The Triple Team: We’re talking about competitiveness? In a Utah Jazz summer league game?

Coach Sean Sheldon decries the team’s competitiveness in Tuesday’s defeat.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 98-75 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz were missing something

Jazz summer league coach Sean Sheldon had some pretty frank words about his team’s performance after their second summer league game on Tuesday.

“We’ve been talking about it for the past week, playing with competitiveness. And I thought it was nonexistent to start the game tonight on the defensive end and on the offensive end,” he said. “It didn’t look like anyone wanted to play tonight, which was disappointing because that’s the only thing we’ve talked about for the past week and a half.” Ouch!

Competitiveness is usually the very last problem in summer league action, because these games legitimately do matter so much for the players involved.

Rookies Cody Williams, Isaiah Collier, and Kyle Filipowski should be fighting to prove that they belong in the NBA next year. Do you want to play in the NBA in front of tens of thousands of rowdy fans in top-class accommodation all year long, or do you want those rough plane/bus rides to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Edinburg, Texas, to play in obscurity? The same applies to second-year player Brice Sensabaugh, and two-way players Taevion Kinsey and Jason Preston.

Older veterans like Darius Bazley and Kenny Lofton, Jr. are fighting to avoid getting cut by the Jazz. They both get $400K if they stay on the roster two more weeks, through July 25, then $200K more if they last until opening night. Both have the potential to make over $2 million if they stay on the roster. Their summer league performances will undoubtedly play a huge role in their roster spot safety; if they play poorly, the Jazz are even incentivized to pivot. So they should be playing as hard as possible.

Finally, there’s a whole group of players tonight who are actually playing for any sort of contract at all next year, NBA, overseas, G-League, or otherwise: Keyshawn Justice, Armando Bacot, Max Abmas, and so on. Again, playing well here is very much the difference between a high-quality contract and a playing role set aside for them in a major league with scouts — or fighting on the fringes of a roster and a prayer of an opportunity.

That Sheldon felt he had to pull out the competitiveness card on Day 2 of summer league is wild. I can’t remember it happening ever before. The Thunder, meanwhile, were very much the lesser talented team on paper, but simply played significantly harder and more team-oriented basketball for the easy win on the road.

The Jazz, throughout their roster, desperately need more fight.

2. Kenneth Lofton, Jr.’s NBA role

Lofton was the Jazz’s best player who played in both halves Tuesday. Overall, he scored 18 points on 4-12 shooting from the field (2-6 from 3, 8-11 from the free-throw line). He also had four rebounds, four assists, three steals, and a block.

Lofton’s just two years removed from going undrafted in the 2022 NBA Draft, but has been waived by two teams since then: the Memphis Grizzlies and the Philadelphia 76ers. Despite this, he’s been good-to-dominant at every sub-NBA level he’s ever played at: Louisiana Tech, three different G-League teams, two different summer league teams now. So what gives?

Well, Sheldon gave his take after the game: he’s a player who needs to play in the right system.

“Obviously he’s super skilled,” Sheldon said. “With how (Jazz head coach Will Hardy) plays with the off ball stuff, like we do for Kelly (Olynyk) a lot, Kenny could be really good in that spot. So that’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

It’s true: I think Lofton’s best NBA skill is as a intelligent playmaker removed from the arc. He’s good at finding cutters and players coming off screens from that spot, but is aggressive enough in either being able to shoot or bowling ball his way to the rim that defenses have to play him honestly. It is, in other words, pretty similar to what Olynyk brought to the Jazz.

The difference is in height, size, and movement. It’s not that Olynyk was faster, but he was significantly taller than Lofton is, making him a better rebounder and a more present rim defender. The Jazz were actually surprisingly decent with Olynyk in a drop-big defense in 2022-23, and I don’t have confidence Lofton would be able to do the same standing at just 6-6.

Still, last season’s drop off in offense after Olynyk’s departure showed just how valuable that role is to the Jazz’s offense; perhaps Lofton can be an option in those moments where the Jazz’s O needs more gusto next season.

3. The Jazz’s rest choices

I don’t love how the Jazz have rotated their loaded summer league roster so far this week.

None of Keyonte George, Taylor Hendricks, and Walker Kessler played on Tuesday. George and Kessler weren’t huge surprises — while there are things they can still improve on, they figure to be really key cogs for the Jazz’s 2024-25 season. Keeping them healthy for major minutes is important.

Hendricks, though, I wanted to see play. I felt Hendricks was really hurt by the Jazz’s choice to keep him out of summer league last season out of an abundance of caution, even though he wanted to play. In my view, the lack of experience really contributed to just how unready he looked in preseason matchups and even in his first few weeks of G-League play. Having the time to get his first pro action out of the way in July would have helped.

At least there was the injury reason last year. This year, they held him out of Tuesday’s matchup because it was a back-to-back and he played 28 minutes on Monday. It was a group decision from the coaching staff, training staff, and front office.

To me, it would have been the perfect time to give Hendricks an expanded role. George dominated the ball in Game 1 — without him, perhaps Hendricks could have more of it in Game 2 to show what he is, or isn’t, capable of. Kessler dominated the paint defensively in Game 1; Game 2 without him could have been Hendricks’ time to show his weakside rotations for blocked shots, perhaps his best skill at the collegiate level.

Likewise, I would have liked to see Isaiah Collier and Brice Sensabaugh finish this game, keeping them out for Game 3 rather than being limited to 13 and 15 minutes each. Those guys need the ball in their hands, and George’s presence makes that difficult.

Making everyone available in Game 1, then splitting the roster the way they have for Games 2 and 3 doesn’t feel optimal to me. It’s not a huge deal, but I would have liked to see the playing time split differently.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.