In Utah, there’s no Process. But there is trust.
A year after being perched on the edge of backsliding, the Jazz are entering the 2018 NBA Draft from a position of strength: They have stars. They’ve been back to the playoffs. With the 21st overall pick, the Jazz won’t be in position to draft the most-talked-about prospects, but many draft experts believe there are useful players in their draft range Thursday night.
So much of Utah’s strength is derived from last year’s success: General manager Dennis Lindsey and his staff changed the direction of the franchise when they traded for the 13th pick in Donovan Mitchell. Because of that coup, the Jazz don’t need to hit another winning lottery ticket like they did that night — but there’s confidence in the team’s leadership to find another piece.
At the top, the 2018 draft class seems anachronistic: There are four centers or power forwards who could go in the top five picks, which is counter to the common notion that the NBA is getting smaller.
But in Utah’s range, it’s almost all guards and wings. While the Jazz could be looking to replace Derrick Favors if he leaves in free agency, the prospect of adding more wing threats — as long as they can play alongside Mitchell — has to be appealing for a team that could use more flexibility in those areas.
Houston was able to run the Jazz off the floor in the playoffs after injuries to Ricky Rubio and Dante Exum limited Utah’s playmaking options. The draft is likely to offer a player who can shoot, pass — or both.
“There are a lot of guys in that 20 to 40 range who can really play,” ESPN analyst Mike Schmitz said in a conference call. “There’s guys like [Kyle] Kuzma and Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen who you didn’t expect, so I think there are some of those guys in this draft, whether it’s guys who can shoot or protect the room or really facilitate. I think this is a very deep draft in that range.”
The Jazz feel that way, too: Vice president of player personnel Walt Perrin told reporters last week there were as many as a dozen prospects the Jazz liked in their range. But the Jazz also feel many of the players they value could be off the board by the time they pick in the first round.
“I would imagine out of those 10-12 guys that at least six to eight will probably be off the board,” Perrin said.
The complicating factor could be trades. Several draft analysts, such as ESPN’s Jonathan Givony, are predicting a flurry of activity after the first few picks. Prospects who have been linked to the Jazz, including Maryland’s Kevin Huerter and UCLA’s Aaron Holiday, have seen their stock rising. It’s hard to read which teams really like which players at times — Perrin said “the Liar’s Club is open” this time of year — but there’s a chance teams might be trying to jump in line for a hot prospect.
What increases the likelihood of trades is the salary cap, which is rising less for next season than in previous years. That means a number of teams are limited in their ability to fill gaps through free agency. It might be cheaper to trade up into the draft for a dynamo on a rookie contract than to spend millions in what’s widely considered a weak free agent market outside of LeBron James and Paul George.
Particularly in Utah’s range, where shooters can be found in the draft, rookies will be slotted for around $2 million per year.
“I think that outweighs a team that wants to go out and spend $5 or $6 million on a veteran shooter,” ESPN analyst Bobby Marks said on a conference call.
If there is a heavy trading market, history says the Jazz could be involved. Last year, the Jazz spun several trades before landing with Mitchell and North Carolina big man Tony Bradley. The year before, they turned the No. 12 pick into veteran George Hill, who helped them return to the playoffs.
The goodwill is still high for Utah’s front office — Mitchell’s rookie campaign inspired confidence that the Jazz know what they’re doing on draft night. In a draft with many options and variables, the only way to maintain that confidence is to keep making the right choices.