The Jazz this season are a different brand of entertainment, if that’s the right word, not just sort of different, but entirely different. If Utah teams of the recent past were a part of tense who’s-gonna-come-out-on-top shows like “Yellowstone” and “Succession,” this Jazz iteration is more a beauty pageant, a search for proper form, poise and bone structure, or maybe a game show, a spin of the wheel to see who can solve the puzzle.
It is not a classic sports thriller. It’s more about enduring the agony of defeat than it is seeking the thrill of victory. In reality, it’s not even that.
It’s a contest, but not in the traditional win-loss competitive sense.
Danny Ainge is observing and judging aspiring contestants, checking makeup and evening gowns, rummaging through the alphabet, aiming to settle on a few useful consonants and later will buy a vowel or two because … well, he’s got the stack of cash to do so.
But what is beauty, really? Which consonants are the most useful?
It might be a floating Markkanen jumper or an ascending Kessler rejection. Can I get an “O” and an “A,” for Ochai and Agbaji? Are there any hyphens up on the board?
Whoa. Let’s back up here.
What more than a half-century of closely watching NBA games has revealed is that a good measure of the regular season matters only in the context of what it portends for the second season, the playoffs. The buildup can be interesting and enjoyable, but it is far from determinative. None of that has meaning for the Jazz this time around, any which way, because their fate has already been written in the stars, or in the lack of them.
They will not contend for a title. The second season, what follows this regular season, macht nichts. It’s all a setup for what happens in second seasons next year and the following years. Even on a more wide-open landscape in 2023, there’s no real shock in stating what everybody already knows.
What nobody knows with exactness is where all of this is headed, what it will lead to and when.
When the Jazz had the NBA’s best regular-season record a couple of seasons back, with three All-Stars on the roster, it seemed as though they might have an authentic shot at something grand. The players even said as much.
Nobody around the team talks like that anymore, and for good reason.
But the pageant, the game show is on, the search for who will walk the runway with the crown and flowers and who will be in the running to do so, the attempt to find the letters to solve the puzzle.
This season is not about winning games. It’s about finding winners. Winners they can combine with unknown talent they are yet to draft with a hundred future picks. It’s a dangerous game that some franchises get tangled up in for a decade. The Jazz have no intention of suffering that elongated fate.
For them, this season’s urgency comes down to evaluating and developing four players, in particular.
Lauri Markkanen. Walker Kessler. Collin Sexton. Ochai Ogbaji.
That’s it. That’s what this season is for.
It isn’t as though the others are not of some value. They play a role, just not primary ones. They could surprise. They could buttress. They could be useful, not just in growing the mentioned four now, but in subsequent seasons. A roster has to be filled out, role players play their roles.
But none of them are as good as the guys the Jazz offloaded during the offseason, so, indeed, this is all part of the overused sports word of the century — process. Some of the selection process in this writing has to do with age, some with attitude, and mostly with ability.
Markkanen has played spectacularly for the Jazz, beyond anything they could have hoped, rounding out his game in ways he was not permitted in Chicago and Cleveland. The man is averaging upwards of 25 points and nine rebounds, sporting an eFG percentage of better than 61. He’s shown athleticism and confidence at both ends, and the best part is, he’s still only 25 years old. That’s precisely what the Jazz are looking for.
Much of the same — at least the last part — can be said for Kessler. Are you kidding? Look at this big kid. The Jazz knew he had potential, that’s why they wanted him from Minny in the Rudy Gobert deal, but they had no idea they were getting a suitable replacement in the rook alone.
What he has shown from the start, but especially in the last week or so, looks to be no brief blip. He’s a talented center who is unafraid and unaffected by his circumstances. Yes, there are some rough stretches, but watch the way Kessler goes after offensive rebounds, his touch around the rim, and his defense at the rim. This is a piece that even in a bomb-shooting-obsessed league is of great value. Consider that the two favored NBA shots are 3-pointers and at the basket. Kessler appears to be capable of interfering with opponents at the rim, and punishing them in the same location at the opposite end. And the best part for the Jazz — is there an echo in here? — is his birth year: 2001. He’s 21. Second-best part: He’s in the initial year of his rookie deal.
Sexton, who the Jazz got from Cleveland, is a curious case. Is he a shooting guard or a point? At 6-1, he’s a point, and that would be ideal if it weren’t a lie. He’s not a point guard, not yet. He’s still learning how to see the floor, how to deliver the ball to the right player at the right time for the right reason. That’s what Jazz coaches are emphasizing with the quick one.
It’s remarkable that Sexton, at 24, is already in his fifth season. For the Jazz, he’s more than seven minutes south of his career average in PT, and he’s averaging five points less (14.4) than his career mark, but his shooting percentages are up. Keep an eye on this dude. If he figures a few things out, if he can accentuate the team’s scoring without stressing his own … well, then.
As the rookie Ogbaji develops, he’ll get more playing time. What is already clear is that which cannot be developed — his outlier athleticism. He’s a prototypical 3&D player who can, at least to some levels, run the floor, shoot and defend. His passing and handling are works in progress, but this a player who could eventually win the evening-wear competition. He grew as a player at Kansas, impressing everyone en route. If he uses the same attention to proper technique and form for the Jazz, his journey could be more than effective, it could be a whole lot of fun to watch.
None of this is meant to demean other Jazz players, even if it does.
Talen Horton-Tucker is only 22. Jarred Vanderbilt is just 23. Nickeil Alexander-Walker is 24. Malik Beasley is 26. They have their individual talents and could help the Jazz in the games ahead situationally. None is a frontline star-in-the-making.
The Jazz oldsters — Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, Kelly Olynyk — don’t qualify for this discussion for two reasons: 1) Ainge pretty much knows what they do, what they are; 2) Unless the team rushes into real contention quicker than expected, their time is limited. Jordan Clarkson, at 30, edges into that same category, although the Jazz would like to have the explosive scorer in their longterm plans, but he’s already making $13.4 million and he’ll fetch more than that as a free agent.
So, the show is on. The beauty is being studied. The letters to the puzzle are waiting to be filled in. The future is not now, it’s … in the future, when more draft picks can be taken and used, either literally or in trade. The degree to which the show’s process can be enjoyed depends on the success of the process itself.
Stay tuned for the ending, which remains a long way off.
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