Las Vegas • In the end, the dunk didn’t count. But it still mattered.
With his left hand, Isaac Haas brushed aside 7-foot Zach Collins like a reed. With his right, he took a bounce pass in for a rim-rocking jam.
The refs called Haas, the 7-foot-2 Utah Jazz center, for an offensive foul. But it turned out to be a spark for a Jazz team that started out getting whipped by the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday afternoon in the first five minutes, and it was the beginning of a frustrating performance for Collins, who would finish just 2 for 12 and never seemed to have the upper hand on Haas afterward.
On the broadcast, color commentator Greg Anthony said, “sometimes you just want to send a message.” The message was clearly felt.
“That was nasty — I don’t know how he just powered through everyone like that,” teammate Grayson Allen said. “You saw guys jumping off the bench. We started talking more and more, and guys had a little pop to them, a little life. Little plays like that can help.”
Little plays from big men — an increasingly rare factor in the NBA.
While Las Vegas Summer League boasts a number of 7-footers this week, Haas, a four-year-player at Purdue, is clearly a different kind of big men even among his tallest peers. It’s not just his height, but his thick limbs, his broad shoulders and his massive hands that make him look large even sitting next to 6-foot-11 teammate Tony Bradley. He’s just more solidly built than most his size, weighing in at over 300 pounds in the NBA Draft Combine this year as the event’s heaviest player.
In another era, maybe as recently as 10 years ago, that alone would have made Haas, who earned All-Big Ten honors as a senior, a shoo-in for a spot on an NBA roster for years. Today, that leaves him with question marks. In a game that increasingly requires switchable defenders and ball movement, do true giants have a place?
Haas is spending the summer searching for that landing spot.
“I know I’m a physical and dominant presence on the post, everybody knows that,” Haas said. “But at the same time, I’m more athletic than people think I am. I wasn’t able to show it in the system I was in [during college]. I can actually shoot from outside a little bit. There’s more to come, obviously.”
Jazz fans can appreciate both the strengths and shortcomings of a team built around a classic big man. In many cases, it can be a big advantage, with opponents having to worry about protecting and getting to the rim. But against teams like the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets who can field smaller, floor-stretching lineups, big men can be a liability.
The skill sets required from centers are a little different these days: Post-ups are less important, while showing some shooting range and passing ability has more emphasis. Guarding the pick-and-roll, a staple of many NBA offenses, is critical, and big men have to be at least prepared to switch onto smaller players and not get roasted.
Even Rudy Gobert, who checks a number of classic big man boxes, is required at least on some level to be proficient in those skills. For would-be NBA centers like Haas, it’s even more critical to show some willingness to play outside the classic post comfort zone.
In the predraft process, that was particularly difficult for the Alabama-born Haas: Toward the end of his career at Purdue, he suffered a right elbow fracture that left him out of the NCAA Tournament for the rest of the Boilermakers’ run, despite frantic attempts to find a legal elbow brace that would allow him to play through the pain. Haas couldn’t shoot the way he wanted to for teams, and even now he has padding on his right arm. But now in July, his shot is starting to come along, as he showed by hitting a 15-foot jump shot against the Trail Blazers.
“What does that tell you?” Haas said with a grin.
With four points and three rebounds in his first Las Vegas Summer League game, Haas hasn’t popped off the page statistically. But he’s hopeful that his individual plays can still make a big impact this summer, potentially soliciting a training camp invite this fall.
In the meantime, he’s happy getting some time for Utah, an organization that doesn’t have to be swayed to give a 7-footer a chance.
“It is comforting because it’s kind of like Purdue, it feels like home at times,” Haas said. “I love the Utah Jazz, I love their system, I love being here. I hope they think about bringing me in, but if not, hopefully there’s another team that can use me, develop me and turn me into a great NBA player. Because I know I can be one.”