As a new Jazz training camp begins, Utah Jazz head coach Will Hardy made it clear: He’s looking for his team’s guards to step up.
The team has five realistic candidates to begin the year as its team’s starting point guard. The starting shooting guard spot, while not so up in the air, is also unsettled.
How will this all be decided?
“I would describe it as the Hunger Games,” Hardy said. “It’s going to be vicious.”
Gone, of course, is last season’s starting point guard, Mike Conley. He was the Jazz’s “crutch,” Hardy said. The veteran was the team’s clear on-court leader, the man with the two-way experience and skill to be able to put the Jazz in consistently good positions. As much as anyone, he led the Jazz to the 10-3 start that shocked the NBA and set the positive tone for the season. The man who “did a lot of the thinking for everybody,” as Hardy put it, is absent.
“We (now) need to all take our level up a little bit in terms of understanding the situations of the game: time, score, who’s got the hot hand, all those types of things,” Hardy said.
The candidates for guards who can lead the team in that thinking:
• 24-year-old Collin Sexton has started more games than any other guard on the Jazz’s roster: 223 starts over the course of his five-year NBA career. He’s shown high-level slashing ability throughout, his shooting is solid but he doesn’t fire from deep quite enough. He’s also a competitor on the defensive end.
The problem, though, has been exactly the small things Hardy is looking for: an understanding of how to set his team up well. Sexton has been one of the league’s lowest assisting guards during his career, and defensively is prone to positioning mistakes. In order to earn Hardy’s trust, he’ll need to make a massive leap in those areas.
• 22-year-old Talen Horton-Tucker finished last season as the Jazz’s starting point guard after the All-Star break. He played the best basketball of his career, averaging 18 points, six assists, and five rebounds per night in those 19 starts. Especially in the season’s final weeks, he was the Jazz’s leading shot-taker during that time, their absolute offensive hub, and led the team to surprising performances.
The question is whether or not he can succeed in a less ball-dominant role and if he can be an on-court leader. Horton-Tucker hasn’t been a good shooter in his career, so is less valuable when he has to share the ball. And while he was undoubtedly impressive in those final games, they didn’t necessarily lead to Jazz wins. (Rather, perhaps to a rebuilding front office’s delight, they often led to close losses.)
Finally, it would be terrific for the Jazz to find a long-term solution here, and betting on the growth of the 22-year-old Horton-Tucker would normally be the right move. But he’s also an expiring contract, a future unrestricted free agent — and giving such a developmental opportunity to a player with an unrestricted future is a risk.
• 31-year-old Jordan Clarkson is a natural microwave scorer who also showed an impressive ability to make the right read while attacking last season, especially in the early part of the year. His playmaking last year was one of the season’s biggest growth points.
But Clarkson hasn’t ever been a classic point guard/director of traffic, either: He’ll direct teammates to set screens for himself, but isn’t exactly setting spacing or running sets in the way that Conley did. He has an intimate understanding of matchups and knows how to exploit them one-on-one, but less so in five-on-five. Last season, there were times when he probably called his own number too much in the clutch.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe suggested that the Jazz may start Clarkson as the team’s point guard this season. On Friday, Hardy said he didn’t know if Clarkson would start or come off the bench, but said “I know that we expect Jordan to continue to be a leader on our team and somebody that we can rely on every night.”
• 19-year-old Keyonte George was perhaps the summer league’s best player. He lit the league’s young players up by averaging 19 points and five assists per game in just 26 minutes averaged on the floor in his six games, showing an impressively in-control combination of shooting and slashing on his way to dominant performances.
He also was better in a point guard role than at his time with Baylor; he really directed the offense when he was on the floor. In those games, though, he certainly wasn’t an every-play competitor on the defensive end.
If George is the team’s future, there’s an argument for giving him the keys to a starting role right away, as the Jazz once did with Donovan Mitchell. On the other hand, Mitchell’s rookie-year performance was outright remarkable, and it might be unrealistic to expect George to be capable of that. He also certainly won’t know the nuances of NBA play in his first go around as a veteran would.
• 29-year-old Kris Dunn played the best basketball of his journeyman career with the Jazz last year — in particular, he brought his typical hard-nosed defense, but also showed some terrific passing and even shot the ball well.
He may be the player most similar to Conley in terms of natural point guard play: he’s a capable leader on and off the court, and is a lifelong point guard with great knowledge of game situational awareness. But there’s no doubt that he’s a journeyman, reducing some of his team-wide cred. Was last season’s performance for real, or a 22-game sample outlier? Like THT, Dunn is also an expiring contract.
Clearly, there’s not one perfect answer.
But Hardy also isn’t expecting there to be, either. He noted that the team isn’t necessarily expecting one guard to take all of Conley’s leadership role, but for that to be split among the team’s two starting backcourt spots.
“We have a lot of really good guards, and I don’t want to say, ‘You’re the point guard and you’re the (shooting guard).’ I don’t think that fits our group best. It’s more about viewing them as pairs,” Hardy said. “I’m not relying on one person to bring it up each time and sort of initiate what we’re doing. That flexibility is going to be an adjustment for us.”
So the answer could be two of the above guards splitting time. The Jazz could also get guard contributions from Ochai Agbaji and rookie Brice Sensabaugh — neither are ball-in-hand point guards, per se, but can definitely play off-ball guard minutes.
The answer could also simply be different on a game-by-game basis. Last year, the Jazz played 23 different starting lineups, though much of that was driven by team turnover and injuries. Hardy hopes that the team can change starting lineups this year based on game-by-game matchups, to give them the best chance of winning every night.
In order to do that, though, the team needs buy-in from everyone, from 19-year-old rookies to 31-year-old vets.
“Those five guys are gonna go at it at training camp, and I love that. But we’ve got to make sure that it’s within a team construct,” Hardy said. “Individual motives are good and powerful, and we need to lean into those. But we also have to remember that we have 82 games coming, where we’re all wearing the same jersey.”