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Jazz Developing, Identifying Franchise Cornerstones

Utah is loaded with young talent and they may be one of the NBA’s top up-and-coming teams soon.

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As one of the teams sending multiple players to All-Star Weekend, the Utah Jazz have to feel pretty good about how they’ve been evaluating, drafting and developing talent. While a record of 19-34 may not seem like something to get excited about, considering the Jazz finished last season 25-57, you can already see that this group is making progress. When you factor in that this is one of the youngest teams in the league, as well as the pace at which they are starting to flourish under new head coach Quin Snyder, it’s clear that there’s something special brewing in the beehive state.

Watching the Rising Stars Challenge this weekend, it didn’t take very long for the trio of Rudy Gobert, Trey Burke and Dante Exum to make an impact out on the hardwood. It even led to Chris Webber, who was covering the game for TNT, to remark that he needed to watch more Jazz games. NBA League Pass is a good thing, my friends.

The trio put on a show throughout the evening. At one point, Exum shook Victor Oladipo out of his shoes with a lightning quick double crossover move that drew some oohs and ahhs from the crowd. Gobert powerfully rejected a Nerlens Noel’s dunk attempt at the rim then ran the floor on the other end for a thunderous dunk of his own. Burke showed his competitive fire at the end of the game, keeping the contest within range for the U.S. team. There was plenty of great moments for Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey to smile about.

Burke and Exum are obviously huge pieces for the Jazz going forward, but Gobert as emerged as a very important player as well. He has become a defensive monster and fills the stat sheet when given minutes. His teammates have been impressed with his play and growth.

“Rudy’s development has been critical for our team,” Burke said. “He is growing pretty much every week; he is getting better and better. We are going to need him to play at a high level this year, and his presence on defense is great for us because he is cleaning up things at the rim for us. His presence is known around the league.”

Burke is correct, as teams are having to game plan for the Stifle Tower’s presence. The Jazz have improved their defense from 102.2 points allowed last year to 98.2 this year, which ranks 10th in the league and shows Utah is heading in the right direction. Gobert is averaging 2.2 blocks per game and he alters even more shots, as opponents shoot just 37.8 percent against him at the rim (which ranks first in the NBA). It’s becoming increasingly difficult to score in Swat Lake City these days with rim protectors like Derrick Favors and Gobert manning the paint.

The 7’2 Frenchman will likely be a household name soon enough. Gobert had his coming out party during the Rising Stars Challenge, when he recorded 18 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks, and many people on social media felt that he deserved the game’s the MVP award, although it went to Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins, who also had a fine game.

More important than the stats in an exhibition game was the way he displayed a relentless motor that showed the country he’s a big man with a passion for basketball to go along with his talent and athletic gifts, which is not always a given for big men in the league (see Andrew Bynum).  You have to think that the Denver Nuggets, who traded Gobert’s rights to the Jazz for a second round pick and some cash during the 2013 NBA Draft, may be regretting that deal. His quick progression has also made disgruntled center Enes Kanter expendable. Look for the Jazz to consider making a move on this front at some point, especially if they can collect some assets in exchange for Kanter.

Gobert seems like a potential cornerstone for Utah, but they have plenty of other talented young players that are part of their core as well with Exum, Burke, Favors, Kanter, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and Rodney Hood among others.

Much has also been made about whether Exum and Burke can co-exist in the backcourt. Both were drafted in the top 10 of their respective drafts, with Exum going fifth overall in 2014 and Burke going ninth overall in 2013. Many people around the league and in the media questioned the experiment, as both players had indicated a preference to playing their natural position – point guard. While they still have plenty of room to grow, they’ve both expressed a positive attitude about playing together and getting to know each other better.

“I think it’s growing; we are playing out there on the court together more and more so we got each others’ back,” Burke said. “We are talking to each other and making sure we are talking to everybody else because it is critical for the two point guards to be vocal.”

Exum also believes that things are going well playing with Burke and even talked about how they would have a little fun challenging each other during the Friday’s exhibition game.

“We have a good relationship,” Exum said of he and Burke. “We were joking about if he scores on me or if score on him [in the Rising Stars Challenge], he is going to come straight back up [to score again]. We have a good relationship and it is just a good family environment in Utah.”

That culture is one of the reasons why this team is starting to flourish. It’s the type of environment Lindsey wanted to develop when he took over as general manager. He saw that kind of environment work when he worked for the San Antonio Spurs, and wanted to replicate it in Utah. It’s one of the reasons why he brought Coach Snyder into the fold, who he had a chance to develop a relationship with as the head coach of their D-League affiliate team the Austin Toros. Part of that culture is learning from their mistakes, which there will be plenty of on such a young team. Exum feels Coach Snyder is helping them do exactly just that.

“I think knowing now when we do lose a game, [we know] what we can do to improve and get better so next time we are in that situation that doesn’t happen,” Exum said. “I know having Quin Snyder there has definitely helped us see that.”

“I would describe it as definitely going in the right direction; we are getting down at ourselves obviously from the losses, but I think the losses are helping us grow as a team,” Burke added. “We are a young team, we have a lot of areas we can get better in – defense is one of them and the more we prioritize that the better we will be.”

One thing is for sure, this is a young team that seems to get it and it’s only a matter of time before there’s a Jazz uprising. They are set up with a wealth of budding young talent, a savvy front office and a coach who seems to know exactly what buttons to press to develop his players.

E.J. Ayala is based out of Salt Lake City, Utah covering the NBA, NCAA, and international basketball. Currently serving as a newsline editor for Basketball Insiders.

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