Utah Jazz prioritize potential with three picks in NBA draft

The team selects three college freshmen, with UCF forward Taylor Hendricks at No. 9, Baylor guard Keyonte George at No. 16, and Ohio State wing Brice Sensabaugh at 28.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz fans Todd Hansen and his son Blake, 5,cheer at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City as the Jazz selected Taylor Hendricks with the ninth pick in the NBA basketball draft, Thursday, June 22, 2023.

Owning a trio of first-round selections in Thursday night’s NBA draft gave the Utah Jazz a prime opportunity to shape the franchise’s future for years to come.

General manager Justin Zanik noted immediately after the season that the team would not be rushed into an accelerated timeline, making this draft an opportunity to take swings on upside.

They did just that.

With the No. 9 overall selection, the Jazz went for Central Florida forward Taylor Hendricks, who had a meteoric rise up the draft boards. At No. 16, they took a gamble on a backcourt player, going for the creative juice of Baylor combo guard Keyonte George. And at No. 28, they went for high-scoring Ohio State wing Brice Sensabaugh.

“The way the draft board fell took a really fortunate turn for us,” Zanik said Thursday night from the team’s Zions Bank Baksetball Campus headquarters. “We got two of the guys that we had in our top 10 — players that we were, frankly, debating out which one to take at 9, and we ended up getting both of them. And at 28, getting a player that we had in our top 18.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Jazz Bear gets the fans excited as they wait for the start of the NBA basketball draft being projected on the big screens at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Thursday, June 22, 2023.

“… It’s not like we’re leaning into youth, we’re leaning into talent,” Zanik added.

Hendricks went from afterthought to top-10 pick in the span of a year, owing to a sensational freshman season that combined incredible athleticism, 3-point sharpshooting, and defensive versatility.

The 6-foot-8, 214-pound forward averaged 15.1 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game, and shot 39.4% from 3-point range. He is regarded as a great multipositional defender with switchability.

“A few things stand out — his length, his ability already to make open shots, he’s got very good instincts as a help-side shot-blocker, he’s smart,” Zanik said. “… He’s got some athletic genes, but also the brains for it. The development side for him is where can we get his individual game as far as attacking closeouts and getting stronger? He’s got to get stronger.”

Hendricks came to Salt Lake City for an interview, though he didn’t work out for the team due to a slight injury he picked up during an on-court exercise with another team.

George was something of a polarizing prospect, with some teams loving his offensive creativity and ability to generate open looks, and others pointing to his lack of efficiency and high turnover rate.

Taylor Hendricks arrives before the NBA basketball draft at Barclays Center, Thursday, June 22, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The 19-year-old, 6-foot-4 guard averaged 15.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.8 assists for Baylor last season, shooting 37.6% from the field, 33.8% from deep, and 79.3% from the free-throw line. He was also lauded for being a competitor on the defensive end.

“Keyonte has probably the most diversified offensive developed skillset maybe in the draft … Keyonte’s been doing it for a long time at a very, very high level. He has all the shots — shots that some people can’t ever learn,” Zanik said. “He’s done a great job on his body over the past three months, he’s got a confidence about him of being a scorer, but he has very good vision. We’ve got to work on where he fits into the team and how he coincides and grows. But right now, he’s already an offensive weapon.”

When asked if he could foresee George playing point guard, the GM unequivocally said yes, before noting that there aren’t many players anymore who fit the old-school definition of the position, but that the Jazz were simply looking for players who can dribble, pass, and shoot.

“And he can do all three,” Zanik said. “… He’s smart. I can see him playing on the ball and off the ball.”

Sensabaugh, meanwhile, was regarded as one of the best pure scorers in the collegiate game this past season, despite not possessing a ton of athleticism, and there being some questions about a couple previous knee injuries.

The 6-foot-6, 235-pounder averaged 16.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game on highly-efficient shooting numbers: 48% from the field, 40.5% from the 3-point line, and 83% from the free-throw line.

Baylor guard Keyonte George (1) drives to the basket past Iowa State center Osun Osunniyi (21) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, March 4, 2023, in Waco, Texas. (Chris Jones/Waco Tribune-Herald via AP)

“I didn’t expect him to be here at 28. So when he started slipping a little but — at least in our rankings — we started getting a bunch of calls from teams trying to move in,” Zanik said. “… We actually even made some attempts to move up after we selected Keyonte. But he fell to us. … He makes and takes NBA pro shots. Continuing to get better on the defensive end [is important]. He’s got a body that you can’t teach, he’s very athletically gifted.”

The GM said that the Jazz had Hendricks and George ranked Nos. 9 and 10 on their board, and expressed some surprise at how the first half of the draft especially played out, noting that many of the picks other teams made were not necessarily what he would have done.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz fans Cayleb Pearson, left, and Sean Mullins cheer at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City as the Jazz selected Taylor Hendricks with the No. 9 pick in the NBA basketball draft, Thursday, June 22, 2023.

As a result, there wasn’t a ton of inclination to trade any of their picks, even as they started getting phone calls en masse.

Zanik joked that given that between the Jazz being the only team with three first-round picks this year, and having a ton more in future drafts, “We were very popular.” There were some scenarios the team’s decision-makers put in place for potentially trading up inside the top 10, but he said that they felt OK all along simply standing pat and using the selections they had in hand.

They wound up liking the results.

“All three of the guys can shoot. All three of them have different bodies, but athleticism. All three are smart. All three are high-character,” Zanik said. “… We talk about what can you teach and what can’t you teach? These guys have things you can’t teach.”