Michelle Tessier, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Some might’ve raised their eyebrows when seeing the Utah Jazz advertise that the first 10,000 people to arrive for Thursday’s open practice would get a free T-shirt.
Ten thousand? For a Summer League practice?
The eyes of Jazz players, coaches and employees about popped out of their heads when they entered EnergySolutions Arena and saw almost that many fans actually showed up.
The lower bowl, which seats 8,900, was full, and dozens more sat in the nosebleed sections.
For a Summer League practice.
Welcome to Utah, Quin Snyder, Dante Exum, Rodney Hood et al.
Welcome back, Trey Burke, Rudy Gobert, Ian Clark, Malcolm Thomas and Erik Murphy.
“Wow. I was driving with Randy Rigby, our team president, and I saw the line outside. I don’t know who’s more excited, our players or the fans,” Snyder said. “Just to see that enthusiasm, I think it lets the guys know that they’re appreciated and the way we want to play is appreciated.”
That was evident.
Fans, many wearing the T-shirts adorned with the faces of Utah’s two recently drafted players (Exum and Hood), drank up the insight and commentary Snyder provided in multiple Q&A sessions with TV play-by-play announcer Craig Bolerjack before and during the hour-long workout and scrimmage.
“It’s interesting to me what a knowledgeable fan base we have,” Snyder said. “People here, they know basketball. It’s neat. It makes it fun for us.”
Fans also ate up the action of seeing the visible progression and maturation of the 7-foot-2 Gobert, the smooth play of Burke, the quickness, size and defensive efforts of Exum, the sweet stroke and offensive firepower of Hood, and, really, just the rare moment of NBA basketball action in the summer.
“That was crazy. I got chills just walking out there on the court,” Hood, the 23rd pick from Duke, said after his first Utah experience. “I just appreciate all the fans coming out.”
Exum, who turns 19 on Sunday, was blown away before playing his first five-on-five game since the end of 2013.
Fans stood and loudly cheered as the Australian point guard, the No. 5 pick in the recent draft, and returning All-Rookie playmaker Burke led the Jazz out on the court at the beginning of the night.
“When they started clapping for me, it kind of hit me a bit,” Exum said. “I was just expecting everyone to look at me, but not clap for me. I was happy to be in that situation.”
The highly touted rookie would’ve probably been happier with the night had he shot better (hitting at least one shot, for example), but the Jazz aren’t concerned. Exum showed a glimpse of how dangerous he and Burke might be in the backcourt on their team’s first possession when he drove through the paint and found his teammate open in the corner for a 3-pointer.
Snyder also continues to be impressed with Exum’s better-than-advertised defense, as the rookie has used his 6-6 size and speed to disrupt.
“The biggest thing that (has) stood out to me — and it was noticeable tonight — he’s really guarded,” Snyder said. “He’s really in a stance, playing passing lanes, and I like to see that.”
But his oh-fer night? (Stats weren’t kept for this 24-minute game, by the way.)
“He’ll shoot the ball better. I think he’s nervous,” Snyder said. “He got tired. Both he and Trey passing the ball, they can get in the gaps and then make plays for other people.”
Exum admitted it took him awhile to get the nerves out.
“Yeah, when you get in and your adrenaline is up, you just want to run, run, run. It kind of took me a bit to kind of settle down and start playing my game,” he said. “My shots weren’t falling tonight, but it was just about getting my teammates the ball, and I think I did that well.”
Hood, whom the Jazz were delighted to snatch up with their second first-round pick, was probably the most impressive offensive player among the 15 Summer League participants. He hit from the outside and showed some offensive creativity with deft moves against defenders and near the basket.
“I had a little jitters just going out there for the first time — me and Dante both,” Hood said. “Once I got going, it was good. We got into a little rhythm, so it was good.”
The Jazz were given the day off Friday, and they’ll begin their NBA Summer League action Saturday night in Las Vegas against Philadelphia. Utah will play at least five games in the tournament, which wraps up on July 21.
Utah can only hope to get the kind of support at the Thomas & Mack Center over the next week or so as it got at home on this night, a crowd that included Jazz center Derrick Favors, by the way.
“It’s Salt Lake City. I know how much the fans love the Jazz. We feel the same way about them. We embrace that,” Burke said. “It kind of shocked us all when we went out here seeing how many people was out there. It’s good to know we’ve got the support from the city and we look forward to going to Vegas and trying to win the whole thing.”
Snyder cracked a joke to the crowd about the support he's received since being hired to replace Tyrone Corbin this offseason.
"I've been out in the community," he said. "I hope the greetings are as warm and friendly midseason as they are now."
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