Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 114-82 loss to the Toronto Raptors from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Will Hardy’s surprising rotation
I was surprised by Will Hardy’s choices in the rotation on Sunday in the first preseason game. Obviously, it’s just one game, one that doesn’t even matter. But to the extent that they reveal his initial preferences, or even just an initial point of experimentation, there were a few things that stood out.
The Jazz started Mike Conley, Malik Beasley, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Kelly Olynyk, then played a second five of Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Rudy Gay, and Walker Kessler.
Then, Hardy played a “C” lineup in the final 9 minutes of the game that included Jared Butler, Ochai Abgnaji, Talen Horton-Tucker, Simone Fontechhio, and Cody Zeller.
Again: by no means is this final! But here are few thoughts:
• First of all, that Collin Sexton came off the bench. Fans were so confident that Sexton should start that he actually garnered more votes than any other player in our informal poll last week. But instead, Hardy went with the veteran Conley, and the superior shooter in Beasley.
Honestly, that does make some sense to me. Some of the Jazz’s problems of the last couple of years have been about their too-small backcourt, and starting Beasley at shooting guard over the 6-1 Sexton alleviates that somewhat. But having both Sexton and Clarkson coming off the bench in the same lineup provides real duplication of “scoring dudes who haven’t looked to pass first in their NBA careers.”
• Nickeil Alexander-Walker making the top 10, above Ochai Agbaji, Simone Fontecchio, or Jared Butler. A couple of teammates have complemented NAW for his efforts in the first week of preseason, and perhaps that’s why we’ve seen him here.
• That being said, not playing Agbaji with the rest of the top-10 rotation seems like a curious early decision. The Jazz are a rebuilding team with one lottery-pick rookie on the roster. Preseason or not, they should be getting that guy minutes!
• Rudy Gay finding his way back into the rotation despite falling out of it last season. We’ll see what happens moving forward, but he didn’t look particularly spry in Game 1. Of course, that makes sense for a 36-year-old veteran, who probably isn’t moving at full speed yet.
• No minutes for Stanley Johnson, Saben Lee, Leandro Bolmaro, Udoka Azubuike. The latter is injured, but if you’re looking at potential cut candidates for the Jazz, I think you have to look at that list as the most likely candidates at this point.
We’ll see how much changes against Portland on Tuesday, but this was an interesting first salvo from Hardy, I thought.
2. Defensive style of play
It was also our first chance to see what these guys have been working on in training camp for four days. In early interviews, Hardy was pretty open on overall philosophy — he wants to play fast, he wants an unselfish team, he wants a team that plays hard, he wants his team to be versatile — he was pretty reluctant to share strategic specifics.
So what did we see?
With the starting lineup, we saw a lot of switching defensively. In the first half, that worked pretty well — especially as the Raptors were making a lot of ballhandling mistakes.
At halftime, I think Nick Nurse must have discussed the Jazz’s game plan with the Raptors, because they immediately started attacking the Jazz’s guards on switches, both up high and down low. This example is from later in the quarter, but Clarkson has no chance against Christian Koloko here, a rookie second-round pick.
How about with Walker Kessler out there? Well, they went to drop-big defense. As we know, sometimes that can struggle against good pick-and-pop players.
In other words, I do think Hardy’s going to vary the style of defense the Jazz play depending who is out there on the floor. In the Quin Snyder era, they never were able to do that really effectively — their efforts at trying small ball centers generally resulted in really bad defense, and they were much better when they could just play standard drop-big defense for 48 minutes a night.
Can teams switch styles mid-game well? Actually, the championship Raptors are probably the leading example of a team having so many looks and being able to toggle between them defensively. Hardy, both in interviews and in practice, has expressed an interest in doing the same with a younger, more inexperienced group.
3. Lauri Markkanen’s game
Lauri Markkanen was one of the only bright spots for the Jazz tonight, scoring 20 points, adding five rebounds and two steals.
Those 20 points came on 7-12 shooting from the field, including 2-6 from three. I thought this highlight video from the Jazz on Markkanen showed off some of his versatility, especially offensively.
He moves pretty well for a 7-footer, right? I thought that bit of improvisation at the 35 second mark above was pretty impressive: telling Sexton to screen off of him, then cutting at the right time to find space down low.
That height and movement is also really useful in transition. In fact, it’s useful in three ways: he can finish at the rim, he can be a Bojan Bogdanovic-esque spacer, and he can take a few dribbles and put pressure on the defense, which likely doesn’t have a big man back to contain his drive. (See that last play in the clip above for a good example.)
It was a good NBA start to the season for the 25 year old after a terrific EuroBasket.
This season’s going to be all about finding silver linings, about finding the 3-4 players who might be part of the next good Jazz team. If you’re looking for a bright spot after a 30 point loss, Markkanen is that guy.