Last offseason was one of the most momentous summers in Utah Jazz history.
This offseason won’t yield that level of change, but it nevertheless has the potential to be profoundly significant in its own right.
Not that you’ll catch the team’s decision-makers ascribing any special importance to this summer beyond it occupying a spot on the linear timeline of their metaphysical to-do list.
“The next thing is always the most important thing,” general manager Justin Zanik explained drolly as he and CEO Danny Ainge addressed the media after the season.
If we are to proceed that literally, next up on the calendar is the NBA draft combine, which will take place May 16-18 in Chicago. There, at least, the team’s braintrust was a bit more forthcoming about what their coming process will look like, which bears knowing considering the Jazz are slated to have three first-round picks this year.
So, how much stock do they put in the combine?
“Some. Yeah. We’ll have 10 of us or more there anyway,” Ainge said. “We’ll spend a lot more time watching [the prospects] there collectively, with groups, and evaluating them. And we’ll have a lot of time at the combine and in draft workouts to get to know them up close and personal.”
Zanik noted that while on-court skills are key, of course, the interviews with players will be no less significant, considering the team is aiming to discover “which ones can fit our culture and fit our timeline going forward,” as he put it.
Head coach Will Hardy, who spoke just before the front office personnel, said now that the season is over and he’s begun getting up to speed on prospect film review, he intends to go to the combine and lend his vision and voice — albeit in a limited role — to the process.
“I’m involved in conversations with Danny and Justin. I’ll start studying some of these guys in the draft, but [be] fully aware of the fact that the work that they’ve done all year studying these players, there’s no way that I could catch up before the draft,” Hardy said. “So, you know, I’ll be giving input and obviously continue to stay in conversation with them, but they know these players in a way that I don’t. So I’ll obviously follow their lead and try to give input along the way.”
Ainge followed up on that theme, noting that while it’s important to involve Hardy, he can’t have an outsized role given that all of his focus from the past year has been devoted to the players he had in-house already.
“I will say that it’s dangerous, though — coming in for one workout or one interview,” Ainge said. “Will’s input will be important, but it can’t outweigh what Chuck [Terrell, senior director of basketball intelligence] has done, traveling all over the world and following these guys from the time they’re 17 years old. We have a lot of guys who’ve put a lot of time in.”
And that will continue.
Beyond meeting the players at the combine, the Jazz intend to bring plenty of players to Salt Lake City for workouts, though they’re making it a point this summer — for competitive reasons — not to disclose who’ll be visiting their Zions Bank Basketball Campus team headquarters.
In past years, when armed with a pick or two, the organization has been prolific with the number of invitees it’s brought in. This year, armed with the No. 16 pick (from the Wolves, for the Rudy Gobert trade), the No. 28 selection (from the Sixers via the Nets, for the Royce O’Neale deal), and their own pick — currently projected at No. 9, though it can move up or down a bit at the coming Draft Lottery — they’ll host a ton of players.
“A lot of draft workouts, with the ability to get more people in [because we have] multiple picks,” Ainge said, before throwing in a joke. “Bring people in that we’re looking at for the 28th pick [because] we can tell them that we’re looking at him for the ninth pick. Just kidding, all you agents listening.”
Those up-close looks will be all the more crucial, Ainge said, because of the massive discrepancies between the college and NBA games.
Particularly when it comes to scoring the ball.
“The game is different — it’s like we’re turning more like the European game than the college game,” he said. “The spacing is not good. Quite honestly, I think that the defenses are just better than the offense, [so] when there’s really special offensive players, they stand out. But yeah, the defenses are a little better than the offensive players in the college game right now.”
That said, the team’s talent evaluators will of course seek to strike the right balance between evaluating what a player has to offer right now and what his potential may be down the road.
As perhaps best exemplified by the Most Improved Player award bestowed upon 25-year-old forward Lauri Markkanen last week, the organization firmly believes that the capacity for continued development is always there.
And no two players’ paths are ever exactly the same.
“Good players that end up being undrafted, good players that end up needing a few years, some of ‘em start really fast early and then drop off,” Zanik said. “So it’s just trying to get to know these guys as much as you can, and then … You’re projecting human performance at 18, 19, or 20 years old. They’re all going to move at different timelines.”
The team could be in line to land its first top-10 selection since getting Dante Exum at No. 5 overall in 2014. The team has a 4.5% chance of earning the first overall pick and the right to draft French phenom Victor Wembanyama, who is purported to be a uniquely generational talent.
As of that exit interview, Zanik and Ainge said it had not yet been decided who would represent the Jazz at the Draft Lottery, which will take place the first night of the combine, on May 16.
Many execs representing their teams in previous iterations have been known to bring lucky totems in a bid to appease the basketball gods and move their organization into a higher draft slot.
Do the Jazz’s decision-makers have anything along those lines?
“I’m not that superstitious,” replied Zanik.
“We’ll take cash,” quipped Ainge. “But not too much.”