The 2020-21 NBA season was a tough transition for that group of incoming rookies. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there was no summer league for them to get their feet wet. After draft day, they went right into an abbreviated training camp. They were pretty much thrown to the fire from the get-go.
One of those rookies was Elijah Hughes of the Utah Jazz. Originally drafted at No. 39 by the New Orleans Pelicans, his rights were traded immediately to the Jazz. He didn’t see much playing time to start that season and an ankle sprain kept him out of the rotation throughout most of January 2021.
He only appeared in 18 games for the Jazz as a rookie at only 3.6 minutes per game. He did manage to shoot 34.8 percent from the three-point line and showed some flashes of the player the team envisioned he could be when they drafted him. Now in his second year in the NBA, Hughes feels that this season is coming much more naturally.
“It was kind of hard, we didn’t have summer league, we had draft day and went straight to training camp. It was hard to kind of adjust. I kind of got hurt so it was really hard for me,” Hughes told Basketball Insiders. “But I’m getting used to it now. I know what it’s like, what to look forward to. I know what to do and I know what’s ahead, what I should be doing, what I shouldn’t be doing. It’s been easier for me this year but last year was definitely tough.”
Fortunately for Hughes, he was able to learn the rigors of the NBA through the G League. When he was able to return from his ankle injury, he was assigned to the Salt Lake City Stars, the G League affiliate of the Jazz. He joined the team for the G League bubble season in Orlando, Fl, and in five games with the Stars, he put up 14.2 points per game, 3.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists.
As a second-year NBA player now, playing time was once again scarce to start the season. He’s suited up in nine games for the Stars so far and has put up 18.3 points per game on 43.3 percent shooting from the field, 37.2 percent shooting from three-point range, 5.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists.
Hughes has embraced the opportunity to play in the G League. Jazz head coach Quinn Synder and the rest of the staff have wanted Hughes to be able to get some live game reps in rather than just sit on the bench and he’s taken full advantage.
“They just want me to play, get some runs, get some burn and compete a little bit. It’s been fun. I love playing basketball so anytime I get a chance to play, I’m going to take full advantage,” Hughes said. “It’s awesome, it’s competing. I like to be able to compete against some of the best players in the world. This is what I like to do, it’s been fun.”
The NBA has been a little bit of an adjustment though for Hughes. He started his college career at East Carolina but transferred to Syracuse after one season. At Syracuse, he became one of the top offensive players in the country. As a redshirt sophomore during the 2018-19 season, he put up 13.7 points per game and was the team’s second-leading scorer.
The following season, he was Syracuse’s No. 1 go-to scorer at 19 points per game and shot 34.2 percent from three-point range. He was used to having the ball in his hands a lot and being tasked with generating offense for his team. In the NBA, he doesn’t have the ball in his hands as much and it’s more about picking and choosing his spots and getting used to where Synder wants him to be on the court.
“It’s been good. I’m picking my spots and figuring out how he [Synder] likes to put guys in my position to score,” Hughes said. “I’m just trying to figure it out. It started out slowly but it’s been coming along now.”
Part of what helped Hughes develop into a player who the Jazz felt was worth taking a flier on came from the time he spent at Syracuse. Since Jim Boeheim became head coach of the Orange in 1976, he’s been able to guide countless players to the NBA including Carmelo Anthony.
Hughes is grateful to have finished his college career at Syracuse and he credits Boeheim for helping him prepare for the rigors of the NBA.
“He’s produced pros, he knows what it takes to get there,” Hughes said. “They say that Syracuse hurts players’ draft stocks and all kinds of stuff. No, he’s a great coach. He knows what he’s doing, he helped me get here and I owe a lot to him.”
Hughes initially began this season with the Salt Lake City Stars in the G League but due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and several of the Jazz players being placed in league health and safety protocols, he was recalled to the big club.
Since then, Hughes himself has been placed in health and safety protocols, but before that, he showed a real glimpse of being a player that can contribute to the Jazz rotation. On Jan. 7 against the Toronto Raptors, Hughes had the best game of his NBA career so far with 26 points on 60 percent shooting from the field, 7-12 from three-point range, 8 rebounds and 4 assists in his first-ever start.
With the Jazz roster once again nearing full health as players make their return from protocol, it’s unclear what role Hughes will have for the rest of the season. Most likely he’ll return to the G League with Salt Lake once he clears protocols, but there’s no question he’s shown he belongs in this league. Until his next opportunity arrives, he just wants to keep getting better.
“Every day I just want to grow. I just want to get better in some way, shape, or form,” Hughes said. “Whether that’s on the court, mentally, whether it’s in the weight room, training, whatever it is I just want to grow. I just want to get better each and every day.”
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