Throughout the offseason, Dante Exum had a list of concerns that he tried to tackle: improving his shooting, playing with pace and rebounding more effectively were included.
But one thing he tried to take off his mind? His contract.
“That’s why I pay an agent,” he said on Monday. “My agent talks to me occasionally about it, but he’s dealing with that. That’s why I can worry about just playing basketball.”
But even if Exum has been successful in putting his basketball future out of his mind, you can bet it will be a talking point throughout the season — whether the Jazz will try to keep the guard in the fold with an extension, or if he’ll hit restricted free agency. And he’s not the only Jazzman in that position.
Exum, Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors and Joe Johnson are all in “contract years,” looking to either cash in with extensions with the Jazz or hit the market next summer. Players in contract years want to be looking their best to maximize their demand, which, at its best, can motivate a player to be at his peak, or at worst, can fizzle and hurt a team’s chemistry.
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While the Jazz front office will be having conversations with agents throughout the year on these players, coach Quin Snyder wants that to melt away when the players hit the court.
“I think those things are always there: We had a couple guys in contract years last year, too,” he said. “I’m not gonna coach them any different.”
What intrigues for this year’s Jazz is just how many players the organization is asking to step into bigger roles: Hood as one of the team’s go-to scorers; Favors to return to health and his 2015-16 production; Exum to fulfill his lottery pick promise at point guard. They’re all expected to absorb some possessions and see boosted playing time, and thus possibly boost production going into contract years.
It’s telling that all three of them spent significant time in Salt Lake City this summer, working with each other and developing their games. The organization was happy with how all three spent their offseasons. However, it’s difficult to separate motivation: Are they trying to make the most out of a contract year, or simply trying to raise their respective bars on their performances?
The answer may be some undefinable mixture. But publicly, they cite the latter.
“To be in my fourth year, and get this opportunity to lead this great team alongside this guy,” said Hood on Monday, gesturing to Rudy Gobert, “It’s gonna be a process, but I’m ready for it.”
The Jazz also have a number of players on two-year contracts who are not guaranteed for next season, including Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udoh who were all offseason pick-ups. While players sometimes equate offensive production with job security, the Jazz would prefer to see them fit into the overall style of play, similar to how Boris Diaw fit with the organization last season.
In other words: Don’t think about the contract. Just play.
“I don’t want anybody over-thinking or putting too much pressure on themselves,” Snyder said. “Our guys are so unselfish and so competitive, I don’t worry about them playing the right way at all. If anything, I don’t want them to think too much.”
While both Hood and Exum are eligible to reach extensions before Oct. 15, signs seem to point to both going into the season without reaching them — they’ll be looking to earn their contracts with their play this season.
Of course, good play isn’t always contingent with financial motivation. The Jazz were pleased with how Gobert responded after signing a $102 million, four-year deal last October. The French center went on to have his best season, making the all-NBA team for the first time.
“Sometimes they say when a guy signs, they get complacent, but I certainly didn’t think that happened to Rudy last year,” Snyder said. “I think it just depends on the player and the mindset. What you try to do is put them in the best mindset to be successful.”