Danny Ainge: Jazz Ready To Go ‘Big Game Hunting’

Apr 16, 2024, 3:45 PM | Updated: Apr 17, 2024, 4:18 pm

SALT LAKE CITY – With the Utah Jazz wrapping up the 2023-24 campaign with a 31-51 record, CEO Danny Ainge opened up about the team’s successes and failures, and its plans for the future.

Though he rarely speaks in public settings, Ainge was candid regarding the Jazz during his 40-minute press conference.

You can listen to Ainge’s full comments in the player below.

Danny Ainge On Jazz Team Building Plan

Without fully committing to rebuilding the team through top picks in the draft, there have been doubts about the Jazz’s current plan to construct a competitive roster.

For those wishing for more clarity on the team’s rebuilding plan, Ainge revealed a hard truth about the NBA.

Related: What Will Jazz Do This Offseason

“Everybody wants this plan, including [Jazz owner] Ryan [Smith], Ryan loves a plan, he’s a tech guy, he’s got a plan. I wish basketball were that way. I wish we could just organize and plan it. ‘We’re going to draft this guy in the future, we’re going to trade for this guy in the future.’ But that’s not how basketball works.”

Though the Jazz could have laid out a clearer path by tanking the last two seasons to land top picks in the draft, Ainge reflected on his time in Boston, and how remaining flexible benefited the Celtics more than tanking.

“We lost 19 games in a row in 2007 and our plan was [to draft] Kevin Durant, but when the lottery came around, we got knocked back three spots to number five, and our plan changed immediately,” Ainge said.

“We were able to eventually land Ray Allen and [Kevin Garnett] which were never available before that moment in time, but we were there and we were ready. So it took a lot of good fortune, it obviously took some bad fortune to go win a championship.”

Jazz Ready To Go Big Game Hunting

The Jazz are the most recent team in the NBA to fully deconstruct their roster, trading Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert in the summer of 2022.

Though it caught them by surprise, Lauri Markkanen’s emergence made the Jazz too talented to hit the reset button.

While some have bemoaned the Jazz’s unwillingness to bottom out in the standings in pursuit of the top overall draft pick, Ainge sees it as an advantage in the team’s rebuild.

“I think that our objective is to find a player or two and we’re ready to roll,” Ainge said. “We’re ready to go big game hunting, and that hasn’t happened in the last two years.”

Barring injury, Markkanen’s play also means Jazz fans shouldn’t expect the team to tank next year for the likes of highly-touted freshmen Cooper Flagg or Ace Bailey.

“If we start all over, then we’re three years, possibly four years from being anywhere,” Ainge said. “We feel like we’re closer than that.”

However, fans shouldn’t expect the Jazz to use all of their trade assets to improve the roster just to shake up the status quo.

“Our mindset is that we’re doing only [what we can] to try to win, that’s our only objective until we get to July,” Ainge added. “If we don’t land anything, we don’t make any deals, we don’t land anything, then our direction could change at that moment and [we will] wait until the next time we can try to build a roster.”

On The Future Of The Rookies

Some of Ainge’s most revealing comments came when discussing the team’s rookies, specifically Keyonte George and Taylor Hendricks.

George was an immediate contributor to the team’s roster and started 44 games as a rookie, but Ainge said his role could change.

“I’m still not sure he’s a franchise point guard, I think he can play point guard, but I think that he can play with another guard playing the point, [and] he can play off the ball.”

George was used as a primary playmaker for most of the season, but Ainge’s comments highlight the team’s willingness to change his role if it benefits the rookie, and the roster.

“This experience of learning the point guard position was a big step for him and just provides a lot of versatility for our team going forward.”

The Baylor product averaged 13.0 points, 4.4 assists, and 2.0 rebounds in 75 appearances.

While Ainge acknowledged that George’s role could change, he said the opposite about Hendricks.

“I thought Taylor pretty much played the same role that he’ll play,” the Jazz’s CEO said.

Hendricks proved to be one of the Jazz’s most versatile defenders last season, and began to flash glimpses of his full offensive arsenal.

Though Hendrick’s role may resemble what he did as a rookie, there is plenty of room for him to grow.

“The last month or so of the season he started knocking down those shots, that’s a big step for him,” Ainge said.

Hendricks averaged 7.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 0.8 assists during his rookie season.

“He’s got to get a lot better defensively — handling the ball, we saw in the last game where they actually ran some of Lauri’s plays for him and he made some really nice passes on the move off the dribble. There’s a lot of good signs for Taylor going forward.”

Ainge also praised Brice Sensabaugh’s performance this season highlighting his strengths with the Jazz.

“Brice has a good feel for the game, he’s got a better knack for scoring than Taylor,” Ainge said.

The Ohio State product averaged 7.5 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.7 assists, but shot just 39 percent from the floor and 29 percent from three.

“I think he’s a better shooter than his numbers would indicate this year,” Ainge added. “But he can pass, and he can shoot, he can score.”

All three rookies are expected to play in the Summer League, and will be joined by Walker Kessler, Jason Preston, Kenneth Lofton Jr., Darius Bazley, and Johnny Juzang if he returns to the team next season.

Ainge On 2024 NBA Draft

With the 2024 NBA Draft billed as one of the weakest in several years, Ainge discussed how the team planned to tackle the two-day event.

“It’s a unique draft, I think that it’s harder to find franchise-altering players in this draft.”

The Jazz are currently slotted to select eighth but have a 26.2 percent of moving up into the top four picks.

Related: What Happens If Jazz Win The Draft Lottery?

“There are a few, to a handful of players that I really like at eight,” Ainge said of the team’s pick, “I have no idea if they’ll be there.”

The team also own a late first-round pick from the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the 32nd pick in the draft via the Washington Wizards, but that doesn’t mean the Jazz are planning on adding three rookies to the roster next season.

“Our plan is not to come to our training camp with six kids under 20 years old,” Ainge acknowledged. “That’s not a real good option for anybody.”

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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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Danny Ainge: Jazz Ready To Go ‘Big Game Hunting’