Throughout the offseason, the Utah Jazz were pegged as the candidate for most improved team in the West and it wasn’t hard to see why. Their run to finish the 2014-15 season and the ascension of Rudy Gobert made them the sage pick. For them to actually reach the potential they flashed last year, however, someone on their current core needs to make a Gobert-like jump, as they haven’t added veteran free agents and lost Dante Exum for the year to injury.
Fortunately for the Jazz, it looks like Rodney Hood has answered the call and is ready to become a quality contributor, raising their depth and talent level.
Hood, now entering his second year, was mired by injuries as a rookie. He still managed to suit up for 50 games and started 21 of them. He wasn’t spectacular when he was on the court but showed the ability to do a little bit of everything, not unlike his replacement, Joe Ingles. Coming into this season, most expected Hood — who looked good in preseason coming off the bench — to back up Alec Burks and give the team some depth. Instead, he’s been killing it as a starter.
It’s only been three games, but Hood has looked like a revelation. The ability to create for himself in the pick-and-roll he flashed at Duke has translated to the NBA. His solid ball-handling and in-between game makes him hard to guard for centers who want to stay close to the rim. When he sees room to maneuver thanks to a good screen or after using the snake dribble to lose his defender, he either pulls up or launches floaters with a feathery touch:
If he keeps killing teams that way, coaches will adjust. Hood has a good first step but isn’t an explosive athlete, and despite being a tall wing at 6’8″, he’s not the strongest player around. Instead of dropping back so much, bigs might be instructed to play him a little closer and dare him to go all the way to the rim and finish in traffic. Hood has the vision to find the roll man in those situations, but he lacks experience and is a little mistake-prone in tight quarters when the decision of what to do next isn’t obvious.
While that’s a problem now, it shouldn’t be going forward, when he figures out how to read defenses. Hood is exactly the type of secondary shot creator the Jazz need to ease Gordon Hayward’s burden. His aggressiveness fits well next to Raul Neto’s caretaker tendencies, and his ability to play off the ball and be a three-point threat makes him a better fit to start than the more ball-dominant Burks.
Granted, the outside shot hasn’t been as reliable as a team desperate for spacing as the Jazz would like it to be, but last season he shot 36 percent and his mechanics look solid. He certainly has the confidence to let the ball fly. Judging by the over five three-pointers he takes a game and the fact that Quinn Snyder drew two plays to get him open late in the loss against the Pistons, he has the green light and the trust of his coach as well. Eventually his percentage will get better than the atrocious 25 percent he’s shooting now, making him a complete offensive player.
The biggest question mark about Hood as a prospect and ultimately as long-term answer as a starting shooting guard for the Jazz revolves around his defense. Hood underachieved in college but was solid his rookie year. Now Snyder is challenging him to step up his game on that end out of necessity. With Dante Exum out, Utah needs someone who can guard point guards. Starter Raul Neto can hold his own but Trey Burke can’t, so Hood is asked to take on the opponent’s primary ball-handler from time to time.
He’s gotten mixed results so far but not for a lack of trying. Hood is picking up his man at mid-court and trying to go over the top on screens. He was very smart guarding Reggie Jackson in the season opener against the Pistons:
He still has a ways to go before being considered a stopper, as sometimes he rushes to jump or struggles to navigate multiple screens, but he’s doing a solid enough job to get more opportunities to improve.
It’s early in the season, but Hood has emerged as a legitimate starting wing at only 23 years old. He deserves a ton of credit for not letting injuries discourage him and taking advantage of the chance he’s getting to carve out a permanent place in the league for himself.
The Jazz also deserved to be commended for sticking to their plan despite setbacks. Utah has cap space it could’ve easily used on a short-term fix either at point guard or at the wing. Most front offices would’ve succumbed to the temptation to use it, especially considering expectations were high coming into the season.
Instead, general manager Dennis Lindsey decided to wait for Hood and Burks to return and give Neto a real shot. It’s early, but that patience seems to be paying off.