When Joe Ingles suffered a season-ending torn ACL, it was pretty much a fait accompli that the Utah Jazz would move his expiring contract ahead of Thursday’s NBA trade deadline to try and bolster their roster, which they did.
That their return was a young player with potential and in need of further development rather than an established veteran ready to step into the rotation and take the team to another level immediately surprised many.
On Friday morning at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus practice facility, Jazz general manager Justin Zanik explained the team’s decision-making approach to the deadline that landed them Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Juancho Hernangomez … and that’s it.
“I feel really confident in the amount of information we knew about the market and what was going on. And every opportunity that came our way, we were able to look at and understand and make really good decisions from where we stand as a team,” Zanik told reporters. “We’re a very competitive team. When we’re healthy, when we’re connected, we have a chance to contend for a title. … I’m excited about this group. We want to make a bet on this group. We have proof of concept with this group.”
Obviously, that’s not necessarily what some fans wanted to hear.
With a season thus far marked by inconsistent competitiveness, sporadic perimeter defense, and marred by a January that was an on- and off-court disaster pretty much from beginning to end, there were hopes in certain segments that the front office would prioritize adding a defensive stopper, or some established wings with size and switchability, perhaps another rim-protecting big man.
Instead, they wound up with a talented-but-wild third-year guard prone to bouts of inefficiency, and a veteran forward who’s bounced around the league these past few seasons.
Zanik acknowledged that Alexander-Walker would require a settling-in period, but still felt like he was a worthwhile gamble, considering the always-ongoing need to stock the team with talent.
“We look at those opportunities whatever our timeline, in terms of the competitiveness of our team, whether we’re a young, rebuilding team, or a playoff-competitive team, or we’re trying to be a championship-contending team,” Zanik said. “It’s not just, ‘What are we doing for the next four months? What are we doing for the next year?’ Nickeil has a chance to be here on a multiyear timeline, and you always have to have a chance to add some of those guys.”
Asked if the team considered spending a future fist-round pick in an attempt to land more immediate help, Zanik said everything was on the table, but that the front-office team ultimately just didn’t feel the potential return was worth the cost.
“There’s always a value proposition of the assets that you have, and that goes for future picks. … This trade deadline window, we investigated every possible situation and the value coming back: Can it make us better? Can it definitively make us better? That’s a high bar with this group because we’re really good,” he said. “… There was just not anything definitive that reached a bar, whether using a future first or not.”
Meanwhile, the 23-year-old Alexander-Walker, who was also introduced to the media on Friday morning, called his trade to the Jazz a “great opportunity for me to learn and pick up on vet habits and a winning culture.”
After spending the past 2.5 seasons with the Pelicans, then getting traded to the Blazers and, a day later, traded again to the Jazz (”I found out once I landed in Portland”), he acknowledged that the past few days have been a “been a whirlwind of emotions.”
But he’s trying to catch up and fit in. He’s been hitting the film sessions hard in an effort to get more up to speed on both Utah’s schemes and unique terminology (”Usually around the league, there’s terms that reference the same thing; here, [it feels like] it’s Chinese”), and he’s already had a good heart-to-heart with coach Quin Snyder about his fit with the team.
“Really helping defend, being a good perimeter defender. Giving that good spark off the bench defensively, and allowing the offensive end to come,” Alexander-Walker said. “The team’s full of great guards and All-Stars, so my role is not to be that spark plug of scoring.”
Still, he’s hoping to get to a point where can showcase more of the things he’s capable of doing.
“I feel like I had flashes of it. There were definitely moments [with the Pelicans] where was able to be who I truly was,” Alexander-Walker said. “I don’t point fingers and say ‘they held me back’ or anything. I can only imagine what I’m going to bring to this team.”
The Jazz are eager to see it, too.
“Nickeil, every time we’ve played against him, he made a few tough shots — some of them on me, too. So, he has a lot of talent, and is still young, so I’m really excited to see how he’s going to grow with us,” said Rudy Gobert, speaking to the media for the first time since suffering a left calf strain. “… I’m excited to have some fresh blood on the team.”
Zanik, meanwhile, said acquiring Alexander-Walker was also a means of showing belief in the team’s coaches, development staff, and overall culture.
They believe they are getting a young player who’s already shown the capacity to deserve NBA rotational minutes, but who also can go to a team that plays a completely different style, acclimate quickly enough to provide a bench option for Snyder, but also unlock some of the skills and tools down the road that haven’t really manifested in the league yet.
“There was an opportunity to make a bet on a guy who became available,” Zanik said. “… Now the work begins for him.”