Five Utah Jazz Storylines After All-Star Break

Feb 21, 2024, 3:11 PM

Former Utah Jazz forward Simone Fontecchio (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)...

Former Utah Jazz forward Simone Fontecchio (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

(Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY – With the second half of the Utah Jazz season kicking off on Thursday, it’s time to look at the five major storylines that will define the final 26 games of the 2023-24 campaign.

The Jazz opened the year with playoff aspirations but an injury-plagued 7-16 start derailed the season before the team ever fully got off the ground.

Here’s a look at five stories worth tracking after the All-Star break.

The Standings

The most consequential aspect of the second half of the season will be where the Jazz finish in the standings.

As of now, there are three legitimate possibilities.

First: The Jazz battle their way back into the 10th and final Play-In Tournament seed in the West, overtaking the Golden State Warriors and qualifying for the postseason.

Second: The Jazz miss the Play-In Tournament but don’t finish with one of the 10-worst records in the NBA, and convey their first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Third: The Jazz both miss the Play-In Tournament, sink to one of the ten worst records in the final standings, and set themselves up for a second consecutive top-ten draft pick in June.

The Jazz currently own the 11th worst record in the NBA at 26-30, and sit 1.0 games ahead of the Houston Rockets in the West, and 1.5 games ahead of the Atlanta Hawks in the East.

General Manager Justin Zanik said the team’s moves at the trade deadline were not made with a preference toward any of the three potential outcomes, but after four straight losses, a trip to the postseason seems like a longshot.

The Rookies

After coming off the bench for 23 consecutive games, Jazz head coach Will Hardy inserted rookie Keyonte George into the starting lineup on February 12.

“I think that Keyonte stepping into that role is ultimately what’s best for our team moving forward,” Hardy said after making the move prior to the All-Star break.

Though the Jazz are winless since reinserting George in the starting lineup, the guard has seen a dramatic uptick in his performance over his last 10 games.

George is averaging 15.4 points, 3.8 assists, and 2.9 rebounds while shooting 48 percent from the floor and 42 percent from three in 27 minutes per contest.

While George appears to have found his stride, the Jazz are hoping last year’s ninth-overall pick Taylor Hendricks can do the same.

After spending most of his rookie season in the G League Hendricks has been a full-time member of the team’s rotation since the trade deadline and has seen mixed results.

Hendricks is averaging 3.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 0.5 blocks on 35 percent shooting including 27 percent from the three-point line.

However, the forward’s physical gifts jump out every time he steps on the floor.

Can Hendricks harness his potential and show real progress heading into the offseason, or is he still a year away from contributing to a winning team?

The Castoffs

It’s probably unfair to call Kelly Olynyk, Simone Fontecchio, and Ochai Agbaji castoffs, but they are the three players the Jazz opted to move at the trade deadline, receiving mostly draft capital in return.

Olynyk played well in his first two games with the Toronto Raptors averaging 14.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.5 assists before exiting his third game after just seven minutes with back spasms.

Fontecchio has also been a standout with the Detroit Pistons averaging 15.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.0 assists while shooting 45 percent from the floor and 35 percent in three appearances.

Agbaji has had a rockier start averaging 4.3 points and 1.3 rebounds while shooting 28 percent from the floor and 11 percent from three in three Raptors appearances.

The second-year wing played just six minutes in his last outings before the All-Star break, coinciding with the sudden emergence of rookie sharpshooter Gradey Dick in Toronto.

The Jazz were happy with the draft picks they acquired at the trade deadline, especially after deciding Olynyk and Fontecchio didn’t match their long-term timeline.

How Agbaji performs throughout the rest of his rookie contract, including this season will give us a clearer picture of the value of the team’s trades.

The Open Roster Spot

After waiving Kevin Knox who was acquired in the Fontecchio trade the Jazz were left with an open roster spot.

Zanik said the team would explore options to fill that spot once the league’s waiver period settled down.

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The Jazz could audition a series of players on 10-day contracts like they did with Kris Dunn hoping to find another diamond in the rough, or sign an established veteran to help eat minutes in the rotation for the final 26 games of the season.

The second half of the season opens with an unusual amount of practice time for the Jazz, so the right time to indoctrinate a new player may be sooner rather than later.

The Kessler, Collins Combo

One of the major shortcomings of the season for the Jazz has been the combination of second-year center Walker Kessler and veteran forward John Collins.

The two players have been outscored by 103 points in the 268 minutes they’ve played together this season, and have the Jazz’s worst per-minute plus-minus of any two-man combination to play at least 200 minutes this season.

After trading Olynyk, Kessler was moved into the starting and the pairing has continued to struggle in the last four outings getting outscored by 17 in 38 minutes together.

Kessler is the favorite to man the center spot for the Jazz for the foreseeable future, and Collins is projected to be the team’s highest-paid player over the next two seasons.

If the team wants to make significant growth in the not-too-distant future, those two will have to figure out how to complement one another in the frontcourt.

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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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