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Christmas wishes for the 2023 Utah Jazz

Washington Wizards v Utah Jazz
Walker Kessler and Lauri Markkanen both figure into what Utah is wishing for in 2023
Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Christmas is a magical time, filled with hope and dreams. Perhaps that’s why December 25th is the single biggest day for NBA basketball outside of the Finals. The stars shine bright and show what’s possible!

This Jazz team looks remarkedly different from the team that suited up in last year’s Christmas Day matchup with the Dallas Mavericks. New floor, new threads, new coaching staff, and new players. But hope is resounding for this Jazz team!

A competitive, fun team with the largest hoard of draft capital in the league will do that to a fanbase. But it’s just that—hope—until we realize the dreams it inspires.

Let’s dream up 3 Christmas wishes related to the Utah Jazz for the 2023 calendar year and what we might wish to happen with all the hope we have in this team.

Utah Jazz v San Antonio Spurs
Lauri Markkanen posts up on Devin Vassell in Jazz-Spurs
Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

#1 - Jazz find their franchise guy

The Utah Jazz signaled the beginning of a new era by trading then franchise players Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. Fast forward4-5 months later, the Jazz have some pleasant surprises but still lake “the guy”.

“The guy” is important. Even the most “team” of title or Finals teams (Detroit Pistons, New Jersey Nets, Utah Jazz) had Hall of Fame level players. Odds are the Jazz don’t have one of those currently on the roster.

Boston Celtics v Detroit Pistons, Game 6
Chauncey Billups and company were the most “team” of title teams, but they still had a couple Hall of Famers on the roster
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

One way to identify who are “the guys” is to look at efficiency (true shooting %) vs self-creation ability (% of FGM unassisted). If both these numbers are high, you’re a player who can generate their own offense pretty efficiently.

Here’s a look at the entire NBA in gray and the Utah Jazz in yellow (100+ FGAs):

Utah Jazz Player Scatterplot
Utah Jazz player landscape for true shooting efficiency and % of FGM unassisted
Data via | Visual thanks to Adam Bushman, SLC Dunk

The Jazz have a mixed bag. On the one hand, Lauri is crazy efficient on high volume. But most of those baskets are coming assisted. Clarkson is generating his own offense quite a bit but below league average efficiency. Nickeil & Collin are in the right area but on far too little volume.

Ideally, you want to be in the +60% TS, +50% FGM unassisted range, on a lot of shots (like +400 so far this season). So far there’s 6 players meeting those credentials:

Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic, Tyrese Haliburton, Donovan Mitchell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Steph Curry. Certainly there’s a ton of guys capable of that group and that’s the point.

Be it through the draft, free agency, or the trade market, for this new era to be a retool and not a lengthy rebuild Jazz need “that guy”, someone capable of entering that elite group and that’s the #1 Christmas wish for 2023.

Utah Jazz v San Antonio Spurs
Walker Kessler battles for a rebound against Jakob Poeltl down in San Antonio
Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

#2 - Walker Kessler ascends to starting center

Walker Kessler is the greatest example of the coup that was the Rudy Gobert trade. Sure, Malik Beasley is at his peak, Jarred Vanderbilt is far outplaying his contract, and the Minnesota picks are getting better by the day.

But it’s Walker, whom the Jazz have team control over for ~7 additional years, that’s turning heads. His elite rebounding, rim defense, and connectivity on offense is winning a lot of minutes this year.

Recently I ran through each team’s top minutes-getting center and put them in four tiers. Most players fell into tier 3 and tier 4. I felt, at the time, Walker was playing to the level of tier 4 players like Mason Plumlee and Jusuf Nurkic.

The more he plays (and starts), the numbers indicate he’s closer to tier 3 than 4. Look at the splits across a few key data points with Kessler ON and Olynyk playing vs sitting the game:

Walker Kessler’s impact chart
Key data points evaluating Walker Kessler’s impact when Kelly Olynyk sits or plays
Data thanks to | Visual thanks to Adam Bushman, SLC Dunk

A lot of these results make sense, contextually. When Walker plays alongside Mike and Lauri for most stretches of the night, those minutes look a lot better than when he’s alongside Collin and Rudy.

Similarly, the “On/Off Swing” will be dramatically higher because we have no other quality center on the roster after Walker when Kelly sits.

However, you wouldn’t expect to be better in most every four factor and especially not have a better NRTG. The “Kelly Sits” sample is small (211 poss vs 1038 when Kelly has played) but Walker’s is earmarking a starting spot next year.

Los Angeles Clippers v Philadelphia 76ers
Ivica Zubac plays an important role for the Clippers, allowing the to play traditional defense most of the time and default to a 5-out, switchy style at a moment’s notice
Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

For us to be our best self, we should employ a LA Clippers strategy with Ivica Zubac: start Kessler in most matchups, play for 24-32 minutes a night, and every other lineup has 5-out potential. That’s the #2 Utah Jazz Christmas wish for 2023.

#3 - Jazz hit on a rotation player outside of the lottery

The Utah Jazz are set to at least one pick outside of the lottery in the 2023 draft. Thanks to the trade that sent Royce O’Neale to the Nets, the Jazz will assume the least favorable pick of the Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, and Brooklyn Nets.

Brooklyn Nets v Philadelphia 76ers
The Nets and Sixers final place in the standings will determine the place of the Jazz’s final 2023 first round pick
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Per FiveThirtyEight’s projection system, that pick is projected to be 26th as of Wednesday 12/28.

A retool means everything breaks right in the 6-18 months following a change in direction. So far Utah has nailed their star trades, balanced the roster, and found scalable talent at varying levels in Markkanen, Kessler, Beasley, and others.

Now it’s about hitting paydirt in the draft.

The Jazz have had a rough go of it in the back-end of the first round for a while now and they’ll want to turn that around this year.

  • 2022 draft: no selections but inherited Walker Kessler and Ochai Agbaji via trade.
  • 2021 draft: selected Santi Aldama 30th to move back and get “their guy” in Jared Butler. Aldama is a key rotation player for Memphis while Butler is in the G League.
  • 2020 draft: selected Udoka Azubuike 27th who has never cracked real rotation minutes
  • 2019 draft: selected Darius Bazley 23rd who was traded to Memphis in the Mike Conley deal
  • 2018 draft: selected Grayson Allen 21st who was traded to Memphis in the Mike Conley deal
  • 2017 draft: acquired Tony Bradley for Josh Hart 30th and Thomas Bryant 42nd
Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics
Grayson Allen has carved out an important role on a title contending Milwaukee Bucks team
Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images

The Jazz managed to go six drafts with many picks in the late lottery without turning in a rotation player. Sure, several of these paved the way for acquiring Mike Conley but a handful we traded away became excellent players down the line.

Nabbing rotation players late in the lottery means you have a contributing rotation spot on the cheap and under team control for years. It’s why Memphis and New Orleans are so far ahead of schedule with so much latitude to make the final tweaks for a contending roster. This would be the #3 Christmas wish for 2023.

Fans often speculate the future direction of the team: tank, sit pat, or go all-in. Either direction is motivated by returning to championship contention with a long window therein.

Who knows what the future holds: which star comes out of nowhere in the draft or suddenly hits the trade market? Which roster member pops next year with more environment consistency? Which assets yield unforeseen returns?

Hopefully these wishes for 2023 come true, accentuating excellent moves from the organization and putting the team right back into the thick of real title contention. Then our hope will morph to a Larry O’Brien trophy with our team’s name on it.