5 Things to Watch for During Utah Jazz's Final Games

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMarch 11, 2014

5 Things to Watch for During Utah Jazz's Final Games

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    Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

    Because Utah Jazz fans grew accustomed to cheering on winning teams for decades, the struggles of the last few years haven't been easy to accept.

    From 1982 to 2010, the Jazz made the playoffs 24 out of a possible 27 times under the direction of Frank Layden and Jerry Sloan.

    In the last 3.5 years with coach Tyrone Corbin, the team has made the postseason just once. The Jazz were knocked out in the first round following the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign.

    This season, they've been at or around dead last in the Western Conference since opening night.

    Finding bright spots hasn't been impossible though, thanks to the collection of talented young players that management has found in three of the last four drafts.

    Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks, Enes Kanter, Trey Burke and Rudy Gobert have done plenty to put smiles on fans' faces, while the losses pile up. 

    Because of them, the future looks bright. Clues on just how bright should be on display between now and the end of the season.

Trey Burke's Shooting Percentages

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    Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Spo

    Burke's rookie season has led to some excitement for Jazz fans for the way he takes care of the ball, his penchant for hitting shots in crunch time and his leadership ability.

    On the other side of the spectrum, his inconsistency (particularly as a shooter) has served to thoroughly temper the excitement.

    His shooting percentages—both basic and advanced—are downright awful:

    Trey Burke36.9%32.7%46.3%43.2%
    League Average45.3%35.9%53.9%49.9%

    The fact that he's second on the Jazz in field-goal attempts per game at 12.5 is part of the problem. That's over two more shots than assist opportunities per game.

    NBA.com defines assist opportunities as: "Passes by a player to a teammate in which the teammate attempts a shot, and if made, would be an assist. At 10.3 per game, Burke is second to Hayward in assist opportunities per game.

    He tries to be a scorer more than a facilitator, but he doesn't have the physical tools to do so (at least not yet).

    Due to his size (6'1" with his shoes on) and lack of top-notch explosiveness, Burke often forces bad shots. In a lot of those situations, he should be passing.

    He could learn a thing or two from another physically challenged young point guard about deciding between scoring and distributing:

     FGA/gmAST Opportunities/gm
    Trey Burke12.510.3
    Kendall Marshall8.116

    Burke's numbers are obviously influenced by playing with a point forward in Hayward, but the fact remains that he looks to score more than set up his teammates.

    It may be unrealistic to expect him to have twice as many assist opportunities as shots like Marshall, but if Burke were to mix in even two or three more attempts to set others up, he'd be a more difficult defensive assignment.

    If opposing defenders play him more for the pass, he might find better scoring opportunities. Honoring the passing lanes forces a defender to leave a bit more space.

    So even if Burke's total shots went down slightly, the number of good looks would go up.

    And more open shots should lead to better shooting percentages. If those start to trend upward as the season winds down, we'll have a lot less reason to be concerned about the rookie's future.

Enes Kanter's Defense

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    Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

    A debate has been raging over Enes Kanter all season long.

    The 21-year-old big man has shown great scoring ability, but his struggles on the defensive end have kept him on the bench more than fans anticipated.

    Pretty much every blogger has taken a side in the debate, but none is as loud as SLC Dunk's Mychal Lowman...

    Jazz’s most consistent and reliable scorers are Alec Burks and Enes Kanter. The jokes just aren’t fun anymore. Why aren’t they starting?

    — Mychal Lowman (@My_Lo) February 23, 2014

    ...and Purple and Blues' Clint Peterson:

    Sittin here with @Bluemoon_76, we're thinkin Enes Kanter would make a better net defender in MLS than the NBA.

    — Clint Peterson (@Clintonite33) March 9, 2014

    The argument may be put to rest soon, as Kanter's defense has made some strides lately. Following Utah's recent three-point loss to the Indiana PacersThe Salt Lake Tribune's Aaron Falk reported that Corbin said, "He was really paying attention to details and I thought he got a lot better tonight."

    Veteran forward Marvin Williams added: "He did a great job. Enes is a big physical guy. Obviously with West and Hibbert out there, that matchup is not really the best for myself and Jeremy [Evans]. Enes was great. He was locked in from the start of shootaround today and it showed."

    More "locked in" defensive efforts from Kanter need to become the norm rather than the exception.

    If he and Favors can learn to coexist on both ends of the floor, the Jazz could have a huge frontcourt advantage against most opponents in the years to come.

Gordon Hayward's Free-Agency Stock

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    A tiny part of me wants Hayward to keep struggling as a shooter for the rest of this season. That sounds devious and childish, but my heart is in the right place.

    Anything to increase Utah's chances of re-signing Hayward to a multi-year extension, right?

    He can be an integral part of the team's future, regardless of who is picked up in the 2014 draft. As one of the league's only true point forwards, he can make all the young players around him better.

    His ability to create for others and distribute the ball is unique. Among players 6'8" or taller, Hayward is fourth in assists at 5.1 per game. 

    And he's doing that while playing on a team that struggles to score, as Utah is 23rd in offensive rating.

    If his market value stays at a level that Utah is willing to match in restricted free agency, he should be able to spend more time on the floor with great scorers like Burks, Kanter and potentially someone from this upcoming draft class.

    In that situation, his assist numbers could climb even higher.

Alec Burks

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    You'll notice the title of this slide is a little different than the previous three.

    It's tough to focus on one thing that you should watch for with Burks. He's the most exciting player on the team, so his name alone should suffice for this slide.

    But what is so exciting about him?

    For one, he has an unrelenting desire and almost unmatched ability to get to the rim. In a separate story by Falk, the Jazz beat writer eloquently broke down Burks' talents as a slasher:

    When it comes to the art of racing toward the basket, colliding with much-larger human beings, and still finding a way to contort your body while somehow spinning a basketball in such a manner that it will find its way into a hoop, Burks says, none in the NBA are better...

    ...In his three seasons in the NBA, moxie has never been Burks’ problem — and it shows in his fearless drives to the hoop and his jaw-dropping finishes.

    It’s a skill set that’s been on display throughout the year, although never more consistently than of late. On a Jazz team struggling to find its way through the final stretch of a rebuilding year, Burks has provided the highlight reel.

    In combination with that, he has impressive athleticism, which can be seen in lightning fast "Eurosteps" during games or self-alley-oop, between-the-legs dunks in practice.

    Add in a dash of defense (Burks holds opposing point guards to a player efficiency rating of 13.3 and opposing shooting guards to 14.3), and you can see why he's been Utah's most exciting player to watch this season.

    And with the playoffs out of reach and the season winding down, we should be seeing more of this star-in-the-making down the stretch.

Lottery Odds

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    I had been vehemently opposed to blatant tanking throughout the first couple of months of the season. Like I said, Jazz fans aren't used to losing, and the 1-14 start was painful to watch.

    But I'll be honest; at this point, the wins hurt me even more.

    Some of those potential superstars at the top of the 2014 draft would be perfect fits for the Jazz.

    Just imagine Jabari Parker occupying the stretch 4 role that Marvin Williams is holding down right now. Think about Dante Exum running pick-and-rolls with Kanter and Favors.

    Or how about Andrew Wiggins catching lead passes from Hayward on the break?

    Those three, in addition to Joel Embiid, are possible franchise players. How sad would it be to end up just outside the top five picks and miss out on those guys?

    Utah has the seventh-worst record in the NBA, which gives it the seventh-best shot at winning the draft lottery.

    The Jazz are in the middle of a group of seven teams that are within 2.5 games of one another. A few too many wins down the stretch could slide Utah all the way out of the top 10.

    But with just a few more losses than the others, the Jazz could land one of those potential cornerstones.

    Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of Sports-Reference.com and NBA.com and are current as of March 9, 2014.

    Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.