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SALT LAKE CITY — Basketball teams differ from year-to-year, just as people differ.
Nothing can ever stay the same, and the Utah Jazz have been as good an example of that as any. Just as the team moved on when John Stockton and Karl Malone retired, this year’s team will be different from last year’s team. Just as the team moved on when Jerry Sloan retired, this year’s team will be different from last year’s team.
The story lines surrounding why Utah will be different are well-known, but the biggest story line will center around how the Jazz adjust to a new style of play. Also, another notable story is how the individual players will fit into their new roles with the team.
One area that can’t stay the same is how the team defends, and new coach Quin Snyder opened his statements at the annual Jazz Media Day with words centered on how he plans to improve the Utah defense.
“The first thing is what we have to emphasize, as far as making it important (to defend),” said Snyder, who is a first-time NBA head coach. “Secondly, we have to work at it in practice, to try and improve our habits. And then, as they progress, hold everybody accountable, hold each other accountable.”
Utah struggled with defense last season, but the Jazz especially struggled with defining team roles. For instance, Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors were unable to get on the same page when on the floor together, and Kanter couldn’t seem to find his own role with the team.
Defensively, Kanter appeared to be lost on the floor at times. This year, he said one of his primary focuses is on being a better defender.
“This year, the biggest thing I need to focus on is defense,” he said. “We’ve been working on defense with (Snyder), and right now it’s more important than offense. Everybody can score the ball, but the important thing is to play good defense.”
Another area Kanter could use to distinguish himself is long-range shooting. Kanter’s mid-range jump shot improved as the season went forward, and he said Snyder’s confidence in his shot is a plus.
“I was shocked the first time he met me, he gave me that confidence (to shoot),” said Kanter, regarding an offseason conversation he had with Snyder in Chicago. “It means a lot to me, so we’ve been working well.”
The team’s young players will change the script significantly. First-round picks Dante Exum and Rodney Hood spent their time after Summer League training for the season.
Exum said his goal is to allow his development to happen through hard work.
“I’m going to try and be as patient as possible,” he said. “As a competitor, I want to try and get there as fast as possible. I’m going to be in the gym every day so I can try to get there as soon as possible.”
Hood showcased his shooting ability during Summer League play in Las Vegas, and said he’s improved his physique since then so it can better withstand the challenges of the NBA season.
As far as the questions of how he’ll play with Exum, Hood said he doesn’t foresee a problem.
“Anytime you’re playing with an unselfish guy, you can fit in great,” he said. “We both can score the ball, but we both love to get involved.”
Young guys and improvement projects aside, the role of swingman Gordon Hayward will be pivotal to the Jazz’s changes this season. After signing a lucrative contract, expectations have fallen squarely on Hayward’s shoulders, and he said he’s prepared to take the challenge.
“The trust that (Jazz management) had in me was huge, and the step they took to sign me back was huge for me,” he said. “It makes you feel more like a leader here. We’ve talked for the past couple of years about Derrick and I stepping up, and it’s going to be another year for that; of us to continue to be leaders. Not just by example, but vocally at times too.”
With all of the moving parts aligning for the start of training camp, Snyder said this camp is an important time to establish the team’s goals and habits.
“Minutes are precious, both for the players on the court and for us in practice,” he said. “The nature of the schedule is such that it doesn’t just provide you big windows to practice. Camp, in order for us to get familiar with how we’re going to play (and) what’s important with one another —all that comes down to time, and obviously you have to prioritize how much time you have.”