Thanks to boasting an ebullient and upward-trending star guard, the NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, one of the most respected coaches in the game, and arguably their deepest bench in years, there’s an awful lot of optimism surrounding the Utah Jazz.

Most pundits are projecting the team to finish top-four in the West, maybe fifth at worst, and one even forecast Utah’s first NBA Finals appearance in two decades.

So, as the Jazz prepare to build on their surprising 48-win campaign of a season ago when they kick off the 2018-19 season Wednesday night in Sacramento, they all realize they’re not going under the radar this time.

Exactly what that means differs greatly depending on who you ask, though.

Second-year guard Donovan Mitchell said how the team perceives itself is far more important than the fickle whims of former critics now jumping on the bandwagon.

“I always say this — the same people that have us on the radar [now] were the same people that didn’t have us on the radar last year. We’re gonna take that for what it’s worth,” he said. “We’re not gonna look and say, ‘Ohhhh, now we’re — what is it? — five or six in the power rankings. Oh yay!’ We’re the same team that people overlooked and we’re the mindset, the same character. The only difference now is we play on TV a little more.”

Veteran forward Joe Ingles took a more pragmatic approach on the subject.

The issue, as he sees it, is not one of tuning out the noise or avoiding getting caught up in others’ expectations, or lack thereof.

Rather, it’s about the ability to recognize and adjust to and respond to the increased efforts from opponents that the Jazz will surely encounter this season.

“I think we were going into places, and teams were probably either not worried about us or weren’t too concerned, or whatever their thoughts were,” Ingles acknowledged. “We know we’re gonna be scouted, we know Donovan’s gonna be scouted better, or more I should say. That’s just the way it is as you go through years and years and years in the league. It’ll be good for him. But we’ve got to worry about our group. And if we’re prepared like we are, I think we’ll be fine.”

And they all insist they are, indeed, prepared.

“I’m never gonna say we’re where we wanna be, because we can always get better, but we’re where we want to be for starting the season,” said Rudy Gobert. “The goal is to keep getting better, but … I think we’re in a good place.”

Perhaps both figuratively and literally.

After all, starting the season off in Sacramento, the place where the Jazz annihilated their final preseason opponent, would seem to bode well.

While nobody is taking anything for granted, the team does enter its season opener with confidence. Not because of the result itself, but because of how it was achieved.

Gobert cited the team’s “mindset of being physical and trying to stop everything they do. And when we do that, we’re not gonna be easy for anyone to play.” Ingles noted that the Jazz “got better as [preseason] went on.” And Mitchell was pleased that “we played our best basketball the last game,” and expects he and his teammates to “come up with that same type of fire.”

That shouldn’t be a problem.

They’re all eager to start playing games that actually matter.

“Yeah, it’ll be fun. … Even though there were five preseason games, it felt like a long preseason,” Ingles said. “It was really not that long, but yeah, we’re ready to get going. We’re mentally ready, we’re physically ready.”

“The main thing is, it counts now,” added Mitchell. “… Obviously, we’re excited for the season starting. I’m excited to watch basketball too, to be honest with you — to turn the TV on as much as playing. At the end of the day, we cannot come out there and say, ‘Oh, we’re happy to be back.’ We gotta be ready from the beginning.”

Because, this time around, you know everyone will be ready for them.

SEASON OPENER
JAZZ AT KINGS
At Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, Calif.


Tipoff • Wednesday, 8 p.m. MT
TV • ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 0-0, Kings 0-0
Last meeting • Jazz won 132-93 (Preseason, Oct. 11)
About the Jazz • Utah returns 13 players from a team that won 48 regular-season games a year ago and advanced to the Western Conference semifinals. … A preseason survey of the NBA’s general managers projected the Jazz to finish fourth in the Western Conference. … The team will be without forward Thabo Sefolosha (suspension for violation of the NBA’s anti-drug program) and guard Raul Neto (hamstring). 
About the Kings • Sacramento finished 27-55 last season. … This will be the regular season debut for No. 2 overall draft pick Marvin Bagley, a forward out of Duke. … Coach Dave Joerger is embracing the team’s youth movement, with veteran big men Zach Randolph and Kosta Koufos failing to make an on-court appearance between them in the preseason.