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Five things to watch for tonight #UTAatPOR

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Some good, some bad, and some unknowns

NBA: Utah Jazz at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz tip off against the Portland Trail Blazers in a few hours. There aren’t many stats to pour over, but for me the main emphasis is going to be on one great offensive rebounding team going up against a good defensive rebounding team. Terry Stotts and Quin Snyder are both well respected head coaches who are going to be taking this first preseason game as just that — an opportunity to evaluate players over 48 minutes of semi-competitive ball. It’s also an opportunity for us Jazz fans to take a look at the team, our opponents, the players, and so much more.

  1. How many minutes for Dante Exum?
NBA: Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The last time Dante Exum played in a game while wearing a Utah Jazz jersey was the first game of the Salt Lake City Summer League; not this past July, but the one before that. Let me put it this way, it’s been 456 days since we’ve seen him outside of a few minutes playing for Team Australia before suffering an off-season ACL injury.

The #5 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft should have fewer question marks surrounding him as he goes into his third NBA season (at least on the books, he didn’t log any minutes last season) than he did before he was drafted. But this is where we are right now. And at one point we had super high hopes for the baby Kangaroo (yes, I know they are called Joeys), but few of us still hold onto the idea that he will undergo some metamorphosis into Penny Hardaway.

He’s still super young (21), very athletic, and possesses length that causes perimeter players fits. I don’t know if he is on a star trajectory anymore, but I do think it’s important for him to get out there on the court as much as possible this season. And for me that starts with the preseason.

If Coach Snyder is going to rest his starters (as most coaches will do), that means fewer minutes for George Hill tonight. With Shelvin Mack, Raul Neto, and Marcus Paige all on the roster that may not mean Dante plays a lot. But let’s be real — he should play the most.

He has the most to gain from it right now, and has the highest upside still.

2. Who is the first big off the bench?

NBA: Utah Jazz at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz are going to start Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert. I haven’t seen any confirmation of that for tonight; nor did we get a notice from the Jazz that their line-ups for the season have been set in stone. But in the big picture these are the two bigs who matter most for Utah. Beyond them you have some choices.

  • Boris Diaw is moving into his 14th NBA season right now, and has played in 30,426 minutes (2941 in the NBA Playoffs) over that time frame. He has started almost 600 of his 1100 games in the Association. And he’s not quite in the twilight of his career — but as a skills player who can space the floor, he’s a great change-up to what Snyder will have from starting bigs Favors and Gobert. There’s lots to love about his game. And his versatility means he can slot in at power forward or center or whatever, depending on the situation at hand. But after a busy summer playing for Team France (in both the FIBA 2016 Olympic Qualifying tournament and then in the 2016 Olympics) I don’t know if he really needs to play a lot tonight. He may be the first big off the bench in the regular season, but he may not be that guy tonight.
  • Trey Lyles is basically a 20 year old, taller, less French version of Boris Diaw. Lyles played and started at small forward during his time at basketball vocational school Kentucky. He started some games at power forward for Snyder last season due to all the injuries. And when the team was going for their playoff push, the 6’10 rookie even found himself at center. (Or, as he’s a Canadian, centre.) Lyles, like Exum, has a lot of upside. And also like Exum, is probably not going to get as many minutes in Utah has he could have if he was on another team. For his career he only plays 17.28 MPG, and in the preseason it’s probably going to be higher than that.
  • Jeff Withey doesn’t have a guaranteed deal, but he’s a legit seven footer who can defend the paint, block shots, get rebounds, make his free throws, and score in the paint off of dump-off passes or second chance attempts. If Rudy Gobert finds himself in foul trouble we could see Withey (or we could see Favors slide over to center). I honestly don’t see Withey getting the early look — he seemed like he was in Snyder’s doghouse all last season. And I don’t anticipate him going out there to take over as the 3rd big / 1st big off the bench. His skills duplicate what the team has on the court with Favors and Gobert, rather than compliment them.
  • Joel Bolomboy — I’m listing him only to mess with you guys. I love this kid. But he’s not going to be the first big off the bench in this preseason game, or the NBA season.

Will we see some sort of rotation integrity from game one of the preseason to game 82 of the season? Maybe not. Will it be found here, with the first big off the bench? Probably not. I do expect there to be some fluidity. And even the starters will be mixed during the entire preseason, if not beyond!

3. Did Gordon Hayward take another step?

Okay, first off:

Second, we know that Hayward turned down an Olympic invite. A lot of high caliber American players did the same this year. But is Hayward really at that level? The best player on a bad team doesn’t really move the needle much when it comes to national opinion (and the Jazz have been in the lotto for four years in a row) — unless you put up big stats. Kevin Love (Timberwolves) and DeMarcus Cousins (Kings) were examples of that. Hayward, with his nightly triple couple (last four seasons cumulative: 34.15 mpg, 17.40 ppg, 4.54 rpg, 4.01 apg) has been really good.

So good and consistent that some national bloggers have referred to him as “White Pippen.”

But is he a great second banana or a legit top banana? Unlike a lot of other players who were tasked with leading a Jazz team — Hayward benefits from having the deepest supporting cast of them all. Pistol Pete Maravich didn’t have this type of depth. John Stockton and Karl Malone had quality at a few roster spots, but nothing like this. Even in the Deron Williams / Carlos Boozer / Mehmet Okur / Andrei Kirilenko days the team was deep, yet shallow at the same time.

Hayward doesn’t have that. Hayward also isn’t playing with an All-Star — or is one himself. But maybe this year that changes. But it really depends on Gordon. If he has improved then that’s great. If he hasn’t, and he’s at his peak, then that’s a limiter.

4. Now into year three of Quin Synder’s Xs and Os, has the offense improved?

NBA: Utah Jazz at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve heard that the Jazz were running some pretty bare bones sets on offense over the last two seasons. Part of that was due to the age and experience of the personnel running the show. Part of that was due to injuries which derailed five-man line-ups the last two season. Part of that was also due to in-season trades and transactions. And the end result was somewhat in conflict with the idea of what we all expected. All you need to do is listen to Kyle Korver, of the Atlanta Hawks, talk about Snyder’s offensive schemes and inventiveness to see that what we’ve seen in Utah so far hasn’t been what we were sold.

I’m not saying we’ve been sold a bill of goods. I’m saying that it’s high time we saw some of this brilliance. I know that Dennis Lindsey wanted to stress defense first — and the first two Snyder training camps seemed to be in perfect alignment with that. The team really needed defensive help after the fallow Tyrone Corbin years. And a teacher like Snyder really changed the trajectory of this team in the positive direction. At least so far on one end of the court.

But I do want to see the offense start to catch up to the defense. And in his third season, especially after a contract extension, I think we should.

The new conflict is going to be potentially more ‘stand around and watch’-fulness as Joe Johnson appears to be a dynamic part of our close game strategies. I don’t fault that at all, he’s one of the all-time best closers in NBA history. But he’s called Iso-Joe for a reason, and not “moving without the ball and getting into scoring position because of good screens from his bigmen” Joe. And maybe the problem here is me and being practically raised on Dick Motta style FLEX offenses. (His coaching tree includes Frank Layden, Jerry Sloan, Phil Johnson — from just the Jazz, and includes other guys like Hubie Brown, etc.)

Moving from the FLEX to something else is like moving on from a long term relationship to date someone nothing like your ex. I’m still trying to figure it out. I guess the Jazz players, and Snyder himself, are probably still in the same boat.

We may get a better chance to figure it out over the next six preseason games.

5. Rodney Hood vs. C.J. McCollum

In our game preview we looked at this as the marquee match-up. And in our “Soup of the Day” segment, we chronicled just how badly the Jazz have been burned by Trail Blazers guards. One of those guards was C.J. McCollum, and he dropped games of 32 points, 31 points, 27 points, and 15 points in his four games against the Jazz last season. Do you know who started opposite to him in those four games?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

It was Rodney Hood.

It’s not a 1:1 ratio of who you are defended by, or even a 1 on 1 thing in the NBA. If you watched the games a lot of C.J.’s shots were open shots, and came from dribble penetration, rotating the ball, and defensive breakdowns. Some of his points (and FT attempts) did come against Rodney Hood though. And let’s be honest here, letting a one-time NBA journeyman drop 105 points on you in a season series isn’t the type of defensive effort that we should laud.

Hood is a very smart player. He has so much talent on offense. He has so many tools with the ball in his hands. I never doubt his sincerity as he made a whole room of people fall in love with him after he was drafted — me among them. I don’t know if he’s going to be able to defend these smaller, quicker shooting guards. McCollum isn’t a journeyman anymore, but a prime time scorer.

I guess playing with Damian Lillard can really get you open looks, huh?

And scoring 26.25 ppg against Hood and the Jazz is really too much for me to accept.

Now, this is just a preseason game, and I don’t expect these two to be matched up for more than 8 - 10 minutes together the entire night. But c’mon Rodney. You gotta show me you can defend this guy a little better. It’s a division rival. It’s an opposing starting shooting guard. It’s another young guy.

But don’t let him wreck you as easily as he did last year.

I’m sure there are more interesting things to pick up on as this game progresses. But these are five things to watch for tonight. What did I miss? Sound off in the comments section!