Los Angeles • Monday night in Jazzland began with rejoicing in some quarters that coach Will Hardy had announced Collin Sexton as the starting point guard against the Clippers in place of the injured Mike Conley.
The night ended with a circulated clip of the young coach and younger guard having an animated discussion on the bench late in the fourth quarter, as Utah was deep in the throes of a turnover-fest that would contribute significantly to their eventual 121-114 defeat at Crypto.com Arena.
Some fans called the exchange proof that Hardy has already given up on the “Young Bull,” a player the team signed to a four-year, $72 million contract as part of the Donovan Mitchell trade. Others countered that the rookie coach taking the time not only to explain but to listen shows just the opposite, just how very invested he remains in the 23-year-old.
Either way, a mere 19 games into his Utah Jazz career, Sexton has already become something of a lightning rod …
Just not in the locker room.
Hardy, asked about the guard before the Jazz’s Saturday night win in Portland, succinctly summed up the early days of the Collin Sexton Experience with a pithy aphorism.
“The road of progress is not a straight line — it goes up and down on the way,” he said.
Monday night was a pretty perfect microcosm of that.
With Conley shelved by a knee injury, Sexton made his second start of the season. He played 28 minutes exactly, scoring 10 points on 5-for-13 shooting, he missed both of his attempts from deep, plus six shots in the lane, he did not get to the free-throw line, and otherwise contributed just two rebounds and a single assist. He was a minus-9 in the +/- category.
On Monday, and in general, he’s displayed a preternatural ability to beat defenders on the dribble and get into the paint, only to frequently get swallowed up by larger defenders once he gets there. His ability to run a halfcourt offense is hit-and-miss, and he too often becomes so single-minded in his determination to drive the ball that he winds up outright missing open teammates.
After Monday’s loss, in the locker room, he was taking his performance hard.
“I’ve just got to be better. I’ve just got to be better for us to win,” Sexton said quietly. “It’s kind of tough … because I’m still trying to figure it out.”
Nobody on the team was singularly blaming him for a defeat that dropped the Jazz to 12-7 on the season. Indeed, everyone who spoke postgame — up to and including Hardy — took some responsibility for the defeat, noting that there was a collective failure to compensate for Conley’s absence.
The Jazz’s six turnovers in the first quarter, and six more in the fourth (as opposed to the five total they committed in the second and third combined) drew the coach’s ire:
• “That’s a frustrating game,” Hardy said. “… Our inability to take care of the ball cost us the game.”
• “The turnovers were … some of them were so — I don’t know what the word is — gross, that the other team just gets to run down and dunk it. We don’t even have a chance to play defense,” he added later. “So it’s hard to be mad at the transition in those situations.”
He was equally nonplussed with the team totaling just 22 assists on 40 made baskets — and being led in the category by hustle-and-energy forward Jarred Vanderbilt, who registered five on the night.
• “We were hesitant to pass,” Hardy said. “Our team, our identity is, ‘Play hard and pass.’ I never question our team’s effort, I do think we continued to play hard. But at moments tonight, I do not think that we passed.”
It’s easy to look at the box score, register Sexton’s single assist, and to take that critique as a thinly-veiled shot at him.
That’s not the case.
From the moment that Conley suffered a popliteus strain a minute and a half into the third quarter against the Blazers on Saturday, everyone on the Jazz knew there would be an adjustment period with Sexton and Horton-Tucker now handling the bulk of his minutes.
Their aggressive downhill style is such a drastic departure from the steady headiness of Conley that there can’t help but be differences in how the team’s other pieces interact with the new primary playmakers.
“Obviously, Mike’s been a great piece for us, has been huge facilitating, getting everybody involved, organization, all that kind of stuff, kind of being an extension of Will out there,” Kelly Olynyk said before the game, at the team’s shootaround at the John Wooden Center on the UCLA campus. “… But it’s just about just getting to play our brand of basketball — move the ball and make sure that it’s not sticking, because that’s something Mike does very well.”
Lauri Markkanen reiterated the thought postgame in the interview room at the arena.
“We’ve just got to get on the same page, you know,” he said, “because we’re so used to having Mike in the starting lineup, and now it’s going to change things up a little bit.”
Meanwhile, the very coach that some claim has prematurely written Sexton off altogether is the one being most public about the need to remain patient with the fifth-year player.
In that Portland interview, Hardy rattled off a laundry list of factors contributing to the guard’s mercurial play — learning a totally new scheme … with a different supporting cast … after missing all but 11 games last season due to a torn meniscus … and lagging behind on account of the inherent and universal inability to simulate the speed and physicality of an NBA game during scrimmages, practices, and shootarounds.
None of which is to say that Sexton doesn’t have considerable room to get better.
Just that Hardy believes he has already and will continue to.
“Yeah, I think he is progressing. He’s understanding our offense a little bit better,” Hardy said. “There’s always going to be moments where you don’t make the right decision. … So you may have a game here or there where he goes back and watches the film and thinks, ‘Oh, man, I missed that guy a couple of times,’ but those are hard decisions to make in real time. So for him, he’s handled this first batch of games very, very well.
“He’s had some great moments, he’s had some not-so-great moments, but I’m just proud of the way that he’s maintained his aggressiveness and his competitive mentality every night,” he continued. “He hasn’t let mistakes get him down or keep him from competing at a high level. He knows that he has to continue to improve, and we’re here to help him do that.”
Actually, Sexton appeared very much down Monday night.
“It’s just tough. It’s just tough tonight,” he said.
Told that he seemed dejected, he insisted that wasn’t the case — even as everything about his demeanor indicated otherwise.
“I’m fine,” Sexton said. “I’ve just got to be better.”
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.