The Utah Jazz hype train continues barreling down the tracks at full bore. And preseason games are offering clues on the merit of that hype.
In Game 1, the Portland Trail Blazers, who have fully embraced the three-point revolution, blitzed the Jazz. Game 2 saw Utah grind out a victory without Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood (plus Gordon Hayward and Dante Exum for most of the game).
Typical “it’s just preseason” caveats apply, but both games were instructive.
UTAH NEEDS TO SHOOT MORE THREES
The Jazz took 16 three-point attempts in each game and went 12-of-32 (37.5 percent) overall. Contrast that to the Blazers, who hoisted 34 threes and outscored Utah by 18 points from that range in one game.
Utah dominated Portland in other areas of the game (including rebounding and free throws). It simply couldn’t keep pace while trading twos for threes.
If the Jazz are consistently out-attempted from deep, they’ll have a hard time keeping pace with opponents throughout the season.
In 2015-16, 10 of the top 11 teams in total three-point attempts made the playoffs. The outlier there was the Philadelphia 76ers, who were openly trying to lose games.
If Utah’s not shooting threes in 2016-17, it’s starting itself off at a disadvantage.
And it’s not like the Jazz lack the players to join the movement. Hood, Hayward, George Hill, Alec Burks, Raul Neto, Joe Ingles, Trey Lyles, Shelvin Mack, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw all hit threes at above or within one percent of a league-average rate last season.
They just need to let loose (or be let loose). Whether it’s coaching or players not following coaching is probably irrelevant. Either way, the offense needs to start funneling more action to the three-point line, rather than to mid-range shots and post-ups.
Many of Utah’s possessions are overly complicated, packing the minutia of sets into the first 10-15 seconds of the shot clock. Sometimes, a simple pick-and-roll run by one of Utah’s many playmakers and surrounded by two or three of its shooters would be more than enough.
DANTE EXUM HAS SHOWN FLASHES
Dante Exum missed over a year of organized basketball before this preseason. He looked understandably rusty in his first game.
Despite going 2-of-3 from three-point range, Exum mostly looked uncomfortable. He had a couple forays into the paint that looked particularly awkward.
Against the Suns, though (and before he exited the game with a hyperextended knee), Exum showed flashes of why he was a No. 5 pick.
Exum started at the 2, alongside Hill and in place of the resting Hood, and looked much more decisive, particularly as a playmaker.
The play that generated the most buzz was a drive-and-dish that set up Rudy Gobert for a dunk. He deserves style points for getting the edge, using his speed and employing the wraparound pass. But the most impressive aspect of the play was the awareness to throw the pass to where he wanted Gobert to be, not where Gobert (and a sneaky Eric Bledsoe) were:
In a pick-and-roll with Gobert, Exum showed the patience to wait till Marquese Chriss fully committed to stopping his drive before dropping the pocket pass to the rolling big:
In another pick-and-roll, he refused the screen from Gobert when he recognized Devin Booker was slightly unbalanced, drew the cutting Hayward’s defender and then made the assist:
Finally, and perhaps most encouraging, Exum finished one of his own drives with an off-hand layup in traffic. It’s a good sign, because Exum generally avoided even attempting to score within 15 feet of the rim as a rookie:
Exum continuing to hone his decision-making and aggressiveness will be an ongoing story all season. If the flashes from his game against Phoenix become more consistent, he’ll be a valuable member of Utah’s rotation.
THE GAME LOOKS EASY FOR GORDON HAYWARD
In 40 total minutes, Hayward has 32 points on 18 shots. The game appears to have slowed down around him, and he looks more controlled on his drives.
Two reasons for the potential (we’ll add that qualifier since it is the preseason) improvement are probably just age and experience. But as Jazz radio announcer David Locke has shared, it may have something to do with improved strength as well.
Locke notes in his podcast that Hayward entered training camp at 235 pounds, up 10 from last year, when many pundits had him on #MuscleWatch. The added mass doesn’t look to have slowed Hayward down or grounded him either.
In both preseason games, his first step looked quick and his vertical explosiveness was on display in a few dunks. The difference was that he looked more selective on when to change gears. And in the cases where a defender stayed in front, he had the strength to absorb contact and still get off a shot with his typical form.
There was some discussion this summer that Hayward’s numbers might take a hit with the influx of talent, but preseason evidence suggests an alternative. With new and improved teammates, Hayward won’t have to deal with as much attention from defenses. Even if he takes fewer shots, a bump in efficiency resulting from that added freedom could allow his numbers to hold steady.
Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.