What does Jazz CEO Danny Ainge think about the season, his team’s rookies, and the NBA draft?

Ainge met with reporters for a wide-ranging interview this week.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Danny Ainge, left, Utah Jazz CEO of basketball operations and general manager Justin Zanik talk on the court prior to Game 6 of the 2022 NBA first-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks, Saturday, April 23, 2022, in Salt Lake City.

Danny Ainge’s season-ending news conference was an eventful one this week, with the Utah Jazz CEO answering every question coming from reporters for more than 40 minutes.

The headline news was his approach to the NBA’s trade market. Ainge says the Jazz are “ready to go big game hunting.”

But he also touched on a number of other topics, including his evaluation of last season, the growth of the team’s rookies, what he thinks of this draft, and more.

On this year’s team

To be sure, the Jazz were a disappointment this season, finishing with a 31-51 record. But there were bright spots, like a 15-4 stretch in December and January.

How did Ainge evaluate the stretch?

“It’s a positive experience. I thought that maybe the best win in two years might have been the Oklahoma City win here at home,” the CEO said. “In that stretch, we played a lot of games that the best player on the other team didn’t show, or the second best player on the team wasn’t there, or they were resting. I mean, that’s frustrating.”

But overall, Ainge simply didn’t think the team was good enough to compete in the Western Conference. Not before the trade deadline, and certainly not after it.

“We’re the 23rd-ranked team. Even though we had a better record than Houston, and we were right in the mix with the Lakers and Golden State at that time, I don’t think we’re as good as them — as any one of those three teams,” Ainge said.

In particular, the team’s 30th-ranked defense was “horrible,” Ainge said.

“I think that we all know that defensively we’re not good enough. No question about it. We need to get better personnel and more of an emphasis (on it),” Ainge said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah guard Collin Sexton (2) plays defense for the Jazz, in NBA action between the Phoenix Suns and the Utah Jazz, at the Delta Center, on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023.

Does that need to improve in terms of scheme or personnel?

“We love our coach and the hard thing is that there’s so many things that we need to get better at. And you can’t just throw every bit of it on there, you’ve got to go in phases,” he continued. “So there are priorities during the season — ball movement, spacing, running was more of a priority than the defense. It’s hard to emphasize all of it. But yes, personnel wasn’t good enough. That’s on me.”

The rookies

Keyonte George, Taylor Hendricks, and Brice Sensabaugh all had big roles at the end of the Jazz’s season, but struggled to turn production into wins. George was the best of the bunch, a likely second-team All-Rookie selection, but even his efficiency wasn’t up to par.

But Ainge liked that George faced adversity this season.

“He had some ups and downs, and I kind of liked that he had those ups and downs,” Ainge said. “I kind of liked the fact that the scouting report — the most important person to stop on our entire team many nights the second half of the year was him. So the best defender was guarding him, the team defensive schemes were to stop him, and so he had to face some of that.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Keyonte George (3) during NBA basketball agains the Charlotte Hornets in Salt Lake City on Thursday, February. 22, 2024.

Ainge said he wasn’t sure if George was a point guard or off-ball guard moving forward.

“He’s way better (at point guard) now than he was to start the season. I’m still not sure he’s a franchise point guard. I think he can play point guard. But I think that he can play off the ball, too, and he’s probably more comfortable with that at this moment in time,” Ainge said. “But this experience of learning the point guard position was a big step for him and just provides a lot of versatility for our team going forward.”

Meanwhile, Hendricks “pretty much played the same role that he’ll play,” moving forward in the NBA — that of an off-ball power forward who hopes to be a difference-maker defensively.

“He’s just a little further behind than Keyonte. His shooting was getting better and better. He’s working a lot on his shooting. His arc of his shots has been a little bit flat. But he shot a pretty good percentage,” Ainge said. “That’s a big step for him, but he’s got to get a lot better defensively.”

For Sensabaugh, Ainge simply said, “Bryce has a good feel for the game. ... I think he’s a better shooter than his numbers would indicate this year, but he can pass, can shoot, he can score.”

Ainge said that he hopes all three players will play in summer league this year, along with Walker Kessler, Darius Bazley, Jason Preston, and Kenneth Lofton Jr.

The NBA draft

The NBA draft is coming up on June 26 and 27 this year — remember, the NBA has decided to televise the first and second rounds on separate days for the first time. With the NBA Combine less than a month away, what does Ainge think about this draft?

“It’s a unique draft. I think it’s harder to find franchise-altering players in this draft,” he said. “But I do believe that we’ll be able to find some good players in this draft.”

When asked about what he thinks about the talent of the draft at the No. 8 slot — where the Jazz currently stand before the lottery balls fall — Ainge said that “there are a few to a handful of players that I’ve really liked, but I have no idea if they’ll be there.”

Ainge also offered his opinion on drafting one-and-done rookies when compared to four-year college vets.

“Everybody’s unique and different,” Ainge said. “I’d say statistically, that the younger guys pan out better in the draft and there’s a reason why they’re one and done. Not always. But that doesn’t mean that we’re neglecting the 23-24 year old kids in the draft either. They all have a place.”

Jazz color commentator Ron Boone then asked what the team thinks of 7-foot-4 Purdue center Zach Edey, the senior center who is a two-time reigning collegiate player of the year.

“We have a lot of discussions internally about Edey, and there’s both sides of the fence. Personally, I’m a fan. Do I think he’s a franchise center we can build our whole franchise around? I don’t see that yet. But I do see him as an asset to the team,” Ainge said. “I’m a fan. There’s some people on our staff that aren’t, but I think he’s growing more fans upstairs.”

He then went on to compare Edey to Mark Eaton, the Jazz’s center who holds the NBA’s single-season record in blocks, before noting that Edey had a much stronger collegiate career than Eaton.

Avery Bradley’s hire

Former Celtic Avery Bradley was hired as the Jazz’s vice president of player development this week, a move that will see him work with both the Jazz’s front office and their coaching staff in pushing the Jazz’s young players forward.

“Avery is one of my favorites ever, but Avery was not my hire. However, I introduced Avery to Will (Hardy) and to Justin (Zanik) and told Avery: ‘You’ve got to prove to them that they need you,’” Ainge said.

Apparently, Bradley proved his worth.

“He’s a real pro. I think he has a calm demeanor, he can relate to people very well,” Ainge said. “I’m not sure he knows for sure if he wants to be in the world of coaching or in the world of a front office, but he’ll do a little bit of both.”

Ainge said he hopes that Bradley’s “intensity on the defensive end” can help the Jazz’s guards next year.