Jazz at Mid-Season

Photo: Melissa Majchrzak NBAE/Getty ImagesPhoto: Melissa Majchrzak NBAE/Getty Images

The Utah Jazz are just about halfway through their 2013-14 season (they’ll play game number 41 on Friday against the Detroit Pistons) and it’s been an interesting year to say the least.

After playing in San Antonio on Wednesday night their record sits at 13-27.  After starting the season 1-14, they have gone 12-13 and have looked pretty good.  It’s fun for a fan to think of the potential this team has.

No one picked the Jazz to have nearly as many wins as they do now. No one thought the Jazz would have looked as solid as they have, relatively speaking. Each team in the league has their bad nights, but Utah has looked surprisingly less like the cellar-dweller they were projected to be. Granted, the Jazz own the worst record in the Western Conference, but they don’t often look like it every night. This is a Jazz team that finds themselves in the thick of things with a very good chance to win most nights.

Before the season tipped off, after all the pundits were making their pre-season predictions, Utah came in last in almost every single column.

Ben Golliver, of SI.com, said this about the Jazz before the season started – “This year will be labeled a success if Favors, who was recently handed a four-year extension, Hayward and Kanter all show they can be impact starters when given the largest roles of their young careers. A top-three pick in this year’s draft would be pretty great too.”

Even without being offered an extension, Hayward is still playing the best basketball of his career.  Kanter has at least shown progress in his game, if not as much as was expected. So from Golliver’s point of view, the season up to this point could be labeled a success for Utah.

Golliver went on to say in a separate column about the best and worst case scenarios for each NBA team that the worst case scenario for Utah this season would be if, “A season goes by without much substantive player development.” His best-case scenario was if the offseason departure of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap opened, “The floodgates for Favors, Hayward, and Kanter to thrive,” which it certainly has.

While Kanter hasn’t come along this season in ways that a lot of people envisioned, Favors and Hayward have met, if not exceeded, preseason expectations.

Favors is proving himself worthy of his new four-year contract behind starter minutes this season. Hayward has shown that even when he struggles with putting the ball through the hoop that he’s an integral and valuable asset to the team in terms of offense and intangibles.  Hayward has essentially become a point-forward this season for the Jazz, and a huge chunk of the offense flows through him.

Hayward generates 11.5 points per night off of his assists with rookie point guard Trey Burke creating 12. Taking away Hayward takes away a huge part of Utah’s offensive production, and that was evidenced by last Friday’s 113-102 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at home.

While an argument can definitely be made that Hayward has progressed more than any other player this season, he’s not the only one making a positive impact.

“All of [the young players] have shown improvement in some areas of their game, “ Corbin said.

Corbin continued his comments on the development of the players who might one day become stars for this franchise.

“They’re getting better. They have moments when they’re really showing signs of improvement in areas we need them to, and there’s time when they take a step back but continue to fight back. That’s the thing with these guys, when you don’t play your very best, how you’ll come back and play the next night…they’ve shown signs they can shove it off and get back to work,” Corbin remarked.

Utah has certainly shown a great deal of fight this season, with what is largely viewed as their marquee win of the season coming last week against the Oklahoma City Thunder at home. Even with Kevin Durant going for 48 points, Utah found a way to ride 37 points (on 13-16 shooting) from Hayward to what was honestly an improbable win. That game also featured, just as many others this season have, plenty of minutes and big shots for young players.

Losses are more educational than a lot of fans think, and based on how Utah has responded this season after tough losses, it’s very obvious that the team is learning, and continuing to fight, as Corbin mentioned.

While I don’t think there’s a way that Utah could feasibly exceed expectations this season, aside from going on an historic win streak to shoot themselves into the playoffs, they’ve given reason to be more optimistic in the near future, as opposed to three to five years down the road.

This optimism all hinges on the good player development we’ve seen this season. The Jazz seem to be right where they should be developmentally.  Kanter, Rudy Gobert, and Ian Clark are still question marks in terms of how big an impact they will be able to make, but all three of those players are solid assets to the team. Even Jeremy Evans, who has been inconsistent in past years, is making a mark this season on the Jazz. He’s proving himself as a capable jump shooter, and even though he gets tossed around on defense more often than not, the hustle and determination are there.

With this season really being just a stepping stone towards future success, it’s important to remember that all the development and learning for the young players can’t come all at once. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was a championship-caliber team.

At the midpoint of the 2013-14 season, there’s a lot to be happy about if you’re a Jazz fan, and the future definitely looks bright moving forward.

Spencer is an avid sports fan and fisherman. He’s a lover of classic rock and Sundays filled with football. You can find him on Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant
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