Gordon Monson: The Utah Jazz’s gamble on an expensive, talented player reveals something significant about their intentions

Trading for Atlanta forward John Collins might speed up the team’s rebuilding efforts.

(John Bazemore | AP) Atlanta Hawks coach Quin Synder talks with forward John Collins during the first half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Wednesday, April 5, 2023, in Atlanta.

To borrow a familiar Jazz saying from an old friend of mine: Buckle up.

There’s movement, acceleration, propulsion — and maybe even expedited new life, new hope, new horsepower — for a team that formerly looked like it might be built over the short haul for idling, for comfort, not for speed.

Hold onto your short(s) haul. The Jazz are going throttle up, trying, at least.

Fresh from using all three of their recent first-round draft selections right where they were previously placed — Nos. 9, 16, 28 — the Jazz without so much as a sneeze toward trading the picks for something more hurried things up on Monday, dealing next to nothing — Rudy Gay and a second-round pick — to Atlanta for forward John Collins, a 25-year-old who fits — could fit — snugly into their engineering blueprint for adding oomph into their racing rebuild.

Some people hate that word — rebuild, whether it’s used as a verb or a noun — but there’s no denying that’s exactly what the Jazz were fiddling-and-faddling around. When they unloaded Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell and everybody else who was any good for flexibility, for a gazillion future picks, a promising rookie — Walker Kessler — who, as it turned out, has more promise than anyone thought, and a young-yet-to-fully-blossom veteran, Lauri Markkanen, folks wondered what the next engine parts would look like.

It’s starting to take its form.

Beyond the impressive development of center Kessler and forward Markkanen, it’s been suggested that the Jazz were aiming for Kristaps Porzingis in free agency. That goal got blocked when he was traded to the Celtics. The move for Collins, instead, a trade the Jazz had been targeting for more than a year now and that was finally achieved by way of a situation with the Hawks motivated by a desire to clear space in the form of a $25 million trade exception, money the Jazz could go ahead and spend with what looks on their part to be plenty of cap space yet to fill, boosts a frontline that suddenly includes … well, You-Know-Who.

There are a few shiny sides to this acquisition — and a couple of dull ones — that out-kick the blessed notion that they gave up virtually nothing in the deal, other than the salary they must now pay the forward to suit up for them ($78 million over three years, the last one a player option).

The first is that Collins can contribute. Over his six seasons in Atlanta, he averaged nearly 16 points and eight boards. The downside is that Collins’ production has dropped a bit in recent years. He averaged 13 points and six rebounds this past season. Another tidbit — he was once suspended for 25 games for using a banned substance. A bonus is his age. As mentioned, he’s just 25, allowing him time to grow with the rest of a young team. He’s seen a few things in his time as a player, but not so many to think his numbers can’t bounce back to what they once were with the Hawks.

During a three-year stretch, Collins averaged close to 20 points and 10 rebounds. His subsequent lesser totals, in part, can be attributed to a diminished role. Another negative — Collins has lost games to injury. A plus — he was the 19th pick in the draft preceding his rookie season, becoming a pleasant surprise sooner rather than later. That might send an optimistic message to draft picks like Taylor Hendricks, Keyonte George and Brice Sensabaugh.

More than a few folks, a group to which I belong, believe the Jazz’s overall draft was strong, although we’re all just guessing. Moreover, rookies typically take time before they can give substantial help — and the Jazz needs now are substantial. Perhaps Collins’ early trajectory will inspire. But it might also box out Hendricks’ opportunities for playing time and growth.

Not sure that should be much of a concern for the Jazz for a couple of reasons. No matter how many points and rebounds Collins adds, there’s always room for more contributions from a youngster like Hendricks. Regardless of how talented the rookie is — and he is that — it will take him time to develop and adjust to the pro game. And if he blows everybody away with his 3-and-D play, that will be obvious to Will Hardy, who will feed him what he can eat without plowing too many pies into his mug.

One final thing with Collins — the Jazz have studied him extensively and believe he can be reshaped to give them what they need, at his peak levels of performance.

Questions remain with what the Jazz will do — re-sign another JC, potential free agent Jordan Clarkson? Use that money in some other way? They do have that cap space to fill. Make more deals right away?

The bigger question, though, the one that’s hovered over the Jazz since they traded their All-Stars for their flexibility and for what they worked with personnel-wise last season, has already found a partial answer. The Jazz are looking to load in more horsepower now, pumping into their tanks and muscle high-octane racing fuel to run hot next season, not just over a postponed longer haul.

Draft picks are fine and for a smaller-market team like the Jazz, they are a lifeline, absolutely necessary. But being mediocre in the NBA isn’t the worst that can happen for a team. It’s being mediocre with no financial flexibility.

As the Jazz wait on future first-round draft selections to give help, they’re attempting to both quickly grow what they have and swap out their hard-earned flexibility for players who now, in theory, will more than make up the difference, make up for the deficiencies, of what they gave away last offseason.

If John Collins is a means to that end, Monday is a day to celebrate. The Jazz think he is. If they’re wrong, they’ll pay for it on the court and on the track for seasons and races to come.

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