The Utah Jazz will be getting some reinforcements soon.
On Monday — the middle of the team’s three-day break between Saturday’s loss to the Blazers and Wednesday’s game against the visiting Warriors — both starting point guard Mike Conley and reserve forward Rudy Gay were full participants in the practice session held at Zions Bank Basketball Campus.
Conley, the 16th-year veteran, has been out of action since injuring the popliteus muscle in his left knee during the third quarter of the Jazz’s 118-113 win in Portland back on Nov. 19. The team wound up dropping five straight games in his absence, and has gone 2-6 overall since he’s been sidelined.
Asked if he’d be suiting up and taking the court vs. Golden State, Conley acknowledged, “I want to,” but conceded that the prudent course of action will be to see where he’s at physically following the Jazz’s Tuesday practice and Wednesday morning shootaround.
“I feel a lot better. Each day, it’s getting better. Today was my first time really practicing with contact — last week was just transitioning from walking to jogging to running,” he said. “I still feel it, but it’s obviously good enough to kind of wear it down a little bit and see where it’s at.”
In the interim, the Jazz have been starting Collin Sexton, who has been sharing ball-handling and offense-initiating duties with Jordan Clarkson (Talen Horton-Tucker and Nickeil Alexander-Walker have also contributed off the bench).
Conley praised the progress that Sexton has made, noting the significant difference in his patience and court recognition from the first couple games he was out to the last few. But he also pointed out that there have been “a lot of lessons learned during this period,” and that the “young guys have had to grow up in a lot of different aspects of the game.”
While Sexton has enjoyed a statistical bump during his starts, there’s no getting around the team missing Conley’s steadying presence — especially in late- and close-game situations. Utah is just 8-8 this season in “close” games — defined by the NBA as the score being within five points with five minutes to go.
Though his scoring is down this season, Conley is averaging a career-high 7.9 assists and a career-low-tying 1.5 turnovers, while shooting 38.6% from 3-point range.
And he’s acknowledged that, even as he’s trying to impart situational suggestions and big-picture wisdom from the bench, it’s been eating at him not to be able to get on the court and personally impact the game.
“I kind of get in helpless mode. I tell the guys all the time, I get real fidgety and start playing with my hands and get anxious,” Conley said. “I see things in real time, but I can’t tell Collin to dribble to the basket, or Nickeil to dribble to the basket, or to look to the corner. So I just sit there, and I know something might happen — good or bad — and I have no control over it. That makes me want to get back even quicker.”
While it was initially reported that Conley would miss at least two weeks, the Jazz pushed back, claiming that the noncontact injury was actually more of a day-to-day situation, and that he could potentially return sooner. As it turned out, two-ish weeks was a pretty accurate timeline.
Gay, meanwhile, has been out even a bit longer than Conley.
The team announced back on Nov. 17 that an MRI had revealed a third finger MCP joint sprain in his left hand, and that he would be re-evaluated in two weeks.
He said Monday that the injury was feeling better, but that it required time to reduce some inflammation, and noted that it would still be present somewhat after he returns, and that he’ll just have to play through it to some degree.
Asked how long he’d have to keep fingers “buddy taped” together, he noted that the measure was purely precautionary in an effort to prevent a recurrence of the injury, then suggested that — Bojan Bogdanovic finger splint-style — he wouldn’t be abiding it long.
“My prediction? [It’ll come off in] the first quarter of whatever game I play in,” Gay replied with a laugh.
He added that he’s shooting for a Wednesday return.
The 17th-year forward is averaging just 4.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per game this season, but was a regular part of first-year head coach Will Hardy’s rotation before his injury, tasked with helping some of the younger players pick up on the various nuances and subtleties of the schemes.
He’s been trying to “put on a different hat” during his time out in order to carry out the same objectives — making it a point to be in the ears of rookie center Walker Kessler, young veteran forward Lauri Markkanen, or “whoever else needs it.” It was also a useful way for him, he added, to remain engaged even if he couldn’t play.
As for his overall impression of the team during his time on the bench?
“We’ve been in every game,” Gay said. “… All of our losses, we’ve been competitive. Some games, we just haven’t hit shots, sometimes we could have made some better decisions, but for the most part, our competitiveness is still there.