Tanking? Utah Jazz players are out to prove they’re not in on it

Wednesday’s season-opening blowout of a lax Nuggets team was, for some on the roster, a sign that their talent, competitiveness, and effort will make the team better than prognosticators believe.

Minneapolis • Both Lauri Markkanen and Kelly Olynyk opened their postgame thoughts Wednesday night with precisely the same line:

“It’s just one game.”

Still, that one game — a thorough 123-102 whipping of the allegedly title-contending Denver Nuggets — was a bit of vindication for a roster of players who, since coming together in haphazard fashion, have heard nothing but widespread talk about how bad a team they are, how intentionally inept they will be, how driven the organization is to lose a ton of games, maximize draft position, and land a future superstar like, say, Victor Wembanyama.

The front office may, indeed, be tanking, but the players and coaching staff sure seem intent on making it difficult.

“We think that way,” conceded Markkanen. “We think we’ve got a good team, and when we play our best basketball and play as hard as we can, we think we can compete with anybody.”

That remains to be seen, and more likely than not, difficult to accomplish. But still, the players persist.

In the lead-up to Wednesday’s game, the Jazz have consistently spoken of how hard first-year head coach Will Hardy has pushed them, how he has fostered and promoted a competitive atmosphere in practices since Day 1.

And the players have embraced it enthusiastically.

“Being a physical team, playing hard, just being the fastest-paced team. Having that hit-first mentality,” explained forward Jarred Vanderbilt. “That’s the culture we’re trying to build. I can see us heading towards that each and every day.”

Pretty much everyone on the roster has, to this point, expressed a variation on the theme of being overlooked underdogs, how no one believes they can do anything, and how that will enable them to capitalize on unsuspecting opponents who may approach games against them with something less than full effort — as seemed to be the case with Denver.

Given how hard the Jazz say they are working, then, surely it must be irksome to hear the constant prognostications of how awful they’re bound to be?

“Not really — we haven’t really paid attention to it much,” said Vanderbilt.

“Not really — noise is everywhere,” claimed Ochai Agbaji.

“That’s news to me. I mean, as far as Tweets and comments go, I try to stay as far away as possible,” added Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

Two veterans on the team at least admitted they’re aware of the perception, while denying it takes any mental toll.

“It’s the NBA, right? It’s part of it. It’s entertainment, whatever,” Jordan Clarkson said. “People, fans gonna say whatever.”

“Obviously people can say whatever they want and it’s not going to affect our daily stuff that we do,” added Markkanen. “… We hear all that, but you kinda take that as an extra boost.”

Another veteran, however — Mike Conley — came into his media session apparently dosed with truth serum. That, or he simply saw no point to denying the obvious.

“Yeah, it’s really tough. We don’t have that mindset, and it’s hard — you can’t function in any culture by coming in, trying to lose. That’s going to set you back even further when the time does come when the team is ready to compete at that level,” Conley said. “So for us, it’s trying to block it out. We’re going to do what we can on a nightly basis to put ourselves in positions to win.

“Obviously, we know this uphill battle is going to be tough; we’re so young, we have a lot of guys who need to develop, and a lot of different roles that will be hashed out as the year goes on,” he continued. “But we’re going to continue to do our job. No matter what people say, at the end of the day, we have to go out there and work.”

Hardy has seen it, has seen the players live it.

Two players, he said Wednesday night, epitomized the mentality with their efforts against the Nuggets: Vanderbilt, flying around in the first half, beating the Nuggets to loose balls and rebounds; and Collin Sexton, either bravely or stupidly taking a charge from behemoth center and reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokic.

“If you just saw the reaction from the bench and from the team when Collin took that charge in front of the bench, that’s all you need to see. That level of ‘want to win.’ You have some guys that are on the bench that want to be in the game, you have some guys who’ve had foul trouble so they’re frustrated — but they still go nuts for their teammates,” said Hardy. “And Collin made such a big play to take that charge. That play, to me, sums it up.”

Will that hard play-hard mentality do much on a consistent basis against more-talented teams?

Probably not.

But these Jazz believe two crucial things: Their talent level is better than many outsiders believe; and a higher effort can and does make a difference.

“No one can tell me we’re tanking. No one can tell me, with the effort we’re putting in, that we’re only gonna win 25 games,” said Alexander-Walker. “When you have a team that’s committed, you can surprise a lot of people. I know I have a lot of teammates that are behind me on that.”

Again, it was only one game.

But there’s another one on Friday night at the Target Center, against Rudy Gobert & Co.

His replacement at center in Utah’s starting lineup wants to see his teammates ready for it.

“We came in and got the job done. Now we’ve got to move on to the next one and do it again,” said Olynyk. “That’s what it’s about — you’ve got to be consistent, you have to do it every single night.”