Will Hardy’s message to players: ‘If you’re gonna wear a Utah Jazz jersey, you have to give a [bleep] about the Utah Jazz’

The young coach calls for harder play, more passing, and fewer excuses from his team amid a 4-11 start to the season.

Just when it looked like the Utah Jazz were turning a corner, they turned around and immediately played two of their worst games of the season, losing big to the Lakers and Blazers on back-to-back nights.

And it seems like head coach Will Hardy is losing patience for his team’s start. Both before and after losing 121-105 to a 3-11 Portland team on Wednesday night, Hardy talked about going back to the very basics.

“The only two things that I care about are: play hard and pass,” Hardy said. “And we’re at a point now where if you’re not willing to do both of those things you cannot play for the Utah Jazz.”

The truth is that the Jazz have multiple players who are liable to force the issue individually on one end of the floor, while taking time off on the other. On Wednesday night, Jordan Clarkson was the worst offender, as he collected seven turnovers over the course of the action, seeking to make things happen for himself again and again. Frustrated after losing the ball — or not getting a call he thought he deserved — he’d linger in the backcourt before getting back on defense.

Clarkson’s not alone, though. After a 1-10 night from the field against his former club Tuesday, Talen Horton-Tucker followed it up with a 1-4 performance on Wednesday, adding three turnovers as well. Collin Sexton had an 0-5 game and struggled to find teammates. Lauri Markkanen had no assists, John Collins had one.

In all, the Jazz had 16 first-half turnovers — they were down by 20 points at halftime to a bad Western Conference opponent that, before the game, had previously led by a maximum of 12 points all season long.

“We are either going to dig in and have the ability to learn or we’re going to have to make some real changes with who’s playing in the games,” Hardy said, “because 16 turnovers in a half is unacceptable.”

Hardy also said he felt the team didn’t play hard enough in the two most recent losses — and it seemed as if he was worried that the team might not be taking the losses hard enough.

“I go home after every game win or loss and I’m constantly beating myself up about things that I did or didn’t do,” Hardy said. “And I just want them to take the same responsibility and ownership over this program. If you’re gonna wear a Utah Jazz jersey, you have to give a s--- about the Utah Jazz.”

Portland Trail Blazers forward Jabari Walker, left, and Utah Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk, right, go after a loose ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)

All in all, it was the most passionate we’ve seen Hardy in his tenure with the Jazz since being hired in June of 2022. After a 4-11 start, Hardy’s making clear that if on-court changes don’t occur soon — and realistically, we’re talking in the next week — then playing time and off-court changes are to come.

For more of what Hardy said, here are his full responses to five key questions in Hardy’s news conferences Wednesday.

On what parts of his team’s culture are working, and which aren’t working

“I mean, the only two things that I care about are: play hard and pass. And we’re at a point now where if you’re not willing to do both of those things you cannot play for the Utah Jazz. I think we have had pockets where that’s been our identity. And we’ve had pockets where we have wavered in both departments. I think the biggest thing right now is we just need more of a consistent focus on those two things and those two things only.

“There are technical, tactical things that will be good, there are always mistakes made in a game from an execution standpoint, I think that’s to be expected. But we can control our effort and we can control our willingness to pass the ball. I think a big part of it is the piece of your brain that will dig in when you’re tired, when fatigue sets in. And you can get sloppy in those areas. But I’m trying to challenge the team on not letting themselves off the hook. Don’t make an excuse for why things are happening. Don’t look for a reason why things are happening and sort of rationalize bad moments in your brain and make them okay. They’re not okay.

“We’re trying to build our program, we’re trying to become a winning team, and that takes a lot of hard work. And we’re in a stage right now where we have to face the harsh realities of what’s happening when we do play poorly. We also try to focus on what’s happening on the floor in the games that we play really well and try to replicate that.

“I think that’s something that we have to do as a group. It’s not about one person. There is not one reason why you win or lose. It’s always going to be a collective thing. And that includes me. Like, this is not me sitting here saying that it’s the players’ fault. It’s all of us. We win together, we lose together.”

On what he tells his players about playing a double-overtime game, followed by a back-to-back

“We don’t really address it. I think part of our issue right now — I’m going to sound like a philosopher about the league right now — a part of our issue is that we talk about this too much. We ask everybody how they’re feeling too much. Like, when I was growing up going to school, my parents didn’t ask me every morning if I thought I could go to school. If they did, by the 10th day, I would go ‘you know, now that you mention it, I don’t feel that good.’ But every morning it was my brothers and I getting up and we’re all going ‘I don’t want to go to school’ and my parents going ‘you’re going to school. That’s what’s happening.’

“This is the reality of the NBA. It’s a fatigue business. You ask any player honestly after opening night, no one feels good. And that’s just the way it is. There’s a mental piece of that. There’s a physical piece of that. There’s obviously a line — you know, some guys are injured, and that’s why they don’t play. And sometimes, we’re just getting into fatigue. It’s an 82-game season, the schedule is not set up for everybody to feel good. And so my approach is that there’s no reason to talk about it. Because I can’t change the fact that we played double overtime. I can’t change the fact that this is the second night of a back-to-back. Continuing to tell them about it and put it in their brains, I’m just not sure that’s helpful.

“You know, it is a reality, there is fatigue. And I think sometimes when I examine what’s happening in a game or maybe I sub a guy out earlier because he is tired it is for those reasons. Like, you’re watching them and you’re like, ‘oh, he looks a little slow, maybe he’s a little tired.’ But we don’t want to make excuses. Portland’s on a back-to-back too and I’m sure they have some players on their team that aren’t feeling 100% today and we still have to play the game.”

On his team’s pick and roll defense

“Yeah, we’re not doing a very good job. It’s the guys on the ball getting screened too easily, it’s the people that are guarding the screener getting beat off the dribble too much. It’s a combination of both of those things. I mean, there’s possessions where we’re laying on screens and guys are getting clean looks. There’s possessions where the guys that are guarding the screen are getting blown by by the guy with the ball. And so everybody has to do their job better.

“Outside of trying to turn the game into ‘we’re just going to double team the ball handler on every single play’ — then you’re going to give up you know, 4-on-3 on the weak side the whole game and be scrambling. We’ve got to do a better job. It’s both people.

“The ball handler is scoring. It’s a combination of the person on the ball and the person guarding the screener. Both of them have responsibilities in those situations and there are some possessions where you have you know, Devin Booker or Kevin Durant, they’re the ballhandler and they make a great shot over two people. And those aren’t the ones that concern me. The ones that concern me are when we either die on the screen, or the person that’s guarding the screener gets blown by.”

On teaching individual players to defend screens better

“I think players can improve at it, for sure. I think there’s teaching of technique, which we can always do. But there’s also frequently going to be situations where the technique is: you need to try harder. Yes, the screener is moving a little bit. Yes, the screener is big. Yes, the person called out the screen a half a second late. You still have to do your best to compete and get through the screen. That’s one of those situations where it’s not letting ourselves off the hook. Don’t make an excuse for why you didn’t get through the screen. There’s a lot of times in the game where you just have to react and you have to play harder.

“It’s hard to give an answer for every single situation that comes up in a game ... I mean shoot around would be seven hours if we had to go through every single situation. The cool thing about basketball is that it’s played in a pickup setting all over the world and a lot of our guys played pickup basketball growing up. There wasn’t a coach giving them a coverage. There were ball screens in those games. There’s times where you just gotta figure it out. You’ve got to talk as a team, you got to get through.

“That’s not absolving the coaches of any responsibility, but the game happens fast. Our ability to communicate to the players is usually in dead balls and timeouts, in between quarters, pregame, postgame, and halftime. And while the game’s going on, we try to give our players the ownership of what’s going on on the floor. The communication is up to them and the competing on every play is up to them.”

On Wednesday’s loss

“The game truly boils down to one thing and one thing only and that’s turnovers, with 16 turnovers in the first half. You put yourself so far behind the curve when you have 16 turnovers in a half. The other team is taking way more shot attempts than you, and it’s hard to set your defense when you have that many turnovers. It’s hard mentally to come out of halftime when you’re down 20.

“This is an area that has been problematic at times this year. And we are either going to dig in and have the ability to learn or we’re going to have to make some real changes with who’s playing in the games, because 16 turnovers in a half is unacceptable. That’s not who we want to be as a team. That’s not what I want our team to be known for, that’s not what I want our program to represent.

“So it’s going to take some real collective work, and it’s going to take everybody taking responsibility for their own part and where we are right now as a team. That’s me included. But if we’re going to get where we ultimately want to go, every person has to take responsibility and every person has to do their job better. And that’s truly what it comes down to.

“We have moments of just real true stubbornness as a team and it’s going to continue to bite us, if we don’t correct those things, and we don’t show a willingness to just take the simple plays that are right in front of us. I do think our team is capable of playing good basketball. I think that we’ve seen that throughout the early part of the year — even in a couple of games that we didn’t end up winning. But this loss is on all of us as a group. We will take tomorrow with our families, and we’ll get back to work on Friday.”