Player development remains the primary focus for Jazz in the narrow Western Conference landscape.
What the Jazz wants to do for the rest of the NBA season might depend on who you ask.
Different levels of the organization clearly have different priorities. The players want to show what they can do, they want to improve and fight for their place in the playoffs. The coaches feel the same way, they support the players and know that when the team exceeds expectations it’s also good for their careers.
However, with their arrivals of Mike Conley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the Jazz’s front office may have signaled it’s headed downhill — or at least its agnosticism about the team’s record this season.
But everyone agrees on one thing: player development. The development of Lauri Markkanen, Collin Sexton, Walker Kessler, Ochai Agbaji and the rest of jazz’s young talent will serve them now and in the future. Additionally, coach Will Hardy says the Jazz’s final 22-game schedule allows for ample time for extensive training that they can use to develop those players’ game and how they fit into the way Hardy plays in the future want to play.
“I look at those last 22 games and the schedule, I like the balance a lot more than the first 60,” Hardy said. “It’s finally starting to look reasonably appealing as to how often we’re going to play.”
What jazz demands of each player depends on their career plan. For Markkanen, Hardy says jazz is looking for him to become a leader off the court.
“Right now it’s about stepping into a different light with our team. His approach every day and the way he carries himself will be followed by his teammates and will set the tone for the final 22 games of our season.”
For Sexton, the Jazz’s top priority is health — especially after the point guard strained his hamstring again before the All-Star break. Sexton isn’t thrilled about having to stay on the sidelines while he’s getting better, Hardy said.
“Collin has many strengths. Dealing with the word “no” is not one of them. He wants to play every day. He wants his workouts to be long. He wants to lift and walk. He wants to play 48 minutes and every game he wants it all,” Hardy said. “I think what we all love about Collin is that with Collin you never have to coach the effort, you’ll never have to coach the ‘want’ with Collin.”
Kessler, meanwhile, is trying to find consistency in his rookie season in the NBA. Kessler has had some amazing games since the calendar adjusted to 2023, but has also fielded some duds against NBA talent at times. His coaches say he has to find a consistent approach and execution every night, even as opposing schemes and skills change.
Finally, Agbaji’s coaching team calls for more aggression. The Kansas product was out of rotation early in the season and since earning more time has been one of the least used players in the NBA. almost afraid of making a mistake. The coaches want Agbaji to find the aggression that made him the most outstanding player of the Final Four a year ago.
“I’ve tried to make it clear to Ochai that I believe in him and we believe in him – and there will be moments now when you don’t have to be so careful and you don’t have to play perfectly.”
How these four players play – all now rotating in the Jazz top 6 – will determine so much of how the Jazz finishes in the season standings.
“Obviously the coaches and I would be lying to you if we said we don’t look at the tables, we certainly do. But in terms of messaging to the team, things are so tight right now that it’s just about playing good basketball,” Hardy said.
It’s also a muddled Western Conference. Starting with the Kings, there are 11 teams overall – Sacramento, the Los Angeles Clippers (who just got Russell Westbrook after he was bought out by Utah after a trade with the Lakers), Phoenix, Dallas (now with Kyrie Irving at the Page). Luka Doncic), New Orleans, Minnesota, Golden State, Oklahoma City, Utah, Portland and the Lakers – separated by just six games.
However, it is also tight in the other direction. If the season ended today, the Jazz would have been 12th in the NBA lottery. But just three games separate them from the sixth-best lottery odds where Indiana currently sits.
There are six teams in the NBA that are pretty comfortable in the playoffs. There are four other teams who pretty much know they’re not going anywhere. That leaves 20 teams for the final 10 playoff spots. There’s only 28% of the season left, which means it’s time for teams to really fight for playoff positions.
The seeding could flip in the West any night, meaning any Jazz win-or-lose streak could have a big impact either way.
Let the games begin.