There’s one forceful fact we learned about the Jazz this season and it could be viewed as devastating by pessimists, but as useful by happy people who hope for better things in this year’s draft and beyond. Here it is:
The Jazz’s young core players can be good, not great.
There’s not a fledgling superstar among them.
That’s a big deal because, jumping two steps ahead, for the Jazz to become an authentic contender, they must have a star. League history says there has to be a player who can put a team on his back, when needed, and carry it to victory. When everything else goes wrong — and, Lord knows, that’s happened a whole lot this season — there has to be one player who can make it right.
Where is that guy, even in embryonic form, on the Jazz?
Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward showed promise and improvement in minutes that were new to them. And, wonder of wonders: they even got to start together in the team’s 79th game on Friday night against Portland. (That bright initiative should have been launched from the get-go. Why it wasn’t, only Ty Corbin can say.)
As a rookie, Burke had the steepest learning curve, and he showed a need to get stronger, smarter and savvier. All of that was expected and all of it will come in time. He logged the second-most minutes per game — trailing only Hayward — with an average of 32 per game. He has averaged 12.4 points and 5.6 assists and those totals will rise. His issues: limited dimensions and efficiency.
Burke can’t get taller or longer, but he can work on his shot — he made only 37 percent of his attempts this season. He has to penetrate more, getting layups and drawing fouls. He hit a team-best 89 percent from the line, but averaged fewer than two foul shots.
The case of Hayward is … curious. The Jazz were hoping he’d be more than he is. As mentioned, he was on the floor more than any other player and was asked to do more, probably too much. He’s led the team in scoring — averaging 16 points — and got 5.2 assists, along with five rebounds. But he also turned the ball over the most — 2.7 times a game — and shot 41 percent, 31 percent from three. In each of his four seasons in the league, as Hayward has squeezed off more attempts, his shooting percentage has dropped, from 48 percent to 45 percent to 43 percent to this year’s low.
He’s taking too many shots outside his range, and he’s making bad decisions as to when to fire away in traffic. Hayward can still be a fine player. He might even become a fringe all-star. But the load of carrying a team is too much. He’d make a terrific third-option on a contending team.
Favors is the closest thing the Jazz have to an emerging elite player. His defense has always been his priority, and he could become a great rim protector. He averaged 1.4 blocks this season — that number will go higher — and he also averaged 13.2 points and 8.7 boards. At the offensive end, the Jazz should have gone to Favors more this season because he already improved enough to make nearly 52 percent of his shots. Still, he ranked only fifth in attempts. He has to get the ball more and he must hit more than 67 percent of his free throws.
Burks showed the most improvement, doubling his scoring — to 14 points — and making 46 percent of his shots, despite ratcheting into the ionosphere their degree of difficulty.
His aggression at the offensive end rewarded him with more trips to the line than any other Jazz player. He made 75 percent. It will be interesting to see how the Jazz use Burks moving forward. Do they see him as a trusted go-to guy from hip to hop, or as a kind of mercurial, situational force off the bench?
Kanter should have played more this season. It was wasteful that he didn’t. In his 26 minutes, the Jazz player who benefits more than any other from his time put up 12.1 points and hauled down 7.3 rebounds. He’s a gifted offensive presence, with evolving moves and a soft touch. His defense at times was a laugh a minute, but Kanter is capable of a better effort there than he showed. He needs strong coaching and court time. He’s a unique talent the Jazz should make more use of or trade for whatever it is they’re looking for.
Either way, the forceful fact remains.
The Jazz have young players all around who can be good, a couple who can grow to be real good. But they still need what they don’t have: a player who somewhere in his bones can be great. With luck, and a few more losses, maybe they’ll get him from the only place they ever could, from the place this season was always — or always should have been — about.
Yeah, you know where.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
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