Utah Jazz forward Elijah Hughes using summer league to show he’s improving every day

Second-year forward says he’s treating the upcoming season as another rookie campaign, and is excited to show off his defensive acumen.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Elijah Hughes (33) is pressured at the net by San Antonio Spurs guard Anthony Mathis (34 )as the Utah Jazz White team takes on the San Antonio Spurs during the Salt Lake City Summer League, Aug. 3, 2021 at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.

It’s safe to say that, after hearing his name called on draft night, the rest of Elijah Hughes’ rookie season in the NBA didn’t really go the way he’d hoped.

As a second-round pick on a Utah Jazz team with championship aspirations, regular-season minutes were always going to be tough to come by. They became more scarce still when the coronavirus pandemic led to the G League season being reduced to just a few handfuls of games, and when, on top of that, Hughes sprained his ankle in one of them.

All told, the high-scoring Syracuse product got into just five games with the Salt Lake City Stars, and played a total of 64 minutes across 18 appearances with the parent-club Jazz. That’s why, in some ways, he’ll be treating his upcoming sophomore campaign as almost something of a rookie do-over.

“Absolutely. I’m definitely looking forward to it,” Hughes said in the lead-up to the Salt Lake City Summer League that’s taking place at Vivint Arena.

Jazz fans and coaches are looking forward to it, as well.

The smooth scoring prowess he displayed with the Orangemen has many convinced that he has a legitimate role to play on an NBA roster.

So, naturally, he’s intending to display his progress on the other end of the court over the coming weeks.

“I’m trying to focus on defense, number one, and just let my offense come to me,” Hughes said. “… I’m looking forward to, in Summer League, showing my versatility, guarding one through four, sometimes even the five in small-ball. I’m ready to showcase what I can do on defense. I’m a Syracuse guy, so I know that there’s a stigma on guys that, coming out, they’re not good defenders, so I just want to erase that stigma.”

Jazz assistant coach Bryan Bailey, who is heading up the Utah-White entry in SLC Summer League play, agreed that defensive consistency is the key to Hughes’ NBA future.

“The challenge is, for him, just defending at a high level,” Bailey said. “If he can do that, it would be good for us.”

The 6-foot-5 wing acquitted himself well on that end in Tuesday night’s game against San Antonio, albeit against a Spurs roster largely devoid of players with NBA-level experience. Ironically, Hughes could not find much rhythm scoring the ball in the game, sending his first 3-point attempt wide of the rim and off the backboard, then later having a drive to the rim swallowed up. After a scoreless first half, he wound up totaling seven points.

Regardless, when asked if he believes he’s a better player now than a year ago, he replied, “Yeah, 100%.”

He cited his improved footwork, his communication, his understanding of how he fits into schemes, and his conditioning as the areas where he’s made the most progress.

He’ll have many more chances in the coming days to show those off. In the meantime, he’s just happy to get some chances to play. What kept him sane last year, he explained, were the 3-on-3 games played by those in the organization who were not a part of the regular rotation.

Getting into live games against opponents he doesn’t see every day feels a bit special at this point.

“I love basketball. I’ve been playing this game since I was 4 or 5. It’s my favorite thing to do,” he said. “… I love what I do. So, just being able to play in Summer League the next few weeks, I’ve really been trying to focus on taking everything within its time. I can’t look too far ahead. I just want to make sure I get better today. ‘What did I do today to get better?’ That’s kind of been [my] mindset.”