up the two most interesting pieces of the NBA’s most bizarre frontcourt logjam. Alec Burks? A gifted athlete relegated to filling in for injured guards.
But after a nearly six-month offseason in which the Jazz banked on cap space and patience as the path to long-term success, this is the group that will lead the Jazz into a new era.
“We’ve kind of all waited,” said Hayward who, along with Favors, is up for a contract extension. “Waited around and waited our turn. I think we all had productive offseasons, now we’ve just got to go out and do it.” In last season’s 43-39 effort, in which the Jazz missed the playoffs by two games, those four players shared the floor in just 29 games, for 169 total minutes. Come opening night, Oct. 30 against Oklahoma City, they’re all projected starters.
“I think we are ready though to make the next step,” Hayward said.
The Jazz very strategically built a team that last season saw the contracts of seven key players expire, essentially handing the franchise over to the group of four players that waited behind veterans including Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams and Randy Foye.
“It was what it was,” said Favors, who last season averaged 9.4 points and 7.2 rebounds in 23 minutes per game. “I couldn’t control that, but I’ve been waiting for my opportunity since I got drafted.”
In many NBA towns, top draft picks are given starring roles from Day 1. The Jazz, however, nurtured the careers of Favors, Kanter, Hayward and Burks, waiting for the right NBA season — the one that officially kicks off with Tuesday’s opening practice — to turn them loose.
Each player was a lottery pick. But each was developed slower than one might expect.
“It was hard of course,” said Kanter, the presumed starting center who is coming off April shoulder surgery, “because of course every player wants to play a lot of minutes. I watched [Jefferson] a lot. Not just him, other players too. I watched every move he makes. I think it just got me a lot of experience.”
The youth movement is among the boldest reorganizations the Jazz franchise has ever made. Hayward is the oldest among the four players at 23, and when 20-year-old Burke is added to the mix, the projected starting lineup has an average age barely above the legal drinking limit.
The one question mark may be Burks. If the Jazz were looking for a candidate to bring off the bench — and shore up their depth — the former University of Colorado star could be one. However, General Manager Dennis Lindsey said “he had as good a summer as anybody we’ve had” and it remains unclear whether Burks or offseason acquisition Brandon Rush, who is still recovering from a torn ACL, will start.
Last season, Burks went from the end of the bench at the start of the year, to a key rotation player by the end, serving at both guard spots despite not knowing when or where his minutes would come.
“Alec was really professional,” Lindsey said. “Did not rock the boat one time and I think we learned some things from injuries — that he could handle the ball and we could put him in creative situations.”
No situation, however, is more creative than the one the Jazz are undertaking this season: Throwing young players into the deep end, sink or swim — the cliché-purveyor’s proverbial wheelhouse. Whether it results in traditional success — wins and losses — remains in serious doubt, but one message that came out of Jazz media day was that players believe they can surprise doubters.
“We definitely have some inexperience, some youth” Hayward said. “But I’ve seen these guys in practice. ... From what I’ve seen, everyone just wants to win and will do anything to win and I like that competitive spirit.”
Before the Jazz can get good, they first have to get better.
There is an order to these things, too.
Jazz’s new Big Four
Key stats from last season for Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks:
Player MPG PPG RPG APG
Gordon Hayward 29.2 14.1 3.1 3.0
Derrick Favors 23.2 9.4 7.1 1.0
Enes Kanter 15.4 7.2 4.3 .4
Alec Burks 17.8 7.0 2.3 1.4