In more ways than one, Rodney Hood and the Utah Jazz are becoming the perfect fit.
Hood, the 23rd pick in the 2014 draft, has burst onto the scene this season as a key member of the Jazz’s core alongside fellow wing Gordon Hayward and center Rudy Gobert.
Under the guidance of fellow Duke alum Quin Snyder, Hood and the Jazz are assembling a potential sleeping giant in the Western Conference. Utah currently finds itself on the outside looking into the postseason picture, but the playoffs are within reach, and their young weapons are developing quicker than anticipated.
Hood is earning mention in the NBA’s "most improved" conversation. Statistically, he's gotten better in every major category from last season’s limited rookie campaign. He's seeing a jump in his minutes (31.5), points per game (14.5) and shooting percentage (41.8 percent) while playing in all but two contests this season.
In a recent interview with Bleacher Report, Hood talked about finding an ideal fit for his game in Utah, his experiences playing in the Rising Stars Challenge over All-Star Weekend and why he’s much better than a typical 23rd pick.
Bleacher Report: Over the last two months, you are playing the best basketball of your young career. As a result, the Jazz are in position to make a playoff run. What have been some of the keys to this improvement for you personally and as a team?
Rodney Hood: My work habits that I had back in November and December have just taken over now. I wasn’t shooting the ball as well as I wanted to at the beginning of the year, so I just kept working on my habits—stayed in the gym more, and now, everything is paying off. I think the biggest thing team-wise is we’ve got some help back. Rudy [Gobert] is back now, Alec Burks is coming back soon and we’re going to get the guys healthy and try to make a push and get into the playoffs.
BR: How did you enjoy your first All-Star Weekend experience, and what did being selected to the Rising Stars game mean to you?
RH: It was fun, especially because, last year, I had to watch it on TV while I was rehabbing my injury, and it was tough seeing my peers out there playing. I really wanted to be in that game, and it was one of my goals coming into this year. Being able to achieve that, especially going with two of my Jazz teammates, [Raul Neto and Trey Lyles] was amazing.
Also, seeing some of the legendary players in the building and the best players in the league today. Some of the best players in the world have played in the Rising Stars game, and to be a part of that really meant a lot.
BR: You’ve had some big scoring games during Utah’s recent resurgence. You’re also thriving in the pick-and-roll. Are you more comfortable with the ball in your hands and creating or playing off the ball?
RH: Both. I think Gordon [Hayward] and I have developed a lot; we really play well off each other. When I’m in the pick-and-roll, I’m looking to be a playmaker first and to score second. When I’m playing off the ball and I catch the ball, I’m looking to be a scorer first and a playmaker second. It’s just about feel and being aggressive when my number is called.
BR: You mentioned Hayward. You guys are playing really well off each other, especially lately. How has your chemistry with him developed since last season and over this recent stretch?
RH: It’s developed a lot since last year. Last year, at the end of games, I wasn’t expected to take shots, but I’ve gotten better. Gordon and I have really been leaning on each other at the end of games to make big plays for our team. It’s all about playing off of each other, and we both know that we have to score and make plays for this team to be successful on offense.
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BR: Jalen Rose, another lefty, is a name that comes up when comparing your game. Are there any other players you were watching growing up and modeled your game after?
RH: There are a lot of guys I used to watch growing up. I used to watch big guards and how they handled the ball and made plays. Guys like Joe Johnson. A guy I’ve really been watching a lot lately is Paul Pierce— how he just gets to his spots and rises up over the defender. That’s something that I do now in the pick-and-roll once I get into the lane.
BR: Having gone to Duke and now playing for former Blue Devil Quin Snyder, it seems like you’re in a prime position to succeed on a young, talented Jazz team. What’s it been like to play for Coach Snyder?
RH: It’s been fun. He’s so hands-on as a coach, and he really believes in me as a player. Just being around him every single day, he never has off days as far as his enthusiasm. He really wants us to get better individually and of course as a team. Individually, he works with us one-on-one on our games, and it’s been really fun having that type of coach around every single day.
BR: You mention how hands-on he is. Is there anything you’d like to mention about what he’s told you about your game and how to continue to improve?
RH: The things I’ve worked on in the offseason have mostly been on my footwork and pick-and-roll—using my size and not just always trying to face up and go by a guy. I’m using my size and my body more now to get into the lane. When I’m passing up shots, Coach is the first one in the gym telling me to "shoot the ball."
It’s fun having a head coach like him, especially as a young player. You don’t get that a lot in the league where you have a coach telling you to be aggressive all the time. He’s been a big reason why I’ve been successful this year.
BR: You slid to the 23rd pick in the 2014 draft and have really had success this year in just your second season. Has this been an "I told you so" moment to all of the teams and executives that passed on you?
RH: Not really. Like I said on draft night, I think those things will be [proved] five, six, seven years down the line. I know I’m better than the 23rd pick of that draft, and I think I’ve been proving that, but I got to just continue to put in the work and hope that I’ll become even better down the line.
BR: This is an important stretch of the season for you guys. You’re in a tight battle for those last playoff spots in the West. How often are you guys keeping up with the standings?
RH: We’re aware of it, but me personally, I don’t really look at the standings because they change every single day. It’s just going to be like that for the rest of the season. Hopefully, we can go on a good run and create some separation, but at the same time, we’re just focusing game-by-game and controlling what we can control.
BR: The Jazz added Shelvin Mack at the trade deadline, and Alec Burks is coming back soon from injury. What would making the playoffs mean for such a young and still-developing team?
RH: It’d be great, especially when we’re, quote-unquote, “in a rebuilding process” and we’ve got the second-youngest team in the league. It would just prepare us for what’s to come in the future. Getting that playoff experience would be great for us, but if we don’t make the playoffs, it’s not "playoffs or bust." We’re gunning for the playoffs but are still learning and getting better as a team.
BR: You’re from a small town in Mississippi. You were just selected to the Rising Stars Challenge, and you now are being mentioned as one of the NBA’s most improved young players. Have you had a chance to sit back and reflect on how exciting a time this has been for you?
RH: Yeah, it’s amazing. When I came into the league as the 23rd pick, I wasn’t expecting that in just a year or two I’d be taking big shots and playing in such big moments. I also wasn’t expecting us as a young team to be where we are right now, in the playoff hunt. It just shows how fast things can pay off when you really put in the work.