Offseason changes shift Utah Jazz from contender to underdog
By JOHN COON
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah Jazz transformed from contender to underdog when the front office hit the reset button during the summer and dismantled the roster following another first-round exit from the NBA playoffs.
Quin Snyder stepped down as head coach after eight seasons. Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale were traded as Utah stockpiled emerging players and future draft picks.
All these moves left the Jazz leaning on an assortment of unproven talent and first-year head coach Will Hardy heading into a new season.
“It’s all new,” guard Jordan Clarkson said. “New experience. New team. A new vibe, really.”
Clarkson, Mike Conley, and Rudy Gay are the lone holdovers who played significant minutes last season. Conley, two years removed from an NBA All-Star appearance, is the only returning starter.
All three veterans signed with the Jazz as free agents to help the franchise make a run at an NBA title. With that goal now seemingly out of reach, a new challenge of mentoring younger teammates while creating a new winning culture awaits.
Youth defines Utah much more than a season ago. Two-thirds of the team’s roster is 25 years old or younger and many are just starting their NBA careers.
“I think this is an opportunity to kind of go out and show what I’m still capable of doing,” Conley said.
The Jazz built an identity around Gobert’s stifling interior defense and a relentless perimeter attack spearheaded by Mitchell. A reconstructed roster requires a different plan for staying competitive.
Finding new offensive and defensive leaders to replace Mitchell and Gobert will take time. Hardy isn’t eager for his team to coalesce around one or two ball-dominant players. He wants to install a fast-paced offense complemented by tough defense while relying on a broader core of talent to share the load.
“I would like to play a little bit up-tempo for sure with this group,” Hardy said. “Again, I would like us to play a style where everybody is involved. I don’t think that it would be productive for us to have one player dominate the ball with this group.”
MAKING THEIR DEBUTS
The Jazz had no selections in the 2022 NBA draft and made no draft night trades. Utah eventually acquired rookies over the summer.
Walker Kessler, the 22nd-overall pick by Minnesota, was included in the trade package the Timberwolves sent to Utah to acquire Gobert. Ochai Agbaji, picked 14th overall by Cleveland, joined the Jazz as part of the deal sending Mitchell to the Cavaliers.
Simone Fontecchio and Johnny Juzang are also making their NBA debuts with Utah. Juzang joined the Jazz on a two-way contract and Fontecchio signed a two-year, $6.3 million deal after spending a decade playing professionally in Europe.
Agbaji is reuniting with former Kansas teammate Udoka Azubuike. They were roommates during Agbaji’s freshman and sophomore seasons with the Jayhawks.
Azubuike is entering his third season with Utah with career averages of 3.0 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. Ankle injuries have limited him to 32 games over two seasons. Agbaji joins the Jazz after helping Kansas win the 2022 NCAA title. He averaged 18.8 points and 5.1 rebounds as a senior with the Jayhawks.
Before being sidelined with a torn left meniscus last season, Collin Sexton was making a name for himself as a potent scorer and a reliable outside shooter.
Sexton shot 37% or better from 3-point range during his first three seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers. During his third season, he shot a career-best 47.5% from the field while averaging a career-high 24.3 points. Sexton has the potential to reclaim some of the scoring punch Utah gave up when it traded Mitchell and Bogdanovic.
He isn’t lacking for confidence in his ability to be a productive shooter.
“Honestly, I’d put myself up against anybody,” Sexton said.
Hardy retained Alex Jensen and Lamar Skeeter as assistant coaches on his first coaching staff. Jensen is entering his 10th season as an assistant coach with the Jazz and served as Snyder’s lead assistant during his tenure in Utah. Skeeter is entering his seventh season as an assistant with the Jazz.
The NBA All-Star Game is set to return to Salt Lake City for the first time since 1993, with the Jazz set to host on Feb. 19.
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