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.
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.
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