Utah Jazz rookie Taylor Hendricks gets an opportunity and flashes his intriguing potential

The rookie forward is called up from his G League assignment to help out the short-handed parent club, and while he had an up-and-down performance, his defensive highlights proved impressive.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Taylor Hendricks (0) as the Utah Jazz host the LA Clippers, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023.

With both Lauri Markkanen (left hamstring strain) and Kelly Olynyk (right shoulder strain) missing Saturday’s game at the Delta Center against Portland, the Utah Jazz had some frontcourt minutes to fill.

They also just happen to have a top-10 pick who’s mostly relegated to the G League just dying to play some NBA minutes.

Taylor Hendricks, welcome back to the big show.

The rookie forward selected ninth overall in the 2023 draft hadn’t seen any NBA action aside from 2 minutes and 25 seconds of garbage time in the season-opening loss to Sacramento. And though fans have been clamoring for the 20-year-old’s development to come in the form of more minutes in the senior league, he’s mostly instead been acclimating to the pro game with the Salt Lake City Stars.

However, the Jazz withheld him from Saturday’s Stars matinee, knowing the parent club would need him a few hours later, for what turned out to be a 118-113 overtime victory.

Head coach Will Hardy was asked pregame what he’d like to see from the forward.

“I’m hoping that Taylor will play hard and pass, like I asked the rest of the team. He’s obviously in good shape right now, he’s been playing a bunch of games, but it’s about doing all the little things, all the dirty work to try to help us win,” Hardy said. “I don’t really evaluate anything that Taylor does — whether it’s with us or in the G League — in terms of how many points he scores. It’s more how he plays, the decisions he makes, does he execute on the defensive end?”

So then, how did Hendricks do?

Well, he was on the court for 17:44, with one long stint on the court per half. And his stat line was nothing transcendent — five points on 2-for-7 shooting (including 1 of 4 from deep), plus two rebounds, and two blocked shots.

The raw numbers aside, though, there were moments to be encouraged about.

His first stretch began quietly, with lots of standing in corner offensively, and a few late rotations defensively.

Then he sized up No. 2 overall pick Scoot Henderson and absolutely stuffed the point guard’s jumper.

One minute and three seconds later, he made another incendiary defensive play.

After Simone Fontecchio missed a 3-pointer, Portland’s Shaedon Sharpe grabbed the rebound and took off downcourt, went to the rim, evaded the olé defense of Collin Sexton …

And then had his shot smacked away by Hendricks, who chased him down and blocked the shot from the weakside.

“I mean, that’s pretty much what I do — I’m a defensive player, so I’m trying to affect the game in any way I can,” said the soft-spoken Hendricks.

His teammates, meanwhile, were a little more vociferous about his defensive proclivities.

“Defensively, I think he’s going to be a monster,” said fellow rookie Keyonte George. “Help side, on-ball — he’s coming in to himself as a player. I texted him the other day and just told him to be ready. I’ve been seeing what he’s been doing with the Stars; I think that that could come into play with us — being that guy that comes in, go guard the best player, frustrate him, help-side go block the shot.”

Sexton was more succinct but no less emphatic.

“Tonight he was able to switch 1 to 4, and he was able to cause havoc, and that’s what we needed,” he said.

Hendricks’ second-half stretch had fewer highlight-reel plays, and more pronounced ups and downs, but was nevertheless memorable.

He caught a tipped pass and drove in for a floater, making it through contact, only for it to be ruled too late, for a shot-clock violation.

He had a great defensive sequence against Jabari Walker, sliding his feet to stay in front on a drive, then forcing him to lose control of the ball.

Early in the fourth quarter, he drove in and forced up a bad floater, but immediately grabbed the offensive rebound and scored on a putback.

He would have had a third tremendous block, as he rejected Walker, but it was erased owing to a foul call against Ömer Yurtseven.

Later on, he buried a 3 from the right corner on a catch-and-shoot from Sexton.

As for the plays leaving something to be desired, he didn’t help Talen Horton-Tucker out of a trap, then took an odd cut through traffic and lost the ensuing pass out of bounds. He had another 3-point attempt off a feed from Sexton (this time on a dribble hand-off), but rushed it a bit and came up well short. And one more corner 3-point try was not released quickly enough to get by Blazers defensive specialist Matisse Thybulle.

Still, the general takeaways were universally positive.

“I think, overall, he did a very good job,” said Hardy. “… In that moment, when somebody gets thrown in for the first time, you’re just kind of hoping they don’t disrupt the rhythm of the team. And he didn’t do that at all. I thought his energy added to our group tonight, and he helped us get a win.”

Yurtseven praised him for making strong, aggressive drives to the rim, and said he seemed to be finding the rhythm of the game.

Sexton said he was making it a point to feed Hendricks the ball, believing that seeing that first 3 go in would bolster his confidence.

For his part, Hendricks said he was trying to approach this one like he was just suiting up for the Stars again.

“When I was out there, I was trying to feel comfortable. I was thinking, ‘OK, this is a G League game — I should feel comfortable.’ And, you know, I felt comfortable,” he said. “The guys are pretty much the same in the G League — tall, strong — so, it’s pretty much same thing for me.”

He’s had to make considerable changes from his college game. Offensively, he’s completely abandoned the back-to-the-basket stuff that was his forte at Central Florida and is exclusively operating as a face-up attacker. Defensively, he’s no longer the rangy, roaming free safety, being counted upon to lock opponents down individually.

Asked where he feels he’s improved the most since entering the league, he focused on his on-court IQ and recognition, saying that he’s simply reading the game much better now than he did during the preseason.

George, the No. 16 pick in the draft, has been getting deserved plaudits for his calming presence as the Jazz’s lead guard, which has made Hendricks’ slow burn all the more noticeable and curious by comparison.

But he sees himself and Hendricks as inextricably linked. He’s been following his fellow draftee’s progress in the G League, offering encouragement, while studying his tendencies to gauge how they can best mesh once Hendricks becomes more entrenched on the main roster.

George was thrilled to see Hendricks get an opportunity to play Saturday.

He’s even more excited, though, about the possibilities to come.

“We came into the league together, on the same team — at some point we’re going to be playing together. So it’s just about understanding his tendencies; seeing how he plays; here, try to watch film with him; listening to him, see what he sees on the court when he’s playing,” said George. “Playing with Taylor is not just going to be good for me, but it’s going to be great for all of us. It’s going to be great for the team.”