The Triple Team: What’s the Jazz’s defensive secret this year? Mike Conley explains

With a win over Ja Morant and Memphis, the Utah Jazz improve to 6-2 on the season.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz head coach Will Hardy shares a laugh with his coaching staff and Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) as the Utah Jazz take on the Memphis Grizzlies at Viviint Arena, Oct. 31, 2022.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 121-105 win over the Memphis Grizzlies from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. The Jazz’s absurdly impressive defense

This was the most impressive performance of the season from the Jazz, I thought — and they’ve had no shortage of really impressive games so far.

But in this one, my goodness, did the Jazz look brilliant. The way they’re able to play defense right now is beyond my wildest expectations. They’re defending the rim, getting in passing lanes, and just generally making life so difficult for opponents.

I asked Mike Conley, “What’s going on?”

The veteran was quick to praise everyone from Kelly Olynyk, Lauri Marrkanen and Jarred Vanderbilt to Collin Sexton, Malik Beasley and Talen Horton-Tucker

“We have a lot of length, I think, for the team. Kelly’s one of the smartest defenders out there. People don’t really think that. Lauri can really defend and slide his feet. And Vando: he’s everywhere. You see how he plays with his aggression in the passing lanes. I’m not what I used to be, but I still get around, slide around, and play smart. You take us out and you add Collin in, you add Malik in, you add Talen, everybody’s just long, athletic and trying to make that the right decision defensively. When you have that as a collective group, it starts to show.”

That’s a really good synopsis. The Jazz’s collective length and athleticism isn’t something they had in years previous, when they were starting the 6-4 Royce O’Neale at the three and Bojan Bogdanovic at the four. Now, they have at least three long, smart defenders in their starting lineup.

The team length is helpful in a multitude of ways, but one is how the Jazz can muck up the paint and still get out to shooters. They only allowed the Grizzlies to take 26 3-point shots tonight, which is really low for the modern NBA.

It was notable, and correct, that Conley started his explanation with Olynyk, who has just been awesome. He has been masterful in his various roles: mostly actually playing drop big defense in pick and roll, but then coming over and helping when he’s not in the play.

I didn’t think that a team with Olynyk as rim protector could be seventh in the league defensively, but the Jazz’s all-out effort — while still somehow mostly playing really intelligently — has them surpassing expectations in yet another aspect of the game.

2. Lauri Markkanen is so good

Here’s his line, in 32 minutes tonight:

31 points, on 11-of-15 shooting from the field. 4-of-6 from three, 5-6 from the free-throw line. Eleven rebounds, four blocks, two steals, a +15 plus-minus.

There’s so much about his game that’s so good. He doesn’t really have a defining go-to move, but he’s just so all-around talented that he’s difficult to stop. He’s shown incredible touch around the basket and in mid-range this year. Did I think he’d be rebounding over guys and then hitting fallaway jumpers on them? I did not.

And then defensively, my goodness. He’s played anywhere from small forward to center for the Jazz this year. At small forward, he’s been an impact help defender. Tonight, he was asked to play a ton of center, and defended in space as well as you possibly can, getting two blocks on him in the game-defining second-quarter run.

On press row, we’ve been trying to come up with a comparison we like for him most, and I’ll run this one past you all: a seven-foot version of peak, 2016-17 Gordon Hayward. It’s not perfect, but it works decently well. Remember, Hayward was an All-Star that year, and has a lot of Hayward’s versatility, three-level scoring, defensive athleticism, and ability to pass and rebound.

Per 36 Minutes Table
1Gordon Hayward2016-1726737325167.816.5.4712.15.4.3985.711.2.5065.26.1.8440.
2Lauri Markkanen2022-2325772408.718.1.4791.97.2.2716.810.9.6163.23.7.8402.
Provided by Stathead.com: View Stathead Tool Used
Generated 10/31/2022.

The defining Lauri Markkanen story was written by our Eric Walden, who actually went up to Finland and met the Jazz’s new best player. If you haven’t read it already, make sure to check it out.

But we learned one more thing about Markkanen in the postgame: He considers himself, among the four Harry Potter houses: to be ... “I think I’m a Hufflepuff, from my research,” he said. He says he’s recently started to re-watch the movies and re-read the books.

3. Quincy Lewis hired to head up alumni program

It didn’t get a ton of attention today, but the Jazz hired former Jazz player Quincy Lewis to a new position: director of alumni relations. I don’t think this is just a ceremonial hire, by any means: Lewis was in a similar position with the University of Minnesota, his alma mater, and when we interviewed him today, clearly really wanted this job.

So what does a director of alumni relations do? Well, his job is literally to get in touch with all of the Jazz’s former players, and keep them connected to the franchise. Sometimes that’s little pieces of outreach — a Christmas card, a phone call. Sometimes that’s more involved: getting all of the players from a certain team back to Salt Lake City for a Jazz game for a reunion.

Lewis, though, is really diligent about this, more than you might expect for a former player. He had a plan for his typical day, involving huge amounts of contacting people on Facebook, Instagram, and the like, along with an afternoon full of phone calls. He envisioned being a part of the Jazz’s planning for the All-Star Game come February. He has a plan for the Jazz to use particular customer relationship management software to manage all of the different connections he hopes to build.

It’s a good thing, because I think the Jazz have showed some fraying with their ties to the past recently. The most visible is the new uniforms, which have no relation at all to what the Jazz have worn before. But there are other changes too in the Ryan Smith era: long-time staffers no longer with the team, for example.

Smith knows this, and is pushing to implement this alumni program with more gusto. Fans love seeing old players they have an emotional connection to.

Furthermore, maybe current players see what you’re doing with alumni, and feel like they’ll be valued down the road in a transactional NBA. It’s a smart, under-the-radar move that I think will pay dividends.

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