In today’s NBA, the conventional wisdom is if a team is not a title contender, it should bottom out and re-build. For the contenders, it’s usually clear which players are considered the leaders of the team. For the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the obvious leaders. For the Cleveland Cavaliers, it is hometown hero LeBron James.
But for the rebuilding franchises, the ones that often have an average team age that hovers around 23-to-24 years old, there is often a lack of veteran leadership. This missing veteran experience and guidance can be difficult for a young team as it goes through the ups-and-downs of a grueling 82-game season.
For the Utah Jazz, last season it was not clear who the team could turn to for leadership. With a roster comprised of veterans with one foot out the door, a coach on the hot seat and young players not ready to take control of the team, there was a void that needed to be filled.
This season, the Jazz have a new, highly regarded coach in Quin Snyder and a focused direction for the future. Now in their fourth year in the NBA, and after recently entering long-term deals to stay in Utah, Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors are ready to be the leaders of the Jazz.
“We’ve got a young team,” Derrick Favors said to Basketball Insiders. “Me and Gordon have been around the longest and we’re going to have nights where it’s going to be tough where we might not be able to get stuff going offensively or defensively or we might come out a little sluggish or something and the guys are going to be looking for me and Gordon to provide that spark with them. So that’s the type of leadership me and him get.”
Hayward echoed Favors’ sentiments.
“I’m somebody that the guys look up to as one of the leaders on the team and somebody that they can kind of watch and see and learn and know what to expect,” Hayward said. “So definitely a lot of leading by example first but also being more vocal on the court. I’ve made an effort to talk to guys about things, make sure we’re in the right places and make sure we’re all doing our job.”
The process for young players to learn where to be on the court and how to consistently do their job takes time. As talented as these young Jazz players are, they are already dealing with the growing pains that all young teams must endure. On Friday, the Jazz faced off against the veteran-laden Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks, a well-coached and efficient offensive team, out-executed the Jazz, forced 21 turnovers and won the game by a score of 105-82.
As Favors acknowledged, young teams struggle with consistency and there will inevitably be off nights for the Jazz. This is more true for rookie guard Dante Exum than any other Jazz player. As a 19-year-old rookie with high expectations placed upon him, Exum is likely to have ups and downs through the long 82-game season, including fluctuating minutes on the court, and inconsistent performances. Knowing this, Favors has already started advising Exum about how to deal with the struggles.
“Just stay focused,” Favors said. “Just keep working hard. With Dante, he’s got a lot of expectations coming in. He’s going to have good games, he’s going to have bad games. It’s going to go up and down. So I just tell him man, if you have a bad night, just stay focused, don’t worry about it, everybody has bad games, whatever, you know just keep working hard.”
Second-year point guard Trey Burke is ready to support Hayward and Favors and take on a leadership position with this young team as well.
“They take on a very big role,” Burke said. “They’ve been here for a while and they have a presence on this team, on and off the court, so we’re going to need for them to continue to lead, as well as myself.”
Burke understands that he is still just a second-year player, but believes he is in a better position to help guide the team this year.
“I think being a leader has been something natural for me pretty much my whole life,” Burke said. “I’ve been playing [the] point guard position my whole life, so it’s something that I had to pretty much pick up at a young age. I think it was tough as a rookie trying to lead a bunch of grown men, but now, you develop relationships and things like that, so it’s easier to lead.”
The hope is that with a new coach and one of the best young cores in the NBA, the Jazz have a bright future ahead of them. Under coach Snyder, Favors, and Burke have already noticed significant differences from last season.
“I think one of the main differences is, I think coach Snyder trusts a lot more players more than last year within the offense,” Favors said. What I mean by that is that coach Snyder actually gives guys the freedom to take the shots if they’re wide open or trust them to make the correct play. Obviously if you make the wrong play, he’s going to say something but if you make the right play, even if you break off the offense, he’s kind of going to let it go. But I think it gives us a lot more freedom within the offense this year.”
“We’re playing much faster, we’re out in transition more,” added Burke. “I think the pace is just, it’s higher. Last year we were more of a half-court team. We relied on our half-court offense and this year I think we’re out in transition more and I think it’s playing to all of our strengths.”
Despite the optimism, when asked whether the Jazz internally have a realistic goal of making the playoffs, Hayward wasn’t ready to definitively declare that the Jazz are ready to jump into the playoff picture just yet.
“I think, we just expect ourselves to go out and compete each and every game and I think we put together a gameplan to win each game and we go and we try to compete,” Hayward said. “I think as far as all of the other things, I think they’ll take care of themselves as long as we just focus on each game individually.”
Standing at just 2-4, it would be reasonable to think that the Jazz are in for another aimless season outside the playoffs. But look closer and you see a team with a clear direction, young developing leaders, and a growing sense of confidence. And after hitting a game-winning shot against LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night, Hayward took another step towards cementing his place as one of the leaders in Utah. However, as is to be expected for such a young team, that high moment was dampened by a loss to a veteran Mavericks team just two days later.
In the span of three days, the Jazz experienced the highs and lows that challenge all young, re-building NBA teams. Fortunately for the Jazz, they now have emerging leaders in Hayward, Favors and even Burke to look to for leadership and lean on through the good times and the bad times.
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