Kragthorpe: Jazz’s long climb will be fun to watch
NBA • Growth will be incremental, but young core will get chance to take full flight

By kurt kragthorpe

Tribune Columnist

Published: July 21, 2014 04:54PM
Updated: July 22, 2014 05:36PM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

Now that the Jazz have hired a coach, drafted two rookies, acquired two veterans and competed in a summer league, we all have a better gauge of what distance remains in the team’s journey toward NBA respectability.

The Jazz have exactly 753 miles to go, with a 57,863-foot vertical climb.

Sorry, wrong news release. Those numbers are from next month’s Tour of Utah cycling event — another holding of Miller Sports Properties, with its own daunting challenge.

Yet there’s some commonality here. The Tour of Utah is broken into seven stages, and the Jazz’s Tour of the NBA will require several segments of development during the rest of this decade. Their ascent will be nothing like that of the Phoenix Suns, who rose from 25 wins to 48 in 2013-14, or the Portland Trail Blazers, who went from 33 victories to 54.

The Jazz’s growth will come incrementally. They’ll be more like the Atlanta Hawks, who went from 30 wins to 37 in 2007-08 after drafting Al Horford at No. 3.

This team should make progress in 2014-15, but how much? My over/under number is 33.5 wins, a jump of 8.5 victories from last season. That may sound like modest improvement, but anything beyond that figure would be significant.

And here’s the thing: The Jazz’s record may be only a little better, but watching them play will be exponentially more fun.

I like everything I’m seeing and hearing about coach Quin Snyder’s offense, with more freedom, faster pace and better ball movement. The development of rookies Dante Exum and Rodney Hood will be intriguing and veterans Steve Novak and Trevor Booker should add elements of shooting ability and toughness that were missing.

What’s more, there will be no issues about whether the old guys are playing too much, as with Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams, and no questions about the coach’s future, as hovered over the franchise in Tyrone Corbin’s last season. Everything now is geared toward giving the core players a complete opportunity to improve.

There’s more local buzz about the Jazz right now than anytime in the past four years, and that’s good. General manager Dennis Lindsey has created some hope with a very solid offseason, amid the reality that no blockbuster free-agent deal was in the Jazz’s realm.

I only hope the current excitement level remains intact in mid-March when the Jazz are 25-40 and everyone’s minds turn toward the lottery. My biggest wish is that fans are so enamored of the Jazz that they actually want them to win some games in April, as opposed to hoping for better draft position.

This project is far from completion. Getting to where the Jazz want to go will take several more years. This team finished 24 games out of a playoff spot in 2013-14, and just reaching that level in the Western Conference will require a long climb.

Questions remain about leadership, Exum’s readiness for the NBA at age 19 with no college experience, how Gordon Hayward will respond to his new contract and whether Rudy Gobert can turn his summer league success into a consistent rotation role.

Those are just a few of the issues Snyder will have to address as the season begins, and others will surface along the way.

But some good stuff is coming for this team. Improvement has to start at home, where the Jazz were 16-25 last season, amid the mixed messages of whether the team was trying to win, or not — and whether fans wanted them to win, or not.

All of that should be cleared up now, and the Jazz can move on from their bottoming-out point. Anything more than another 8.5 wins in 2014-15 would represent nice growth. And as of July, I’m taking the “over” in that proposition.