Gordon Monson: Holy Azubuike! The Utah Jazz go big in the draft, but they need much, much more.
FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2019, file photo, Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) blocks a shot by East Tennessee State forward Vonnie Patterson (23) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lawrence, Kan. Azubuike was selected to the Associated Press All-Big 12 first team announced Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Azubuike was also named the AP Big 12 Player of the Year. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
The Jazz had needs to fill heading into the 2020 draft, needs to draw them closer to the best teams in the West now, not later. They had made modest progress over the past couple of seasons, inching closer to their stated goal of real NBA contention, but, heading in, were still far away from making that intention real.
And they knew it. They know they aren’t good enough.
They need improvement in perimeter defense, without, as Dennis Lindsey said it, compromising their spacing at the offensive end. In the modern NBA, if a team puts a player on the floor who cannot shoot, who cannot at least threaten to shoot and score, the consequences are too severe, especially in the attack that Quin Snyder prefers to run with Rudy Gobert already on the floor. The exception is if that player’s defense is so stellar that he can make up for the offensive lapses.
But what about when Gobert isn’t on the floor? More on that in a minute.
“There are multiple ways we can accomplish [our goals],” GM Justin Zanik said in the run-up to the draft, meaning apparently outside of it.
They need size in the backcourt, particularly since their two main cogs there — Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley — are diminutive. It was Jerry Sloan who always believed in having a rugged, rebounding 2-guard/wing on the floor, and as much as the game has changed, he was and remains right about that.
They need athleticism, given the lean toward position-less basketball, that will increase their ability to compete against and beat the L.A. teams, the Nuggets, the rehabbed Warriors, the Mavs, and darn near everybody else in the West.
They need immediate polish, not a project, a body and mind that are ready to go, not players who will require a couple of seasons in the G League to gain their footing, to sharpen their focus, to help a team that is in need now.
And ta-dum, they were going to get exactly … none of that in this draft.
Not picking from the No. 23 spot. Not picking from the 27th and 38th spots, which they traded for beforehand, giving up the former and the rights to Ante Tomic. Not gaining a player at 39, which they did through New Orleans in the form of Syracuse wing Elijah Hughes.
Mitchell and Gobert, the Jazz’s two stars, the guys who are eyeing and needing that influx of help more than anyone, will have to wait for it as the Jazz find it in some other place, in some other way.
Gobert, himself a 27th pick, knows a payoff can come from that selection spot, as it did with him and a player such as Pascal Siakam. But even with those two, that growth took the turn of a calendar, not a stopwatch.
Every once in the bluest of moons does a team get an immediate boost out of the 23rd, the 27th, the 38th, the 39th pick, or even later ones, but those are outliers. And unless the Jazz recognize something no other team recognizes, which they probably don’t, their chances of crushing the odds on this occasion are somewhat bleak.
The guy they took first is 7-foot, 270-pound center Udoka Azubuike, who they believe was as promising as anybody they could have gotten at 23 — and for less money, allowing for more financial flexibility. They unloaded the 38th pick, along with Tony Bradley to Detroit for cash money.
Azubuike is a bust-his-tail shot-blocker/rebounder who likes to dunk a lot. His hands and timing improved at Kansas, where he was a top player on a top team. And the Jazz need a better defensive presence when Gobert is resting.
Hughes can shoot it. He’s somewhat athletic, but how good an NBA defender he is, nobody’s sure.
Neither player will likely be a dominant difference-maker right away. And that’s not all bad, considering developing players is one thing the Jazz pride themselves in doing well. They can’t make a player out of a dud, but they can get the best out of what a player can give. They can make a fringe player useful. They can make a useful player important. We’ve seen some of that in the past.
But Azubuike and Hughes are not like Mitchell. Significance will only come with determination, work, seasoning, help and luck. If you lean on numbers and percentages, and the Jazz do, that’s what those analytics project for these guys. Long hauls.
In that way, this draft is a set-up for whatever comes next. The Jazz need — is there an echo in here? — something to come next. What they have is not enough. Internal growth, from which the Jazz have benefited in the past — again, look at Gobert, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, Mitchell — is not sufficient to close the gap.
They already have a whole slew of young players jumping back and forth from the G League to their own roster who are more advanced than who they just drafted.
If they want to keep Mitchell and Gobert together, and depending on how extreme/expensive Gobert’s demands will be for his next contract, that desire hangs in foggier-than-you-might-expect abeyance, they will have to either re-sign Jordan Clarkson or find someone who can deliver what he delivers off their bench. Or maybe both, adding more perimeter D.
They’ll have to get the most out of Conley, more than they got out of him a season ago, and maybe all along they expected a better return on their investment the second time around, or trade away him and his heavy contract for something more helpful.
They’ll have to get Bojan Bogdanovic healthy.
They’ll have to get that perimeter defensive reinforcement.
And if they concur that Mitchell’s most effective position is at the point, where he can control and create more of the action with the ball in his hands, they need a big, tough, strong guard/wing to play alongside, bolstering that backcourt. O’Neale is a solid complement, but not enough, not to battle and beat the best in the West. What about Hughes? Hmm.
None of that was accomplished via the draft on Wednesday night.
The real question is: What will happen — if anything — over the next couple of weeks?
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.