The Jazz traded away two stars (Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell) and two full-time starters (Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale) last summer, then moved their starting point guard (Mike Conley) and two key rotation players (Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt) prior to February’s trade deadline. However, the team still seems incapable of tanking, writes Andy Larsen of The Salt Lake Tribune.
As Tony Jones of The Athletic points out, Talen Horton-Tucker, Simone Fontecchio, and Ochai Agbaji started alongside Walker Kessler and Kelly Olynyk on Monday night vs. Sacramento, while Kris Dunn, Rudy Gay, Udoka Azubuike, Johnny Juzang, and Juan Toscano-Anderson played rotation minutes off the bench. Somehow, the Jazz still secured a win over one of the Western Conference’s best teams, defeating the Kings 128-120.
Utah’s 35-36 record may look average, but this year’s team has been special, argues Jones. Both he and Larsen liken the Jazz to the Cleveland Indians in the movie ‘Major League,’ noting that both clubs got contributions from unlikely sources and far exceeded expectations.
On Monday, it was Agbaji who stepped up and scored a career-high 27 points, which was a sign of how far he’s come since the first couple months of the season, Jones writes. In his first 17 NBA games, the No. 14 overall pick made just 21.7% of his three-pointers and didn’t have a double-digit scoring night, but he has since knocked down 41.0% of his attempts from beyond the arc and is showing off the potential that made him a lottery pick.
Here’s more on the Jazz:
- As Larsen outlines, while rookie center Walker Kessler still has room for improvement, he already ranks among the league’s best rim protectors based on NBA.com’s data. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jaren Jackson Jr. have held opponents to lower field goal percentages on shots within 10 feet of the basket.
- Monday’s victory exemplified one of head coach Will Hardy‘s favorite traits of this year’s Jazz team, writes Eric Walden of The Salt Lake Tribune. “The thing I continue to be most proud of with this team is that every night it just seems like different people continue to step up and continue to use the opportunities that are given to them to try to contribute to winning,” Hardy said. That sentiment applied on Monday to a handful of players, including Udoka Azubuike, whose 18 minutes were the most he’s played in a game this season. Azubuike’s 13 points (on 6-of-6 shooting) represented a career high for the third-year center.
- Former Bulls teammate Lauri Markkanen and Hardy are among those thrilled to see Kris Dunn make good on his 10-day deals with the Jazz and earn a rest-of-season contract, Walden writes for The Salt Lake Tribune. Hardy lauded Dunn for his presence in the locker room and said he has been impressed by the offensive growth the former No. 5 overall pick has shown. “It’s a constant reminder for me that a goal for me as a coach would be to never judge a player too early,” Hardy said. “Kris has shown the ability to get better. And … I think he can continue to get better. Kris is in no way at his ceiling right now.”
- The back injury that sidelined Markkanen on Monday is one that has been nagging him since he first injured it on March 3 in Oklahoma City, per Hardy (Twitter link via Larsen). Markkanen only missed one game at that time before returning to action. “(It) can flare up, especially playing a lot of minutes and playing against physical teams like Boston,” Hardy said. “Ultimately, it’s on us to make a decision on what’s best for his health.”