SALT LAKE CITY — At least Donovan Mitchell was good.
That’s one of the few positive things you can say about the Jazz’s 133-99 preseason loss to the Bucks in Milwaukee on Wednesday.
Mitchell had 14 points, five rebounds, and two assists in 17 first-half minutes. But all eyes were on another Utah guard.
It was Mike Conley’s debut in a Jazz jersey. But it wasn’t a memorable one as Conley went 0 for 6 (0 for 2 from 3-point range) from the field and finished with zero assists.
On the first play, he committed a foul. On the Jazz's second defensive possession, he was on an island guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo — that went just about how you'd expect with Antetokounmpo driving in for a tomahawk dunk.
But Conley wasn’t alone in his struggles. Utah’s other key offseason acquisition, Bojan Bogdanovic, was 0 for 8 from the field. Yes, the two players brought in to help solve Utah’s shooting issues went a combined 0 for 14 and the Jazz were floored.
So time to hit the panic button, right? Well, not quite.
Steve Novak had a 22-game stint with the Jazz during the 2014-15 season. It was a short stay, but during that time, Novak, who is now a Bucks TV analyst, got to see the beginning of the Rudy Gobert Jazz era. He got to see Gobert go from a young player with loads of potential to a defensive superstar.
“I’ll never forget,” Novak said during the Bucks broadcast. “It was a game in Chicago and he just took over that game defensively. And you were like, ‘Wow this is what this guy can be.'”
That game: A 97-77 Jazz win over the Bulls on Jan. 7, 2015.
Gobert played a team-high 36 minutes and had 14 rebounds and five blocks to shut down the Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose-led Bulls. Soon Enes Kanter would be traded (along with Novak) and the Jazz would create a defensive identity centered around Gobert.
Over four years later, Gobert is the guy Novak saw him becoming — and more. But Gobert didn’t suit up on Wednesday (rest) and the Jazz just aren’t the Jazz without him.
On Milwaukee’s first possession, Eric Bledsoe got into the paint for a layup. On its second, Giannis Antetokounmpo delivered a rim-rocking dunk (his first of many on the night). That was how the night went.
Yeah, Conley and Bogdanovic are the shiny new toys and Mitchell is the young, budding superstar, but Gobert is still the most important player on the team. And his absence was felt heavily against a Bucks team that projects to be one of the best offenses in the NBA.
Turns out not having the best paint defender in the game makes a difference against the best paint scorer.
Antetokounmpo more or less did what he wanted. The Jazz tried Jeff Green on him. They tried Ed Davis and Bogdanovic. Heck, even Mitchell and Conley picked him up. It all ended about the same: The Greek Freak showing why he was the MVP last season.
In 21 minutes, Antetokounmpo scored 22 points, shot 8 for 11 from inside the 3-point line and was a plus-37.
What to make of the struggles?
There’s a preseason for a reason.
This was Conley’s first basketball game in over six months. There was some obvious rust. And that was compounded by playing with a new team for the first time in his career.
In the last three seasons (including preseason games), Conley has had just one game where he failed to make a field goal — don't expect his shooting performance on Wednesday to become the norm.
The Jazz have said that things are coming together faster than they thought it would, but games are when that is seen. Wednesday showed there is going to be a learning curve. The question is how long will it be?
With Gobert and Joe Ingles sitting out to rest, Utah’s starting five on Wednesday was Conley, Mitchell, Bogdanovic, Ed Davis and Jeff Green. That's four players who weren't on the team last season. That may have been a big factor in the Bucks hitting 15 of their first 24 shots as the Jazz’s defense was sliced up.
“I would say that this training camp is even more important than it was in the past,” Gobert said last week. “The new guys are going to have to take a lot in over the next few weeks.”
There's still time to take plenty in.
William Howard’s run at the final roster
Rookie William Howard had nine points on 4-of-7 shooting and really looks like a guy that could make the final 15-man roster. His running, scooping layup in the second half may have been the smoothest offensive play of the night for the Jazz and showed a different variety of his game than he showed in Utah's first preseason game.
Howard had 11 points and hit all three of his 3-point attempts in the Jazz’s win over Adelaide.
Utah paid a $165,000 buyout to get Howard from his French club.