SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz's season came to a close Tuesday after losing in the Western Conference semifinals to the Houston Rockets. After a late-night flight back to Salt Lake City and individual exit interviews, the whole roster spoke to the media. Here's what we learned.
A unique team
Perhaps the overriding theme of the day was the bittersweet feeling of a good season being over but being excited about the future.
"I'll look back and remember it as one of the most fun years that I've had," Ricky Rubio said.
That was a sentiment echoed by his teammates, including Joe Ingles. "We just genuinely cared and trusted each other and we were committed to the same thing," he said.
"Our team is selfless—that's the word I continue to use," Donovan Mitchell said. "We love each other, and I mean love each other. We have each other's backs."
One of those sources of wisdom was backup center Ekpe Udoh. For example, Udoh is known for leaving every game and practice with a jovial: "Have a blessed day, everyone."
"You've got to enlighten and empower everybody you come in contact with, especially the team that we have," he said.
Mitchell is along for the ride and said he'll travel to Europe with Udoh this summer to watch the EuroLeague Final Four.
Two-way player Georges Niang said the organization made each player feel as if the team wants to help them grow as a person, not just a player.
"I think this year I learned more than ever," Rubio said. "I grew up as a player. I grew up as a person. But I still think I have more in me and I can get better. I couldn’t be more excited."
"I hope our whole group's back," Ingles said. "I'll be pushing for it if I get any say."
Free agents speak
It seems unlikely that the roster is completely unchanged, but the Jazz's summer free agent list isn't anywhere near as dire as last year's when their top two leading scorers were unrestricted free agents. But the Jazz do have six players who could be free agents next year.
Derrick Favors is the biggest piece. He said he "wanted to wait" to think about his free agency decision until the offseason. When asked what factors will matter to him when making his decision, Favors said a major factor is the role the Jazz or another team will give him.
He still views himself more as a power forward than as a center and said he proved he can play multiple positions, can switch on defense, and has worked on his outside game.
Dante Exum will be a restricted free agent after the Jazz tender him the qualifying offer. Dennis Lindsey said they "hope to retain" Exum, and a smiling Exum confirmed that report, saying, "I think the Jazz want me back." He said the rest is for his agency to figure out.
Jonas Jerebko is under contract for the 2018-19 season, but the Jazz can waive it before July 9 if they'd like to open up salary cap space. But Jerebko wants to stay in Utah.
"I know I have a team option," Jerebko said. "I love it here, and I hope they love me, too. I love the city and the fans and want to be here." Why? "I’ve been in the league nine years and I’ve never seen a locker room (with) the chemistry that we had."
Ekpe Udoh also has a contract guarantee date on July 9. He noted that he loves the deserts and mountains of Utah, but said he has to "do something offensively" to stay on an NBA roster. He still insists that he's one of the best defenders in the world, though.
Thabo Sefolosha is in the same boat as Jerebko and Udoh, but with a contract guarantee date of July 1. "There is definitely some uncertainty. There is nothing written in stone," Sefolosha said. "I loved the year I had here, but the injury I couldn’t control. I would love to come back. … I was really happy here."
Raul Neto can be a restricted free agent for Utah if the Jazz offer him the qualifying offer at about $1.8 million. After an injury-riddled, "up and down" season, Neto told reporters that he’s going to look at all the offers available in free agency and try to get the best opportunity he can.
Sending some shade
Ingles is known for his rather deprecating sense of humor in the locker room, but on Wednesday, he used it especially to send some shade toward two former Jazzmen.
When asked about this year's group of free agents, Ingles quipped, "Fav said I didn’t need to go on a private jet to see him. Just to FaceTime him." You may remember last summer when key members of the Jazz took a jet to visit Gordon Hayward in southern California to woo the All-Star back to Salt Lake City.
But Ingles wasn't done. Ingles was asked about the team's ability to develop over the course of the season and said "It's just part of the culture. It's just what we do. Sometimes we have three-hour practices." Trey Lyles famously complained about Utah's three-hour practices on a podcast with teammate Richard Jefferson in April.
Donovan Mitchell's ceiling
OK, Ingles didn't save all of his barbs for those who had left the Jazz. Ingles was asked how Mitchell had managed to earn the respect of the team's veterans, and Ingles replied with a quick "He hasn't. Who told you that?"
Ingles was joking. Mitchell has earned the respect, and even admiration, of his more experienced teammates thanks to a season of excellent play and his attitude toward his success. For example, Rudy Gobert raved about Mitchell's desire to win and "be great."
"He proved every day that he was better than the day before," Rubio said. "It was so fun to watch."
Sefolosha had an interesting perspective. He played with former MVP Derrick Rose as a rookie in Chicago, and with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as young players in Oklahoma City. Sefolosha said Mitchell has a skill level that compares to those players at 21 years of age.
"You either have it or you don't have it, and (Donovan) has it," Rubio concluded. "I wish I would have played with Wade or LeBron in their rookie year, but I feel like he's right up there. He's an all-star and there's a lot of pressure on him, but I know he can handle it."
"He’s going to come back bigger and better," Ingles said. "There’s no doubt in my mind."
Some other notable items from Wednesday's press conference:
- Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey knows that the Jazz need to improve, saying, "The dilemma is that Golden State and Houston are clearly in front of us, and to be the last team standing you have to go through the best teams." But Lindsey thinks the major path of improvement this offseason will be through internal growth. Ball security and playmaking ability are at the top of his offseason wish list. We'll get a chance to speak with Lindsey more about the future of the franchise soon.
- Favors wore a T-shirt from the Rudy's Kids Foundation with a young Gobert prominently featured.
- Sefolosha says he's slowly getting back on the court, is starting to jog and shoot a little, about 3 1/2 months after surgery. It'll be about another month before he can do more and return to normal summer training. Sefolosha said he'll return to Switzerland in a few weeks for most of the summer.
- Jae Crowder was asked what his former teams, Cleveland and Boston, have that the Jazz don't that has led them to make it to the brink of the NBA Finals. His answer was pretty simple: "Yeah, they're playing in the Eastern Conference. It makes a difference."
- Rubio was clearly emotional when talking about the injury that forced him to miss the series against the Rockets. "I went through hell. It was one of the toughest moments of my career," Rubio said. "It was bittersweet because it was one of the best moments of my career and one of the worst. Something burned inside of me that I let my teammates down." Rubio will head to Spain soon for family time but has a concrete plan to improve in the ways Snyder has instructed.
- Alec Burks was thankful for a simple gift: "I got through the season healthy. I'm never going to take that for granted again."
- Gobert wants to improve on his offensive game. "It's time I become a real weapon and give them more trouble when I have the ball in my hands."
- Besides taking Mitchell to the EuroLeague Final Four, Udoh hopes to lead a church service trip to Nigeria at some point during the summer.