Pass Happy Jazz Crush Trail Blazers In Portland

Dec 14, 2023, 11:31 PM

Simone Fontecchio Keyonte George Utah Jazz...

Utah Jazz forward Simone Fontecchio (16) catches the ball during an NBA basketball game between the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)

(Photo courtesy of Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY – The Utah Jazz earned their second road win of the season downing the hapless Portland Trail Blazers 122-114.

Simone Fontecchio scored a season-high 24 points on a super-efficient 7-8 shooting including 5-5 from down town while Collin Sexton led the team with 27 points.

The Trail Blazers were led by Scoot Henderson who recorded 23 points and 10 assists.

Jazz Are Moving Ball Better Without Starters

Make no mistake, a fully healthy Jazz roster likely would have blown the doors off of the Trail Blazers on Thursday just as easily as the reserves did.

However, playing without Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, John Collins, and Keyonte George, the Jazz had a more egalitarian approach offensively generating open looks everywhere on the floor en route to one of their best offensive outings of the season.

As a team, the Jazz shot 53 percent from the floor, dished out 27 assists, and turned the ball over only 11 times.

“I thought the ball moved around great tonight,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “I think we see what happens to the collective energy of the group when everybody feels like they’re involved in the game and the ball is really popping around.”

The Jazz’s preferred starting lineup has struggled this season, even when healthy, largely due to the lack of ball movement to begin the year.

The team’s main issue is that even when healthy, their three frontcourt starters are below-average passers.

As fabulous as Markkanen is as a shooter, his 1.0 assists per game aren’t nearly enough for a player who averages 33.5 minutes a night, and touches the ball as often as he does.

Collins is also shooting a healthy 38 percent from downtown, but his 0.9 assists per game are a career-low, and he’s never averaged more than 2.0 per contest during his seven years in the NBA.

Kessler, in his second season, has the lowest average of the three at 0.8 assists per game.

All three are talented scorers, but they do the majority of their scoring on assists from others, and aren’t good enough at finding one another to maximize the team’s offensive potential.

It’s true that last season the Jazz had one of the league’s ten-best offensive ratings with both Markkanen and Kessler in the starting rotation, but much of that was due to the presence of Kelly Olynyk in the lineup.

Olynyk isn’t just the best ball-mover in the team’s frontcourt, he might be the most important passer on the roster considering his position, and the uniqueness of that skill set among the Jazz bigs.

That isn’t to blame Collins for the Jazz’s poor offense, as he’s not the only poor passer on the team.

But, the Jazz showed they could get by with two below-average passers in the starting lineup last season, and three has proven to be a bridge too far.

If Hardy wants to see the same ball movement that he saw against the Trail Blazers for the rest of the season, he may have to reconsider who starts every night for his Jazz team.

Have Jazz Found Another Joe Ingles?

There aren’t a lot of rebuilding teams that go looking for 27-year-old international rookies to join their rosters, and yet, that’s exactly what the Jazz did in 2014 when they signed Joe Ingles as a free agent.

Over the next eight years, Ingles became one of the most beloved players in franchise history and was a key piece in several playoff runs.

Now, it appears the Jazz may have found Joe Ingles 2.0 in the form of Simone Fontecchio.

Like Ingles, Fontecchio had an unheralded first year in Utah, but has begun carving out a niche for himself as a sophomore.

The Italian forward is a dangerous three-point shooter and brings an intensity to the lineup that has lacked at points during the season.

Fontecchio was part of a significant shakeup to the team’s rotation on November 8 and has played heavy minutes for the Jazz ever since.

Though his performances were inconsistent at first, he’s found a rhythm after being promoted to the team’s starting lineup, and has scored in double-digits in seven of his last ten outings, capped by his 24 points in Portland.

But Fontecchio is far more than just a scorer.

The second-year Jazzman is a solid rebounder, an aggressive defender, a willing passer, and possesses a strong understanding of the game due to his extensive experience playing overseas.

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Better yet, Fontecchio seems to understand that he belongs in the NBA, and his Jazz coaches and teammates have bought in, too.

“I just think I go out there every time I play as hard as I can,” Fontecchio said. “I think Will knows it, the staff knows it, and my teammates know it. I just feel everybody can trust me.”

At 28 years old and entering his athletic prime, it’s natural to question whether Fontecchio matches the Jazz’s current rebuilding timeline. But many said the same thing about Ingles seven years ago, and the Jazz were wise to invest in his future.

Nightly Awards: Jazz vs. Trail Blazers

The “Don’t Overthink It” Award:

Goes to Danny Ainge and Justin Zanik who had Taylor Hendricks fall in their lap on draft night and appear to have made the wise decision by bringing him to Utah.

The Jazz had Hendricks ninth on their board, and have said they even considered taking Keyonte George with the ninth pick, and would have been comfortable with whoever was still on the board at 16.

Instead, they selected Hendricks, and the rookie forward is making it look like a smart decision.

It’s very early in the careers of these rookies, but Hendricks seems to show flashes of his immense potential every time he steps on the floor, including his 10-point, seven-rebound outing against Portland.

At almost 6-foot-10 in shoes, with a seven-foot wingspan, a nearly nine-foot standing reach, and a 36-inch vertical leap, there just aren’t many humans on the planet who are designed like Hendricks.

Mix in his shooting stroke, and his willingness to defend, and you have the makings of a potentially dangerous NBA player.

Whether Henricks winds up being one of the nine best players in this draft won’t be determined for many years, but in early returns, it’s looking like a smart pick.

Utah Jazz Next Broadcast

The Jazz will face the Kings on Saturday at 8 pm MST in Sacramento. The game will be televised on KJZZ, streamed on Jazz+, and can be heard on 97.5 The KSL Sports Zone.

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Ben Anderson is the Utah Jazz insider for KSL Sports and the co-host of Jake and Ben from 10-12p with Jake Scott on 97.5 The KSL Sports Zone. Find Ben on Twitter at @BensHoops or on Instagram @BensHoops.

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Pass Happy Jazz Crush Trail Blazers In Portland