Weekly Run: Why the Utah Jazz cut Nigel Williams-Goss, and why their lack of ‘point guards’ means nothing

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Jarrell Brantley (5) congratulates Utah Jazz guard Nigel Williams-Goss (0), in preseason NBA action between Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns at Vivint SmartHome Area, on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020.

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When the Jazz PR team sent out a text on Monday morning asking some of the reporters who cover the team who they wanted to speak with following shootaround, I made the unusual move of requesting Nigel Williams-Goss.

As a guy who barely saw any action for the team last season, he wasn’t often asked for. However, he was just coming off an honestly shocking 15-point performance in Saturday’s preseason opener, and so I reasoned, “If we don’t interview Nigel now, when are we ever going to?”

It was a little more prophetic than I’d intended it to be, as the Jazz cut NWG on Tuesday evening.

The transaction itself was not really surprising: excising his non-guaranteed contract from the budget saved the team a few million dollars off a potential luxury tax payment, and he was a 26-year-old who never really displayed the skill or promise the front office envisioned when they drafted him, or when they brought him back following two years in Europe — as evidenced by the fact that he could not even beat out the mercurial Emmanuel Mudiay for playing time.

Still, knowing now what would happen a day later makes the enthusiasm and earnestness he displayed in his final interview all the more sad.

“Yeah, I think going into Year 2, I feel a lot more comfortable than I did last year,” Nigel said. “… I’ve always prided myself on just the hard work and preparation, whether that’s watching film, being the first one in the gym and the last one to leave, just whatever it takes for me to maximize my skill set and the things that I can bring to this team. I have a lot of confidence in my ability, and whatever the team needs me to do, I feel like I’m always going to do.”

Point guards don’t matter anymore

Before you send me a mean tweet telling me what a dumb@$$ I am, hear me out. I’m decidedly NOT saying that players like Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Trae Young, Ja Morant, et cetera, et cetera don’t make a difference or aren’t important. Obviously they do, and they are.

What I AM saying, is that the conventional definition of a point guard is fairly obsolete now.

I bring this up because, with NWG’s release, some Jazz fans have reached out on social media, wondering how it is that Mike Conley can be the only point guard on the roster now. I imagine some faces darkening and neck veins bulging as questions such as, “What are they gonna do if Conley gets hurt?!” are rage-typed into the dark corners of Al Gore’s internet.

Well … what did they do last year when Conley got hurt? Did Emmanuel suddenly start a bunch? Nope. Did Nigel? Definitely nope. It’s pretty simple — they let Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles fill what’s conventionally been the “point guard” role, the former because he’s dynamic with the ball in his hands, the latter because of his court vision and playmaking skills.

Old-school terms like “shooting guard” and “small forward” are simply too binary. The 1-5 positional designations are somewhat irrelevant, too. Even nominal catch-alls like “guard, wing, big” are a bit limiting. Sure, “positionless basketball” is now something of a mindless cliché, but the point it illustrates is that so long as specific tasks get done on the court, there’s no point putting a label on who is doing them. Are LeBron James and Luka Doncic “point guards”? And do you see much resemblance in the respective games of John Stockton and Steph Curry, even though they were/are both technically “point guards”?

Making this about the Jazz specifically again: Did you watch Monday’s game against the Suns? Did you notice how often it was Donovan bringing the ball up the court and initiating the offense, even when “point guard” Mike Conley was out there with him? You’ll notice it going forward, I’ll bet.

And if you’re still kind of old-school about it, you’re forgiven. After a dozen years in Memphis of taking the inbound pass, dribbling up the court, and setting the table, even Mike is still adjusting a bit now.

“It’s taken us some time to kind of work through it — me and Don find ourselves kind of fighting for the outlet sometimes, trying to figure out who’s getting the ball up. I think we’re much better at that at the start of this season,” he said. “You know, when he gets it, I just run to the corner; I know that he’s looking to make plays — he’s so unselfish. Man, just like coach and everybody else tells all of us, ‘You should be looking to shoot the ball when you get those kind of passes.’ So it’s easy for me to come off the screen and if I’m open, I’m a shooter; if not, make a play. And vice versa with me handling it, and Don coming off screens, or Joe or Bojan. It’s just the mindset we have

Dok speaks

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike (20) gets slaps from his teammates after getting charged with a flagrant-2 and ejected from the game for the contact with Phoenix Suns forward Abdel Nader (11) which caused him to hit his head on the court. The Jazz cracked open their 2020-21 preseason with their second game against the Phoenix Suns, Dec. 14, 2020.

We talked to rookie center/5/big (yeah, I’m a smart@$$) Udoka Azubuike after Monday’s shootaround, too, and: 1. He’s still with the team, so clearly I’m not a jinx; and 2. He’s just a fun interview — not because he’s particularly humorous or expert at breaking down the game, but because he’s so guileless.

When asked if there had been any butterflies in the stomach ahead of his first game, he didn’t play it cool and deny it: “Yeah. Um, obviously. Of course I was nervous a little bit!” When asked about the difference between college ball and the NBA, he didn’t try to diminish it: “It’s so much faster!” When asked about improving his conditioning, he didn’t get defensive: “I’m in pretty good shape right now, but still, I know that for me to be able to do all I can bring to the table for the team, I need to get in way, way better shape.”

And when asked if he views Rudy Gobert as a mentor, he didn’t downplay the significance of the relationship: “It’s big, it’s really important. That’s a Defensive Player of the Year twice, also an All-Star. I’m looking up to him and the way he plays. Sometimes I try to pick up his mindset and just talk to him — just tell him the stuff that I need to get better on, and [ask] ‘How you get prepared?’ or how he was able to get to where he was. Having a guy like Rudy right beside me is really huge — just learning from him. I’m really a good learner. I like to learn.”

Music I’m listening to

We’ll keep it short and sweet this time …

Leslie Odom Jr., “The Christmas Album”: Man, what a voice this guy’s got! I mentioned a week ago that I haven’t gotten nearly as much into Christmas music this year, and that remains true. This has been the exception. Nice mix of new stuff and new takes on old stuff. “Winter Song” (feat. Cynthia Evro) is just absolutely beautiful.

Chris Cornell, “No One Sings Like You Anymore”: I really miss this guy and regret, to this day, not ever getting to see him live. So getting to hear some more stuff of his is cool, even if this is an album of just cover tunes. Obviously, I’m a big fan of his interpretation of Guns N’ Roses’ “Patience.” Ghostland Observatory’s “Sad, Sad City” was a new one to me, but lent itself well to his soulful, gravelly yowl. And Terry Reid’s “To Be Treated Rite” yields some gorgeously mysterious ambience.

Gwen Stefani, “Let Me Reintroduce Myself”: I used to love No Doubt. I used to love Gwen (I even had a Mr. Stefani T-shirt at one point). But this single is just vapid, insipid (and hopefully forgettable) nonsense.


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