SALT LAKE CITY — A lot has changed in the last four and a half months since the Utah Jazz were eliminated from the NBA playoffs by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors, following a 51-win season and a fifth-place finish in the Western Conference.
The Jazz lost their premier player, Gordon Hayward, to the Boston Celtics in a free agency move that gave the Utah franchise nothing in return. They also lost starting point guard George Hill, who chose to sign with Sacramento, again with nothing in return. Also moving on were former first-round draft choice Trey Lyles, who was traded to Denver, part-time starting point guard Shelvin Mack and backup center Jeff Withey, who signed with the Mavericks and veteran Boris Diaw, who was waived.
Jazz picked up seven new players, six of whom who are expected to be on the 13-man active roster, led by former lottery pick Ricky Rubio. The Jazz also have first-round draft picks Donovan Mitchell and Tony Bradley as well as veterans Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udoh. The Jazz also signed swingman Royce O’Neal, but he’ll most likely be fighting for a spot on the 15-man roster.
Training camp opens Monday, with the first preseason game set for the following Monday, Oct. 2 against the Sydney Kings, an Australian professional team. The Jazz season officially gets underway October 18 at home against Denver.
Here are six storylines to watch as the season unfolds:
Who will pick up the scoring slack with Hayward gone?
The most obvious answer is Rodney Hood, who has shown an ability to score during his three years in Utah with a 12.5 scoring average. That’s better than Hayward, who averaged just 10.3 points per game over his first three seasons as a part-time starter.
Hood’s shooting averages of 41.5 percent from the field and 36.3 percent from 3-point range are behind Hayward’s averages for his first three years when he shot 45.1 and 40.1 percent, respectively. However, it took Hayward awhile to progress to his current status as an NBA max player as he shot just 41.3 percent from the field and 30.4 percent from 3-point range in his fourth year, his first as a full-time starter.
Still, the 21.9 points per game that Hayward averaged is a significant number and it will take Hood scoring four or five more points per game and several other Jazz players stepping up, including Derrick Favors, whose scoring average dropped from 16.4 to 9.5 last year in an injury-filled season.
How will newcomer Ricky Rubio compare to George Hill at the starting point guard position?
If Rubio can play a full season without getting injured, he will probably be an upgrade over Hill, who missed 33 games last year — 40 percent of the season — with an assortment of injuries.
However, Rubio has his own history of missing games due to injury. He missed 41 games his rookie season in 2011-12 and 25 the following year. Then in 2014-15, Rubio only played in 22 of 82 games because of a severe ankle injury. The good news is that he played nearly a full schedule in his other three seasons, including 76 and 75 games, respectively, the past two seasons.
Rubio doesn’t have the scoring ability of Hill — he’s just a 37.5 percent shooter and 31.5 percent from the 3-point line and has averaged 10.3 points in his NBA career. Where he excels is in his passing ability and distributing the ball as he’s averaged over eight assists per game in every season but one and is coming off a career-best 9.1 average a year ago, fifth-best in the NBA. He’s also known for his defensive ability and should be better than Hill in that department.
Is Rudy Gobert ready to take on the role as the Jazz's leader and can he take his game to an even higher level?
Gobert has proved himself to be one of the top centers in the NBA as shown by his being named second-team all-NBA last year and runnerup as defensive player of the year. The Frenchman’s numbers have improved in each of his four years and he should increase his 14.0 scoring average of a year ago with a pass-first point guard in Rubio giving him more offensive looks. Gobert has also been more vocal as he’s gotten older and more comfortable as a team veteran and the younger Jazz players should look up to him in more ways than one.
Which of the new players will make the biggest impact for the Jazz this year?
The obvious choice is Rubio, a former No. 5 overall draft pick and six-year NBA veteran, but rookie point guard Donovan Mitchell may make the most impact that will be appreciated by the fans. Mitchell is a rare player who says he loves to play defense, which is what coach Quin Snyder loves to hear. Mitchell showed off his defensive prowess in the Summer League when he had several steals a game, including eight in one game in Las Vegas. If he can make shots, he’ll be on the floor a lot.
Sefolosha may also get extra playing time because of his defensive ability, while Jerebko and Udoh’s playing time may be dependent on the health of Gobert and Favors.
Will Alec Burks be back to 100 percent and how will he fit into the Jazz rotation?
After sitting out for pretty much a full year, from December of 2015 to January of 2017, Burks was pretty much an afterthought for the Jazz when he finally returned to the lineup in the middle of last season. Burks averaged just 6.7 ppg in 15 minutes per game and finished with career shooting lows of 39.9 percent from the field and 32.9 percent from 3-point range.
And now he’ll have to fight for minutes at the wing position with returning starter Joe Ingles, rookie Mitchell, not to mention Joe Johnson and Sefolosha and even Dante Exum, who may play more shooting guard this year.
We have to remember Burks is only 26 years old and was once the second-leading scorer on the team (2013-14 when he averaged 14.0 ppg). He should be rounding into his prime, but whether he still fits into the Jazz rotation isn’t known.
The franchise spent over $100 million to renovate Vivint Arena as well as the Zions Bank Basketball Center but will all that remodeling make any difference to the Jazz on the basketball court?
Obviously the multi-million dollar upgrades at Vivint will make the biggest impact on the fans, who should enjoy an enhanced experience, from the comfort of their seats to an expanded food menu to an overall more pleasing atmosphere.
What could make an impact on the floor will be the new team training facilities, which the Jazz claim are the best in the NBA. If the Jazz are healthier and stronger (and happier), perhaps that will help put a few extra victories in the win column.