Will Hardy tasked with establishing an institutional culture on a mostly-new Utah Jazz team

With several teams around the league dealing with internal drama from positions of leadership, Utah’s first-year head coach recognizes the importance of setting an identity.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz head coach Will Hardy visits with reporters, during the Utah Jazz Media Day, on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.

“Organizational culture” typically sounds like some mindless cliché that might occupy space on the “Values and Mission Statement” tab of a tech firm’s website.

And yet, it was a prominent and meaningful subject of discussion at various NBA teams’ respective media day events on Monday.

Members of the Phoenix Suns offered bewildered responses to queries on their organizational culture, after owner Robert Sarver announced last week he would sell his shares of the team in the wake of a report that detailed a long and disgusting pattern of misogynist and racist behavior.

And the Boston Celtics appeared shellshocked answering questions about their pathway forward, following the team’s season-long suspension of head coach Ime Udoka for unspecified “violations of team rules” that have been reported to be an illicit sexual relationship with a team employee.

The Utah Jazz had no such scandal to address during their own media day session at Vivint Arena, merely a tangential tie to another team’s drama, with new head coach Will Hardy having served as Udoka’s top assistant this past season.

Asked, for the record, what he knew and when he knew it, Hardy offered a message of sympathy for his friends in Boston while politely but firmly declining to answer.

“I have a lot of love for the Celtics organization, there’s a lot of people there that I care very deeply about and they’re in my thoughts,” he said. “But I hope you guys can respect that I’m not going to comment on anything that’s not about the Utah Jazz.”

That said, there were plenty of questions about and thoughts offered on the Jazz’s own organizational culture on Monday — they were just of a less salacious nature.

Still, when an annual postseason qualifier sees its head coach of eight seasons depart, then the front office jettisons four starters (including a pair of All-Stars) and brings in more than a dozen new players — most of them very young — in a massive roster overhaul, there can’t help but be uncertainty about how the team will go about trying to forge a new identity.

“It first starts with hard work and discipline. I think it’s a clean slate for every player here, with a new coaching staff, so that every day they come in here, they get to determine what this place looks like, feels like,” said general manager Justin Zanik. “The people in that gym — whether it be support staff, health-performance coaches, players, front office — we’re all trying to row the boat in the same direction.”

To his point, though, the new coaching staff will play an outsized role in setting the tone.

Hardy may be a fresh-faced, 34-year-old head coaching rookie, but he’ll have the responsibility of dictating the terms of what will become the Jazz’s culture these next few years.

It begins with Tuesday’s first training camp session.

“First, we need to practice hard. They need to work and train hard together. I think that helps to build some camaraderie,” Hardy said. “I think secondly, structure in how we play and helping them understand that this is a team, and that not one of them can try to shoulder the load and save us. They’re going to have to rely on each other, and that’s going to start at training camp.

“Because you’re right, they haven’t played together. So that’s on me to structure how we play and practice so that they start to understand each other better,” he added.

Despite their admittedly limited interactions with the new coach, many of the players are already convinced that Hardy has what it takes to push them in the right direction.

Asked for his early impressions of his new boss, guard Collin Sexton — arguably the centerpiece of the Jazz’s return haul in the Donovan Mitchell trade — offered an enthusiastic endorsement.

“His energy, and just how much he believes in all of us. He has a chip on his shoulder, too, it being his first year. So we’re gonna go in and play really hard for him each and every night,” Sexton said. “When you have a coach that’s willing to fight for you, you’re going to fight for him.

Leandro Bolmaro, acquired in the Rudy Gobert trade, had a similar sentiment.

“Oh, he’s nice — I love him! I really love his energy,” he said. “I can’t wait to be coached by him because he’s also new, and you want to work for him. I’m really excited to start.”

The coach reciprocated the support, noting that he appreciates the players on this roster because of their collective toughness and competitiveness.

There is a power, he added, in having so many guys who feel they have something to prove.

And they do. Having so many guys who’ve never played together before, and so many more who are young besides, is not exactly a recipe for competitiveness — Malik Beasley’s bold declaration of playoff intentions notwithstanding.

And while Hardy will be counted upon to give the marching orders, he’ll require the assistance of some of the Jazz’s small handful of veterans to help him carry it out.

“Whether we had one or two young guys, or 10 young guys, I was going to do my best to help those guys,” said Mike Conley, now entering his 16th NBA season. “Obviously our team is shaped a lot differently this year, so I’ll be mentoring a lot of guys. I just want the best and most out of each person, I want them to understand their ability and how high they can go in this league, and I’ll try to be that example and set that example every day.”

Cody Zeller, a former lottery pick with nine injury-plagued seasons under his belt, and in Jazz camp on a non-guaranteed invite, touted the importance of having a few old heads around just to help teach all the young guys the ins and outs of professional basketball.

“I was fortunate because I had a lot of good veteran guys when I was coming in the league that really kind of helped set the foundation for my career. So I want to give back and hopefully help them along,” he said. “… It’s tough coming into this league and kind of finding your groove. It’s a long season. So just the small details was the stuff I had to learn. There’s stuff you can get away with in college because you’re bigger, faster, stronger, but in this league, there’s no room for error. So hopefully I can help them out with little things I see.”

Hardy, for his part, was asked what Jazz fans might have to look forward to with this iteration of the team, given its presumed non-competitive nature. His response was a pretty clearly delineated harbinger of how he envisions the team’s culture coming together.

“This team is going to be representative of this organization and it’s going to be something that’s reflective of the fan base,” Hardy said. “We will be tough, we will play with passion, it will be a team. That’s my pitch.”