Searching for Positives in Tough Utah Jazz Season

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 18, 2014

Searching for Positives in Tough Utah Jazz Season

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    Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

    A record of 19-33 isn't good. In fact, it's bad.

    But for the rebuilding Utah Jazz, focusing on the wins and losses is shortsighted. This was always supposed to be a tough season. We knew as much when the team let Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap walk away for nothing this past summer.

    The team was put on the shoulders of the young core of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks, Enes Kanter and Trey Burke. And though they've all had their individual struggles, there are plenty of signs to suggest better times are ahead.

     

    Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of Sports-Reference.com and NBA.com and are current as of Feb. 17, 2014.

Derrick Favors' Consistency

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    Before he suffered a strained right hip late in January, Derrick Favors was perhaps the one real constant for the Jazz. He hasn't put up huge numbers this season, but they've come in steadily month by month:

    2013-14PTSREB
    November13.19.5
    December13.58.4
    January14.110.2

    Whether or not Favors develops into a 20-and-10 guy remains to be seen, but there's something to be said for consistency inside.

    The next step for Favors is becoming the defensive anchor Utah thought it signed this summer. He's posting his lowest block percentage since his rookie year, and the Jazz defense has actually been better when Favors is on the bench according to nbawowy.com:

    Utah JazzWith Favors ON the FloorWith Favors OFF the Floor
    Steals per 100 Possessions6.47.7
    Blocks per 100 Possessions5.05.4
    Opponent Field-Goal Percentage47%45.2%

    Part of the reason for the difference is because Favors spends most of his minutes against starting units. But the fact remains, he can do more. 

    Consistency as a scorer and rebounder is great. When Favors can be that steady on all three facets of the game, Utah will have a star on its hands.

Gordon Hayward's Point Forward Skills

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Gordon Hayward has understandably been skewered this season over his career-low shooting percentages. He's at 40.2 percent from the field and 30.3 percent from three-point range.

    The reason for the struggle has been his move from ancillary scorer to No. 1 option and the added defensive pressure that comes with his new role.

    But that doesn't mean 2013-14 has been a complete failure for Hayward. His point forward skills have been on display throughout this season, particularly during Utah's current three-game winning streak:

    All Gordon Hayward has done over the past three games is 13.6 pts, 8 reb. 8.3 ast with 2.3 stls BTW people are killing this guy. #PHIatUTA

    — Jarmon Moore (@jarommoore) February 13, 2014

    His shooting percentages over that same span are 28.9 and 22.2. But because he provides so much beyond scoring, Utah has still managed to win all three games.

    Such has been the case for Utah and Hayward during this year of discovery. He's averaging 5.6 rebounds and five assists overall—6.6 and 6.2 in wins.

    Having the ball in his hands more than ever has led to career highs in both rebounding and assist percentage. But it's a two-edged sword, as previous years suggest he's a better scorer off the ball.

    The ideal role for Hayward is a combination of this season and last.

    He posted a career-best player efficiency rating of 16.8 during the 2012-13 season as a shooter creating space for Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Scoring for Hayward should come in that fashion.

    When he's handling the ball, the primary focus needs to be playmaking and creating for others—something he's proven he can do this season.

    If he can find that balance, Hayward can be one of the most unique players in the league. A 15-7-and-7 season is within reach.

    Jazz fans hope he reaches his potential, and does so in Utah.

    Hayward is a restricted free agent this summer, and he could command big offers that may be difficult for the Jazz to match. It does look like that's the team's goal, though:

    Dennis Lindsey on @gordonhayward: "Regardless of the current climate, we anticipate him being a part of the @utahjazz for a very long time."

    — Spencer Checketts (@1280Spence) February 15, 2014

    General manager Dennis Lindsey will have a big decision to make this summer. Does he let a player go who has the potential to be one of the league's only true point forwards? Or does he bank on that potential, hoping it's reached?

Alec Burks!

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Alec Burks is rapidly establishing himself as the best scorer on the Utah Jazz.

    Bleacher Report's Miami Heat guru Ethan Skolnick got a firsthand look during Utah's 94-89 win over the Heat on Feb. 8:

    Ray Allen defending Alec Burks is problematic.

    — Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) February 9, 2014

    And it hasn't just been problematic for aging 2-guards. The whole league is struggling to cover Burks as he realizes his capabilities. He's averaging 13.4 points off the bench and a team-best 17.7 points per 36 minutes. Since Dec. 1, those same numbers are 14.7 and 19.1.

    Marvin Williams says he calls Alec Burks "Easy 20." Tonight was the ninth time this season Burks has reached that 20+ mark.

    — Aaron Falk (@tribjazz) February 12, 2014

    Burks now has 10 20-point games, second only to Hayward's 12. The difference, of course, is that Hayward plays 36.3 minutes a game, compared to Burks' 27.3.

    The keys to Alec's success as a scorer are his quickness and fearlessness. It's why Ray Allen, and plenty of others, can't stay in front of him.

    Burks is 6'6" and has the first step of a point guard. And when he gets from the perimeter to the rim, he's unafraid of contact. He averages 4.5 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes—first on the Jazz and 19th in the NBA.

The Excitement of Youth

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    Losing is tough for any fanbase to take, but it's more out of the norm for Jazz fans than it would be for most.

    Utah made the playoffs for 20 straight seasons from 1984 to 2003, and 25 of the last 30 before 2013-14.

    Utah was 19-33 heading into the break and 11.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They're going to miss the playoffs for the sixth time in 31 tries.

    But there's still plenty to be excited about. The oldest member of Utah's young core of Hayward, Favors, Burks, Enes Kanter and Trey Burke is Hayward at 23.

    Each has shown signs of promise this year, and if they're given time to grow together and develop chemistry, this team could be back in the postseason in a couple of years.

The 2014 Draft

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    Dave Weaver-USA TODAY Sports

    When Utah started 1-14, visions of the No. 1 pick danced in fans' heads.

    That excitement has leveled off a bit, as they've gone 18-19 since the terrible start, and a selection in the Nos. 5-10 range is looking more likely now.

    But because the 2014 draft class is so loaded, there will be some great talent in that part of the draft. They may not get a franchise cornerstone, but players like Doug McDermott, Aaron Gordon or Tyler Ennis could move the needle a bit.

    Plus, if the Golden State Warriors lose their No. 8 seed in the playoffs to the Memphis Grizzlies, Utah will have two lottery picks (they have Golden State's first-rounder because of a trade this past summer). Maybe packaging two mid-to-late lottery picks with one member of the young core could put the Jazz back in the top five picks.

    Wherever they end up on draft night, the Jazz will have the opportunity to land at least one more player to add to the excitement already emanating from this young team.

     

    Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.