UTAH JAZZ

Has Jazz Season Been A Success At The Midway Point?

Jan 6, 2023, 3:07 PM

Utah-Jazz-Coach-Will-Hardy...

Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy (Photo by Chris Gardner/ Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Gardner/ Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY – The Utah Jazz are at the midway point of the NBA season so it’s time to examine how they’ve fared in the four factors of a successful season.

The four factors — youth development, NBA standings, veteran performance, and fun factor — were laid out before the season as a grading system for a team that isn’t quite rebuilding but isn’t competing for a championship.

Here’s out they fared through the first half of the year.

Utah Jazz Four Factors: Midway Point

Youth Development: B

The Jazz entered the season with three rookies, one second-year player, and one third-year player in hopes that a few of these young players could factor into the franchise’s long-term future.

Through the midway point of the season, Walker Kessler is the lone youngster that has genuinely stood as a bonafide NBA player — but he’s been better than expected.

Kessler has appeared in 38 of the Jazz’s 41 games this season and is averaging 6.9 points and 6.4 rebounds while adding an impressive 1.8 blocks in just over 18 minutes per game.

The Auburn product shoots a strong 72 percent from the floor and has subtly developed into a reliable lob threat for the Jazz near the rim, even though the rest of his offensive game is a work in progress.

Kessler has the second-best Net Rating and Defensive Rating of every Jazz player who receives regular minutes and is firmly in the running to be named to one of the two All-Rookie teams this season.

Exactly how bright his future is likely depends on how far he can stretch his game away from the hoop on both sides of the ball, but at worst, he’ll be a reliable rotation-level center in the NBA for the next half-decade or more.

Beyond Kessler however, signs of hope have been few and far between.

Lottery pick Ochai Agbaji has struggled to find minutes during his rookie season and has mostly struggled when he has seen the floor.

The positive sign is that after being reinserted into the rotation in January, Agbaji had his best game as a pro scoring 11 fourth quarter points in a Jazz 131-114 victory over the Houston Rockets.

At 22-years-old, and having played at a high-level college program like Kansas, Agbaji should be able to impact the game in more ways than he’s shown through the first half of his rookie season.

But, after his performance in Houston, he should get plenty of time to show he was worthy of his lottery selection last June. He’s far from a draft bust at this point, but there have been more questions than answers through the first 41 games of his career.

The same can be said for rookie Simone Fontecchio who has been in and out of the Jazz rotation this season, largely dependent on the health of players around him.

At 26 years old Fontecchio has less room to grow than either Kessler or Agbaji, so the hopes that he would be more NBA-ready as a rookie were understandable.

He does have the ability to get very hot from behind the three-point line, and with more seasoning, he could prove himself to be a solid second-unit player in the NBA.

Based on Net Rating, he’s been the Jazz’s worst player this season, but he should get more opportunities to see the floor in the second half of the season.

Unfortunately for the second and third-year players, Leandro Bolmaro and Udoka Azubuike, the opportunity to prove they belong on an NBA roster is running thin.

The Jazz declined to pick up either player’s option next season, so if they hope to stick with the franchise, they’ll have to prove they’ve got more to offer over the next four months.

Bolmaro seems like the most likely option to get a serious look before the end of the season, but that depends on what the Jazz do at the trade deadline.

NBA Standings: C-

Sitting at 20-21 on the season, and in the 10th seed in the West, the Jazz could easily have received a failing grade in the standings.

They’re neither good enough to be firmly in the Western Conference playoffs nor bad enough to be in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.

What saves them from an outright F is that they are just 2.0 games back of the fifth seed in the West, giving them a plausible path to the playoffs, and 2.5 games ahead of the 13th-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, giving them the freedom to fall back into the lottery as they close the season.

With the trade deadline little more than a month away, the Jazz have the freedom to improve the roster and make a playoff run, or trade for more draft capital and improve their lottery odds.

They need to choose one or the other because staying in the 10th seed in the West is arguably the worst option available.

Veteran Development: A

The Jazz receive an A grade not because the veterans have performed well as a whole. That has not been the case.

However, Lauri Markkanen’s climb from a solid starter to a potential All-Star is perhaps the best-case scenario the Jazz could have hoped for.

The Jazz never fully committed to a rebuild and will struggle to add star-level talent regardless of how much money they have to spend in free agency.

That meant they had to hope one of the players on the roster elevated their game this season, or that they’d find an All-Star level player in the middle of the draft.

Not only has Markkanen proven himself to be a top-of-the-roster caliber player, but he’s also doing so as a combo forward, the most highly-valued position in the NBA.

The Finnish forward is a mismatch every time he takes the floor and has the type of versatile game that makes him extremely easy to build around.

He’s a knockdown shooter, a developing pick-and-roll finisher, and a long, willing defender. The Jazz may not have another long-term staple on the team as of today, but finding talent to fit around Markkanen should be easier than it was to build around Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell.

Behind Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson has been the Jazz’s best developmental story this season as he’s seamlessly transitioned from one of the NBA’s leading sixth men to a bonafide 20-point-per-game scorer and a much-improved playmaker.

Clarkson will likely opt out of his contract this summer, meaning the Jazz have to weigh whether he’s more valuable as a trade asset, or as a player they’ll want to dedicate significant money to over the summer.

Fun Factor: B+

The Jazz opened the year winning 10 of 13 games, eliminating any chance for a season-long tank that may have proven fruitful but would have been painful for fans to sit through.

Though the team is just 10-18 since their red-hot start, they’ve been competitive in all but four games, and have just five losses by 10 or more points.

The explosive play of Markkanen has given fans something to tune in for each game, while the personalities of Clarkson and Kessler have created a strong connection with the community.

Furthermore, the humility and approachability of first-year coach Will Hardy has eliminated the tension that weighed the team’s locker room last season.

There’s plenty of season left to alter the fans’ perspective of “Team 49” but at the midway point, they’ve been fun to watch.

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