Marc Stein of ESPN.com listed the Utah Jazz at No. 25 in his offseason power rankings. Bleacher Report's Josh Martin had them ranked at 27. But I'm not sold on this crop of talented, young players ending up as one of the five or six worst teams in the NBA.
Sure, their reasoning behind the Jazz being bad this season makes sense. First off, they're young. The average age of the presumed starting five of Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter is under 22. They're also unproven, as Hayward is the only one of the group who has averaged over 24 minutes a game in the NBA.
But those weaknesses are the kind that can naturally be resolved in time. Beyond them, there lies a great deal of talent. Once Burke, Burks, Hayward, Favors and Kanter develop some chemistry and learn from a few bumps and bruises, they'll start to win some games.
While Utah's final record may put the Jazz near the bottom of an ultra-competitive Western Conference, I don't expect them to look like one of the worst teams in the league in 2013-14. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see them win about as many games as they lose after the All-Star break.
Now let's get back to that talent and why I think it will equate to success.
Gordon Hayward, Point Forward
It's not even a real position, but coaches who've used point forwards would likely tell you it's a nifty thing to have. It's just not very common because it requires a unique player—someone with the size and scoring ability of a forward, combined with the vision and playmaking of a point guard.
Lamar Odom and Hedo Turkoglu have done it in the past. LeBron James and Andre Iguodala are doing it now. Hayward could be next.
The 23-year-old "veteran" is going to have a lot of responsibility this year. Count me among those who are confident that he'll rise to the challenge.
It's one that will require him to do more than just score. During media day and the first few practices of training camp, Hayward's potential as a playmaker has been a hot topic among coaches and management.
KFAN's Kyle Gunther tweeted coach Tyrone Corbin's thoughts about Hayward on media day:
Corbin says the ball will be in Gordon Hayward's hands more than ever before and he wants to see growth on both ends of the floor from him.— KYLE F GUNTHER (@GuntherKFAN) September 30, 2013
The first few days of Jazz training camp have been evidence that the team is serious about going in this direction. If Hayward can successfully make the transition, it will help every other player wearing a Jazz uniform.
One of the reasons that Miami's Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh shot over 50 percent last year was that LeBron made the game easier for them by setting them up for wide-open looks. Ty Lawson had the best year of his career thanks in part to Iguodala taking the pressure off of him by shouldering some playmaking responsibility. In Orlando, Turkoglu fed Rashard Lewis in pick-and-pops and Dwight Howard in pick-and-rolls. Odom led the Lakers in assists in 2005-06—the same season that Kobe Bryant averaged a career-high 35.4 points.
Long story, short: Hayward has an opportunity to make his teammates better. He already has the skills to do it, but he just hasn't been asked to use them in this role yet.
Watch the following videos in their entirety to get a sense of just how underrated Hayward is overall—especially in terms of his athleticism. For now, though, let's focus on the point forward skills that are on display in these highlight reels.
At the 2:21 mark of the first video, the 6'8" Hayward strings together a nice behind-the-back dribble with a spin move to completely throw the defender—who happens to be a point guard—off balance. From about 2:43 to 2:57, you get a few more examples of Hayward's playmaking ability. The one-handed, on-the-run bounce pass through multiple defenders that hits a cutter in stride for a layup is particularly impressive.
At the 1:21 mark of the next highlight reel, we see an example of Hayward perfectly operating a pick-and-roll with Paul Millsap. As Jason Terry goes over the screen and Brandon Bass tries to show and trap, Hayward splits them with a quick, low left-to-right crossover. As soon as Kevin Garnett steps up to help the two defenders who just got beat, Hayward hits the cutting Millsap for a layup.
Kanter and Favors are going to be on the receiving end of plenty of dimes just like the one that Millsap finished there. And defenses respecting Hayward's ability to dump off the ball will make it easier for him to score.
Like John Stockton told Trey Burke, "The better passer you are, the better scorer you'll be."
The Return of the Mailman
No, Karl Malone is not suiting up this season and neither Kanter nor Favors has the offensive arsenal of the NBA's all-time second-leading scorer. But combined, they make for a scary inside presence on both ends of the court—something that a lot of teams in today's smaller NBA aren't equipped to counter.
Allow me to explain the notion of combining Favors and Kanter's offensive games. Malone dominated opposing defenses by being able to finish at the rim with authority while also possessing the shooting range to pull bigs away from the rim. Favors can provide the finishing—Kanter the range.
Favors' physical tools were the biggest reason he was the No. 3 overall pick in 2010 and he uses them well around the rim. He's 6'10" and 250 pounds, with a 7'4" wingspan and a 36-inch vertical leap. When that kind of size moves that explosively toward the hoop, it's tough to stop. If you don't believe me, just watch:
As for the range of Kanter, it's the perfect complement for the attacking Favors. Opposing centers will have to guard Kanter all the way out to the three-point line, making the lane a lot less crowded for the rest of the Jazz. Last season, Kanter shot over 46 percent on nearly 200 attempts from beyond 16 feet. That's a better percentage than both Chris Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge from that range.
One important area where this combo can be better than Malone is on defense—Favors especially. Last season, he averaged nearly three blocks per 36 minutes and finished fifth in the league in blocked shots percentage—an estimate of the percentage of opponent two-point field goal attempts blocked by the player while he was on the floor, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Both big men averaged double-doubles per 36 minutes last season and now they'll finally get their chance to actually play those kind of minutes.
The Brothers Burk(e)s
At media day, Burks told David Locke, "Just call me by my government name of Alec."
If he does go with first names, Utah's radio announcer could end up saying "Trey" and "Alec" quite a bit this season. As Utah's starting backcourt, they'll be involved in a lot of plays.
Along with Hayward, The Brothers Burk(e)s bring the number of playmakers in Utah's starting lineup to three. That kind of versatility will make it very difficult for opposing coaches to form a defensive game plan.
The two guards have spent time this summer working on their point skills with Stockton. If he's helped both become more serious threats to dump the ball off to Favors and Kanter or kick it to Hayward, defenders may be more hesitant to rotate over in hopes of stopping a drive.
This would be particularly helpful for Burke, who struggled mightily in the summer league. Too often, he tried to make a spectacular shot instead of a simple pass and he quickly became predictable. Not knowing whether Burke is going to shoot or pass will keep defenders off balance.
Burks should benefit from having spent time with Stockton as well. The 6'6" slasher actually spent some time at point guard last season and could make some very big lineups possible. Imagine the mismatches a backcourt of Burks and Hayward would create.
The talent of Utah's starters is the main reason that I think the Jazz are being undersold right now, but the bench might surprise some people, too.
The main contributor will likely be Brandon Rush, who may be coming off a torn ACL, but should still be able to punish defenses from the outside. For his career, he has hit 41 percent of his three-point attempts, including 45 percent last season.
Richard Jefferson might also be able to provide some offense off the bench. He's almost certainly not as good as the consistent 20-point player he was in New Jersey and Milwaukee, but I don't think he's as bad as the player who averaged 3.1 points for the Warriors last season.
On a Utah team with so little experience, Jefferson could have a meaningful role once again. If he can rediscover the three-point stroke he had in San Antonio (where he hit 44 percent in his last full season there in 2010-11), Jefferson could open up more space for Favors and Kanter in the paint.
Marvin Williams could provide that benefit as well—only this season as a stretch-4 instead of a small forward. Utah's personnel may necessitate the position change for Williams, who is better suited at power forward anyway. That's the position he played in college and he never could quite make the transition to the wing in the pros.
Last season was Williams' first in Utah, and his worst in the NBA, as he posted career low averages for both points and rebounds and shot just 42 percent from the field. A shakeup could be what Williams needs to turn things around.
Playing at small forward, Williams is often outmatched in terms of quickness and athleticism. At the 4, those things would become strengths for him. Williams should be the primary backup for Derrick Favors and possibly even serve as the sixth man for the Jazz.
One other interesting piece is rookie Rudy Gobert. He's 7'2" with a 7'9" wingspan (the longest in the NBA) and can run the floor like a gazelle. He likely won't be ready to make any impact initially, but his potential as a rim protector could make him the backup center by the end of the season. He gave a taste of what he might be able to do during the summer league.
It may take a while to jell on offense and get all the defensive schemes down, but rebounding is all about who wants the ball most, and Utah's numbers suggest they'll want plenty of boards.
The Jazz were eighth in average offensive rebounds and 12th in rebound differential last season and that should continue to be a strength.
Favors and Kanter ranked first and second, respectively, in total rebounding percentage for the Jazz in 2012-13 while Jeremy Evans was fourth. All three are back and in line for a lot more minutes.
One of my coaches in college always preached that we would win every game we collected more rebounds and committed less turnovers than our opponents.
Youth and inexperience may make the turnover battle a season-long struggle, but the Jazz will compete on the boards from Day 1.
Will The Jazz Be as Bad as the Media Thinks?
I really don't think so. In Bleacher Report's official season preview for Utah, I predicted the Jazz would finish the season at 30-52—good for 13th in the Western Conference.
How Many Games Will the Utah Jazz Win in 2013-14?
That record and standing may look bad, but I think around half of those wins will come during the last couple of months of the season after this young group has experienced some growth and developed chemistry together.
Thanks to the playmaking and highlight finishes of Hayward, Burks and Burke, combined with the rebounding and interior play of Favors and Kanter, I expect the Jazz to be one of the best watches in basketball by March.
If this young bunch carries that momentum into next season, they may be competing for a playoff spot in 2014-15.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.