There were so many intriguing subplots from the Utah Jazz’s 124-123 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday night: that wild and chaotic finish; the ever-improving play-making of Jordan Clarkson; the five-out success with the pairing of Lauri Markkanen and Kelly Olynyk; a timely two-way performance off the bench by Nickeil Alexander-Walker …
One storyline that that was a bit more under-the-radar by the time the crazy game was over: Collin Sexton making his first regular-season start for the Jazz in place of Mike Conley, who was held out on the second night of the back-to-back.
Arguably the most high-ceiling player among the Jazz’s cadre of young pieces, Sexton totaled 19 points on 7-for-12 shooting (including 3 of 6 from deep), four assists, two rebounds, one block, and three turnovers in 31 minutes, 52 seconds of action — while appearing to play with more confidence and fluidity and verve than he had shown previously.
As for those minutes when he was on the bench, well, he was planted next to the street-clothed Conley, having a near-constant conversation.
That much, at least, is not new.
Sexton revealed in the previous days that the 16th-year point guard has very much taken him under his wing this season, and is tutoring him in practices, after shootarounds, during games — literally whenever he can.
“We’ll walk through, and he’ll be like, ‘Alright, what are you doing in this situation?’ And I’ll let him know, and then he’ll be like, ‘Well, in this situation, I think you should do this. Just try it,’” Sexton explained. “During the game, he’ll be like, ‘OK, you got to the basket — now let’s see if you can pitch [the ball] behind two or three times.’ And I’ll do it. And then he’s like, ‘Alright, now the next time, try to see if you can get all the way there [to the rim].’ It’s opening my mind to multiple ways of playing, and also multiple ways of seeing the game, too. I know he sees it from a different angle than I do.”
Indeed, even as Conley has struggled with his shot this season (35.6% FGs), he’s taken his ability to set up teammates to another level (7.3 assists). Sexton, meanwhile, is perhaps too frequently dependent upon using his straight-line speed to try and get by opponents and to the hoop.
Coach Will Hardy has said that he’s “not overly concerned with Collin running the team” right now, so long as he is “putting pressure on the other team’s defense with his natural ability to beat his own guy and get in the paint.” Nevertheless, Conley is taking it upon himself to try and add some additional facets to his young teammate’s game, to bring some nuance and subtlety to the equation, to give him more options, make him less predictable.
“I feel like me and him have gotten pretty close over the last month or so. Just really trying to pay attention to the details of the game for him, because physically he’s got a lot of gifts, as we know. And I just try to [help] the game slow down for him a little bit,” Conley said. “You know, he can get by guys, he can make plays for himself, but there’s a bigger game within the game that I think that he hasn’t been around as much and hadn’t been exposed to it as much.”
Another veteran on the team, 17th-year forward Rudy Gay, suggests that Sexton is like a lot of other young former lottery picks — players whose initial careers are maybe set back a bit initially by being thrown to wolves out on the court while playing for bad teams without a whole lot of direction or guidance.
This Jazz team, he added, now 5-2 and putting a focus on doing the little things right to win games, is helping the young guard unlearn some bad habits, having him take a step back for now so he can take more forward down the road.
And Conley is playing a big role in Sexton doing that.
“I think he’s an incredible talent, a tenacious basketball player, as you can see. I think he just needs to rein it in and pick his spots wisely, which he’s getting better at. He’s learning how to be a basketball player,” Gay said. “... Now he’s on a team where we demand a lot of things, we have veterans that he’s playing with, he has somebody he looks up to in Mike in front of him, and [he can] learn how to play a different kind of style of basketball. And he’s receptive.”
It’s no secret that when Sexton was signed to a new four-year, $70 million-plus deal as part of the Donovan Mitchell trade that fan expectations were through the roof for what he’d bring to the table.
And so, his measured beginning to the season (12.1 points, 1.9 assists, 35.0% 3-point shooting in 19.0 minutes) has arguably been a bit disappointing — both for the fanbase and himself.
Before Saturday, he’d come off the bench in every game, and he’d seen relatively limited game action, with Hardy explaining Friday that while the guard is not technically on a minutes restriction, the coaching and training staffs are being cognizant of his recovery from surgery for a torn meniscus.
And so, in the meantime, the coach has been thrilled to see the pairing of young and old come together behind the scenes.
“Mike can help Collin with a lot of things. I think that relationship has been fun to watch. They shoot together after every shootaround and practice, Collin definitely spends a lot of time picking Mike’s brain about different situations in the game,” he said. “Mike has such a depth of knowledge of how to play on both ends of the floor. Because of his size, at times on defense, he has to have a little bit more of a plan and a strategy to keep himself out of tough spots, and Collin’s learning that. And then on the offensive end, I think it’s just Collin continuing to try to understand our spacing as a team, who his teammates are and what their strengths are.”
Sexton has made no secret of his desire to be in the starting lineup more consistently, to feature more prominently in the offensive scheme, to do more to justify that deal he got.
Meanwhile, the veterans on the team are continuing to preach patience.
“The way we started, the way that our lineups work together … I think we both envision playing together more and being on the court more together, but the way that our groups have been compatible, it’s just like, why mess it up?” Conley said. “But obviously he wants to be out there as much as he can — he competes so much. I see him every day, so I’m sure it’ll get to the point where he starts to get more and more and more on his plate, but coach and management probably just didn’t want to overload him as soon as he got healthy.”
Smooth-shooting big man Olynyk, now in his 10th season, is trying to amplify that message to Sexton.
“He’s a super-talented guy — young, energetic. I love the way he plays. There will be times where we need him to do a lot in games and in stretches. And I told him, in this league, it ebbs and flows, comes and goes — you never know. So you got to stay ready at all times and make the most of your minutes and be a star in your role, whatever it is. And when the role grows, be a star in that role,” he said.
As part of staying locked in, Conley said he’s largely focusing on helping Sexton develop a better feel for the game — to have more of a grasp on time and place and situation and circumstances; to recognize when the team absolutely needs a bucket to stop a run, and rather than default to the “Young Bull’ charging headlong into the paint on a doomed attack, to instead search his memory for which plays have worked consistently earlier in the game, which teammates have had success in which situations.
For his part, Sexton acknowledged that while he remains impatient, the message is getting through.
Conley presumably will be back in the starting lineup in Monday’s Memphis rematch, and Sexton will probably be back in his sixth man role. And while it’s not necessarily what he wants, he knows that if he continues to learn his lessons, his time will eventually come.
“Just giving [it all in] the time that I’m out there and just making an impact. And I might play four-minute spurts, so in those four minutes, giving it all I can, whether it’s pressuring the ball or pushing the ball and changing the pace of the game, whether it’s on the defensive side or offensive side,” Sexton said. “Just trying to use the little time that I’m given just to make sure that they know I’m out there, you know what I mean? Because I know once the season continues to go, more minutes, more time [will come].”