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Rodney Hood: Ahead of Schedule

Rodney Hood is way ahead of schedule, as he has already become a major contributor for the Utah Jazz.

Ben Dowsett

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It’s mid-December and the Utah Jazz are playing at home against the New York Knicks. Midway through the second quarter, a Gordon Hayward drive and kick finds an open three for sophomore guard Rodney Hood at the top of the key. Brick. No matter, the rebound flies long and right back into Hood’s hands. He immediately initiates a new set, a pick-and-roll with Trey Lyles that opens up the Knicks’ rotations and puts the ball back in Hood’s hands for another open triple a few passes later. Brick.

The Jazz again secure the offensive board, and after a failed Raul Neto floater bounces off the hands of a Knick, it caroms right back to Hood for yet another open look from deep.

Brick.

Many coaches would be frustrated at such a sequence. Hood took three shots in under a minute of game play, missing all of them. He’s just 23 years old, after all, playing alongside more tenured players in his second NBA season. Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s response, though, was the polar opposite.

“I told him my favorite possession the other night was when he missed three 3s in one possession,” Snyder said, unprompted, a couple days later. “Because it meant he kept shooting. As long as that’s the mentality he has, I’m happy.”

It’s easy for the general public to undersell the role of environment and comfort in the growth of a young NBA player, and to some degree it’s understandable. The players the common fan sees the most often – the Jordans and the LeBrons and the Currys – would certainly have been superstars in virtually any early career situation. But these outliers can mask the vast importance of managing a young player’s growth, the details of which can make or break a career in seemingly the tiniest of areas.

One guy who will never underestimate this piece of development is Hood himself.

“It’s a great opportunity [here], and I realize that,” Hood told Basketball Insiders. “You look around the league… a young guy makes a mistake, he gets pulled out of the game or he gets sent down to the D-League or something like that.” Not in Utah. “As long as I’m making the mistake aggressively, trying to make the right play, that’s the biggest thing they want from me.”

Hood has been among the primary beneficiaries of Utah’s approach, but he’s been far from the only one. Snyder’s mantra places process over results in virtually every case – right idea, wrong result is infinitely more acceptable than vice versa. Guys are going to struggle on a team this young, but what’s being judged is the way they’re doing so and whether they’re building on past failures.

Some might call it an ingrained part of Snyder’s basketball identity, and Hood knows a thing or two about those roots as well. Both men had the distinct honor of playing for legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski in their formative years, and both still draw often from this experience under one of the greatest developmental minds in the game’s history. Eras and the differences between the college and pro games might limit the on-court shorthand between the two Duke products, but it’s present in a more general sense. When asked about the similarities between his last two coaches, Hood discussed how they trust their players.

“For me personally, just short-term memory,” Hood said. “Coach K used to tell me the same thing – you miss a shot, just keep shooting, and shoot it like you’re supposed to make it… He really lets his players play. I think that’s the recipe. He puts a lot of faith in his players, and gives them a lot of confidence.”

Internalizing the mindset isn’t always easy.

“Rodney’s such a diligent person, and he’s such a perfectionist, he can take a miss too hard,” Snyder tells Basketball Insiders.

Part of his growth, as Snyder tells it, is the understanding that the season is 82 games long, and the next shot matters much more than the previous one.

A rough start to the year from the field tested his resiliency, but Hood has come through unscathed to become one of the most vital pieces for a Jazz team that’s been decimated by injuries early in the season. He’s second on the team in nightly minutes behind only Gordon Hayward since the turn of the new year, a period during which he’s ripping nets to the tune of over 47 percent from three-point range on over six attempts per game. Hardly a media session goes by where Snyder doesn’t have some kind of praise for the load being carried by Hood and Hayward on the wings, where the duo is averaging more than 40 points per game together for the month of January.

“Before Alec [Burks] got hurt, it was one or two of the three of them [together on the wing],” Snyder said. “I think with Alec out, it’s even more important – Rodney’s production offensively has been huge. It’s tough for us to win, really, when one of those two guys, Gordon or Rodney, isn’t playing well offensively. That’s the reality of where we are.”

Snyder’s rotations have reflected his praise since Burks was sidelined with an ankle injury in late December. Hayward and Hood both start the game, but Rodney will typically exit roughly at the halfway point of the first and third quarters – Snyder staggers him back into the lineup to begin the second and fourth quarters as Hayward sits. The two are clearly Utah’s preferred ball-handling options, and this approach allows Snyder to go the vast majority of games (entire ones, sometimes) with at least one on the floor at all times.

“I’m very comfortable playing with Gordon,” Hood said. “And when he’s getting his rest, coming in and being the ‘number one guy’ on that second unit.”

The quotation marks within his comment are Rodney’s own – the Jazz under Snyder are reluctant to give any single player the “leading man” tag in a motion system designed to exploit defensive shortcomings rather than any individual on a game to game basis. But as the year has gone on, it’s become abundantly clear that this ethos can only get them so far given the roster. Guys like Hood and Hayward have become de facto first options with much of the team’s depth proving inadequate or injured, a fact reflected in the last month as the two have combined to use over 55 percent of Jazz possessions while on the floor.

Hayward has been this guy to some degree for at least a couple years, but Hood’s shockingly advanced game in the pick-and-roll has been a huge part of what’s allowed him to ascend so quickly to a 1b role of sorts recently. Whether hidden behind sensation Jabari Parker in his year at Duke or undiscovered for some other reason, Hood blew Jazz brass and the league as a whole away with his patience and comfort level in the two-man game nearly instantly last season – and things have only improved in his second go-round after a summer spent honing his craft.

Per Synergy Sports data, Hood is generating 116.1 points per-100-possessions on finished plays where he uses a pick set for him. Of guys who have run at least 100 such plays, only three players have been more lethal (Steph Curry, Eric Bledsoe and Eric Gordon; right behind Hood at fifth and sixth on this list are Kevin Durant and James Harden). In a raw sense, Hood accepting a pick from a teammate has been preferable to the historic Golden State Warriors offense so far this season.

At 23 years old, there already isn’t a single non-superstar in the game more adept than Hood at the niche skill of taking a pick, getting into the lane, and then shielding his defender off using his back and hind parts while he surveys the landscape. It’s almost a comical sight at times – Hood warding off frustrated defenders with his derriere, working his way into the paint while keeping the big man at the rim at bay with the risk of a lob pass. His in-between jumper game is pristine, with one of the prettiest and most versatile floaters in the league, and he’s money finishing at the rim. Leave a single crack and Rodney will be patient and skilled enough to find it:

“It just came naturally,” Rodney said when asked where it came from. He’s been big since his younger years, which set the baseline. “I consider myself a guard offensively – just getting in the lane and being bigger [than guys], taking your time, seeing the floor. That’s something I worked on in the summer, just slowing down, letting yourself be able to see the floor and not rush yourself.”

During a drill last summer at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, Hood would slow things down and use this nearly unstoppable shielding technique to score repeatedly – frustrating the other NBA players in the gym.

Combine this with a jumper that’s rounding back into form in a hurry, and you’re quickly seeing the outlines of a professional scorer in this league. Combine that with the length and smarts to check multiple positions on defense – Snyder often assigns Hood to the opponent’s top ball-handler – and an immensely valuable two-way player begins to take shape.

Hood isn’t bothering to define himself – there’s too much work to be done. He knows he’s part of the scouting report now, and is hard at work on his ability to draw fouls and get teammates involved in the two-man game when opponents inevitably load up on his score-first options.

“Just get it out of my hands,” he says. “The job is to create two on the ball and make the right play.”

Hood is quickly looking like the second huge draft win in a row for GM Dennis Lindsey and his team. The Jazz are a borderline playoff team despite all their youth, and have reached that perch with two starters (Hood and Rudy Gobert) who were selected in the 20s in consecutive drafts. Hood has almost instantly become nearly untouchable as a core piece moving forward, even as the Jazz deal with the impending reality that some of their young talent will eventually end up elsewhere.

Hood checks all the boxes for a modern NBA wing already, and will only become more valuable as his skills and mental acuity come along. Getting through the year without any injury setbacks is big for him after a rookie season marred by a few unlucky maladies, and confidence with his body has been just as important as confidence in his skills. Both are currently at all-time highs.

Put in a position to succeed, Rodney Hood is doing exactly that. There have been speed bumps along the way, but confidence from his coach and his franchise have helped navigate them. A selection to the Rising Stars Challenge in the All-Star game is well deserved, and if he keeps up this trajectory, it’ll just be the tip of the accolade iceberg.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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