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Way too early observations from first Jazz preseason game

We just got our first look at the new Utah Jazz and despite it being way too early to take anything to the bank, we puzzle on some interesting observations from Sunday’s action

NBA: Preseason-Utah Jazz at Toronto Raptors
Jarred Vanderbilt handles the ball against the Raptors Sunday evening
Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The new-look Utah Jazz took the floor in their first official action Sunday evening in Edmonton, Alberta Canada. The stock photos and interviews turned into real action, putting the rebrand and rebuilt roster on display for the first time.

Despite the odd tip-off time, even more broadcasting nightmares from AT&T Sports Net, and the inherent unattractiveness of preseason, fans were absolutely hyped to get back to basketball and for appropriately set expectations.

The Utah Jazz opened with a competitive, energy-filled game, trailing by a single point at the half. Lauri Markkanen led with a game-high 17 points at the break. However, the 2nd half showed why the Raptors are a playoff dark horse and why the Jazz will be in the lottery.

Toronto’s talent overwhelmed Utah and coach Nick Nurse’s 2nd half adjustments welcomed Will Hardy to life as an NBA head coach. The Jazz fell 82-114 at game end.

But this season isn’t about winning. It’s not about chasing the playoffs or optimizing every lineup. This season is about figuring about 1) figuring out what we have in context of building a future contender and 2) establishing a winning culture of habits and strategy.

NBA: Preseason-Utah Jazz at Toronto Raptors
Rookie Walker Kessler defends at the rim against Toronto star Scottie Barnes
Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

With that framework, let’s look at some EXTREMELY early observations from this game. Yes, we must take all these with a grain of salt. And yes, they almost surely will evolve throughout the season. But hey, we’re trying to have fun here.

Jazz forcing turnovers

A hallmark of the Snyder-Mitchell-Gobert-Conley-Bogdanovic era of the Jazz was that they did not force turnovers. They operated in a more conservative style that focused on preventing good shots and contesting.

It proved excellent during the regular season, yielding a top 5 defense during which Rudy Gobert was the only serious defensive weapon. However, come playoffs, it limited the amount to which Utah could insulate itself against their own poor shooting and reduce the effect of good efficiency from the opponent.

Last season the Jazz logged 13 games with double-digit steals and just a single game of 20+ turnovers from the opponent. The 2022-23 Utah Jazz generated 11 steals and saw 23 turnovers committed by the Raptors.

Interestingly, last season the Raptors limited opponent steals at the second best rate in the league. So this isn’t that Toronto is naturally loose with the ball.

It’s a single, preseason game, but the probability Utah is the same, “non-turnover generating” defense as last year is very, very low.

In the first quarter alone Utah generated four steals. Check the video above to see the activity, specifically on the guard line, that made this possible.

Efficiency is more important than volume, but both require certain levels of competence and focus to be a great team. I’ll be watching ensuing games to confirm what looks now as a philosophy shift and an intentional strategy for the team.

Limited time

The Utah Jazz have twenty...yes, 20 players on their training camp roster. Naturally, the Jazz will need to reduce that number ahead of the regular season. So it’s interesting the roster members who saw limited and no time during the first preseason game.

Five players saw <9 minutes at the end of the game: Talen Horton-Tucker, Jared Butler, Simone Fontecchio, Ochai Agbaji, and Cody Zeller.

Four additional players did not play (coach’s decision): Leandro Bolmaro, Stanley Johnson, Johnny Juzang, and Saben Lee.

One player was out due to injury: Udoka Azubuike.

For some, this result means nothing. In the case of Juzang, he’s a two-way contract so he’ll see most time with the G-League Stars. Simone Fontecchio was signed immediately to a two year deal and is likely just ramping up into a role for real evaluation. Ochai Agbaji, as a rookie, is ramping up to a role as well and is undoubtedly an exciting piece for the future assuming he develops.

For others, this paints an interesting picture. Jared Butler had a rough go of it, shooting 1/6 with a 3, a rebound, an assist, a steal, and 3 turnovers. Saben Lee and Leandro Bolmaro didn’t see time but may benefit, as one fan (McCade Pearson) astutely noted:

Stanley Johnson fits the mold of a bigger wing with athleticism, energy, and toughness. By not seeing the floor, perhaps Utah is comfortable with that skillset in others to this point.

Udoka Azubuike is in a tough spot. After yet another injury kept him out of the preseason game, seeing another rookie center come over in the Gobert trade, and the Jazz picking up two veteran centers in Cody Zeller and Kelly Olynyk, the Jazz 2020 draft pick may be in serious jeopardy of getting cut.

It’s a single game and there’s several days of training camp and other preseason games to show a player belongs on the team, but the first rotation spells increased uncertainty for some players.

Sitting Sexton?

The headlined player returning to Utah in the much awaited and publicized Donovan Mitchell trade was Collin Sexton, a young, dynamic guard coming off an ACL injury who, as part of the trade, signed a four year deal.

Jazz had been rumored as an interested party in Sexton all offseason and was a critical component in achieving matching salary and value for All-Star Donovan Mitchell. Clearly the franchise saw him as a part of the future.

NBA: New York Knicks at Cleveland Cavaliers
Collin Sexton cheers on Cleveland teammates during his ACL rehab
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Thus, it struck many as odd when the Jazz announced a starting lineup for the first preseason game that did not include Collin.

Furthermore, he played just 15 minutes in the opening 3 quarters of the game. He played far less than Mike Conley and Malik Beasley, despite having a top 3 performance from the team.

He was active defensively, very energetic, and boasted average efficiency (something only Lauri Markkanen could also say for with similar volume).

It’s curious and requires additional investigation. Perhaps, given a competitive game throughout, the minutes would’ve evened out. It’s something to monitor for the remainder of preseason and to begin the real games.

Tale of two halves

As mentioned previously, the Jazz were competitive in the first half! They were a -2.4% eFG advantage, +1.0% TOV advantage, -5.0% OREB advantage, and -1.0 FTArate advantage. Not bad for a first half against a REALLY good team.

That all fell apart dramatically in the second half. In fact, the final score (knowing we were down but just 1 point at the half) is less of an eye sore than citing the above 4 factors for the second half.

NBA: Preseason-Utah Jazz at Toronto Raptors
Khem Birch of Toronto drives on Simone Fontecchio of Utah in the 4th quarter
Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Ultimately, this is likely to be the major storyline for the Jazz this year. Competitive early, but talent, scheme, and adjustments win out where the Jazz are sure to be lacking most nights.

There’s a lot of observations we could make about the first preseason game but many of them are luck dependent: Malik Beasley couldn’t hit a shot, Lauri Markkanen scoring with ease in the first, etc.

Ultimately, this season is going to be a lot of process development to find what works. We should absolutely expect change but monitor trends to find out what the coaching staff has pinpointed is working and will stick around.

It’s gonna be a fun year if we have the right attitude!