SALT LAKE CITY — Beating the star-studded Los Angeles Clippers in seven games in the first round of the NBA playoffs — on the road, at that — gave the Utah Jazz every reason to celebrate, even after getting swept by the Golden State Warriors in the semifinals.
The series victory and subsequent elimination were enough to earn a break — some time on the beaches of Florida or a retreat to the cobblestone streets of Italy.
But for Jazz forward Joel Bolomboy, the end of the season signaled a continuation of his development in Utah — an opportunity to not only commit himself to honing the fundamentals of basketball but enforcing the mindset necessary to have long-term success in the NBA as well.
Having only played 53 minutes for the Jazz during the 2016-17 season, Bolomboy understands the importance of time spent away from the court. Like Rodney Hood and Alec Burks, Bolomboy skipped vacation, instead choosing to work out with Jazz coaches at the University of Utah, since the team’s practice facility was still under construction. And when he wasn’t on the campus, he was somewhere hiking — usually in the mountains surrounding Salt Lake City and Park City.
The former second-round pick was primarily a member of the Salt Lake City Stars (Utah’s NBA G-League affiliate), where he dominated, as his coaches asked him to do, averaging 16.5 points, 13.3 rebounds and shooting 47 percent from the 3-point line.
In the lesser of the two leagues, Bolomboy was an all-around star, capable of playing the traditional big-man role but also skilled enough to space the floor from the perimeter. So, before he cleaned out his locker, Utah’s coaching staff didn’t give the versatile forward a checklist but rather asked him to emphasize immeasurable skills this summer.
“They told me to continue doing what I’m doing,” Bolomboy said. “They told me to just stay focused while I’m playing and focus on the little things that matter — like pick-and-roll defense and communication. They want me to play with the right energy when I’m out there. That’s the main thing.”
Both picked late in the draft, exactly a decade apart, Bolomboy showed flashes of former Jazzman Paul Millsap in the G-League, giving the organization and the fans hope that they found a steal. Summer League was viewed as a proving ground for Bolomboy — a chance to carry the momentum over from the developmental program to a more competitive arena.
As a second-year player, Bolomboy should’ve appeared confident, veteran-like even, against players entering their inaugural seasons and others scrapping for contracts. Finishing the circuit with sub-par averages at 6.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and a field-goal percentage of 36.5, Bolomboy’s issue with overthinking was evident from his body language alone.
“My overall play was alright,” Bolomboy said of his Summer League performance. “It wasn’t the best showing, especially doing what I did the previous season with the Stars. I think that I didn’t play to everyone’s expectations. Most of that is on me because I was thinking too much and worrying about things I had no control over. That kind of messed with my head.”
Known for evaluating prospects beyond basic statistics, Utah’s coaching staff told Bolomboy to let thoughts of Summer League vanish.
“Literally, you just have to let it go,” Bolomboy said. “Summer League is done and over with. I can’t go back and change how I played. I talked to coach (Quin Snyder) and he told me, ‘the NBA only cares about how you’re playing today.’ The Summer League is the past. I’m playing great today and trying to get better. I just have to worry about the stuff I can control. The past isn’t on my mind anymore. I’m looking forward to the future.”
Waiting has been a consistent theme in Bolomboy’s career thus far.
Utah personnel and his agent would often inform Bolomboy where he’d be throughout the season a week in advance, whether he’d be headed to a game on a bus with the Stars or in a plane with the Jazz. But his schedule was circumstantial, dependent on factors not under Bolomboy's control.
“I didn’t have any discouragement,” Bolomboy said about his G-League assignments. “I spoke a lot to Coach (Snyder) and Dennis (Lindsey). They told me things they would like me to improve on, so when I came back with the Jazz I’d be more familiar with what they wanted. I used my time with the Stars to develop. I got better and better, and had a great year with the Stars.”
The future was always somewhat murky for Bolomboy – before he got drafted, once he did, throughout the season and especially this summer.
At one point in the offseason, Bolomboy and Derrick Favors were the only power forwards on Utah’s roster. Bolomboy knew shakeups were coming, but mental exercises became second nature and he didn’t devote too much thought into it. After all, it was out of his hands.
“I wasn’t really paying too much attention to it,” Bolomboy said. “My agent would update me on what’s happening and would fill me in, but at the end of the day, I can’t control any of it. As far as the team makeup, I have faith the front office is doing what’s best for the team. When the season starts, the players just play. It’s our job to show up ready to play. It’s the coaches', agents’ and general managers’ jobs to take care of the rest.”
Four months later, the Jazz have filled the roster, employing more players than the league allows, and that means the Jazz must cut at least one before the beginning of the season. With Rudy Gobert, Favors, Jonas Jerebko, Ekpe Udoh, Tony Bradley and Eric Griffin under contract, the Jazz have one of the deepest frontcourts in the NBA.
Bolomboy, again, knows there’s uncertainty.
“I don’t think about that at all,” Bolomboy said. “I know the situation. I’m just going in there and playing, doing what I can do. I’m going to show them I can play. I’ll let my game speak for itself.
"It’s about going out there and playing, and letting the game come to me. It’s about making sure my mind is clear... I’m pumped and excited. The summer’s over. Right after training camp, the season is here. Time goes by so fast. I’m looking forward to it all.”