Posts Tagged ‘Elijah Millsap’

Young Jazz still trying to turn corner

VIDEO: Derrick Favors powers Jazz to close road win in Atlanta

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Moral victories will sustain you for only so long in the NBA.

Sooner or later, signs of growth and glimpses of what could be have to backed up with something much more substantial than just the hope of what’s to come.

The Utah Jazz are living that reality these days. They are a team loaded with intriguing young talent, a group still trying to find its way together as they chart a course from the lottery to the playoffs while still working to shore up deficiencies on the roster and in their make up.

They shocked us with their work to finish the 2014-15 season, going 15-9 during the stretch run after the All-Star break, suggesting that this season might bring a true breakout effort from coach Quin Snyder‘s crew with a nucleus of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and defensive menace Rudy Gobert anchoring the middle of an improved frontline.

But the road has been a bit tougher than expected early on this season, courtesy of a rugged early schedule and the offseason loss of point guard Dante Exum for the season with a torn ACL.

That’s what makes nights like Sunday, when they outlasted the Atlanta Hawks 97-96 at Philips Arena to finally score a road win after three straight losses on a four-game trip, so sweet.

All that potential in action, and with a result to match. It’s all you can ask for when you’re trying to turn a corner. The Jazz sit at 5-5 after their first 10 games with every intention of living up to their own hype.

“I feel like we are ahead of where we were last year,” Hayward said. “We’re in a good place. I know that’s seems like a strange thing to say after you lose three in a row. But two close games and then kind of drained on that last one. But we are moving in the right direction. We just have more experience, another year with [Snyder] and all of the experiences from the tough games we played last year. We’re learning how to win games and trying to figure out where you can succeed in this league.”

Learning how to win games like this one will only help the Jazz in their pursuit of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Sunday’s win over the Hawks was their first this season in games decided by five points or less (they were 0-3 previously).

They shot a season-high 51 percent (39-for-76), outrebounded the Hawks by seven and Favors, an Atlanta native, led five players in double figures. Gobert recorded his first double-double of the season with 11 points and 11 rebounds, to go along with his three assists, three blocks and two steals as the Jazz finally put together a complete game against an elite opponent.

A little good fortune never hurts, of course. All-Star forward Paul Millsap missed a wide-open 12-footer in the game’s final seconds that would have won the game for the Hawks.

The hard work to get to that point, though, was rooted in the preparation for moments exactly like this one, Favors insists. And that preparation has been years in the making for the most experienced members of this Jazz team, where a 24-year-old, six-year veteran like Favors qualifies as an elder statesman.

“Everybody is more comfortable with the roles and guys are going out there playing with more freedom, without looking over their shoulder every time they make a mistake and worrying about the coach taking you out and crazy stuff like that,” Favors said. “It’s experience, too. This is my sixth year. Gordon’s been here six years. Most everybody else is in their second or third year. There is so much you have to learn. We’ve been through it as individuals. But now we have to go through some things together, as a group. And that’s what makes you stronger.”

This Jazz team still has glaring issues, of course, namely its struggles at point guard. Raul Neto is the starter and Trey Burke, a prized lottery pick two years ago, is the backup and playing well in that role.

But with the game on the line in the final four minutes Sunday, the Jazz worked without either one of them on the floor. It’s a formula they have been using all season, going with Alec Burks, Rodney Hood and Hayward as the primary facilitators with games on the line.

It’s a dangerous way to play in a league where quality point guard play has never been more valuable. And when you’re a team attempting to make the leap from the lottery to the playoffs, it’s a potentially fatal flaw.

The Hawks played without their All-Star point guard Sunday night, Jeff Teague, who sat out with a sprained ankle. And they lost starting small forward and energy man Kent Bazemore when he turned his ankle with 2:20 to play.

But there’s no need to apologize for a little luck, not when every bit of it and every lesson learned along the way will be useful on this journey.

“It was very important. We were very close to winning the first two games of the road trip. We lost each game by a couple of possessions,” Gobert said of what the Jazz took away from these early lumps they’ve endured. “But we were able to win the game tonight. We want to make the playoffs, so we need to put some wins together.”

Playoff talk in November is just that, talk. And no amount of bluster, internal or otherwise, will fuel the Jazz the rest of the way.

“We know it was a trendy thing to talk about us expecting to be a playoff team and a team on the rise or this and that,” Favors said. “But I don’t think you can own any of that until you actually get there. So anybody talking about us turning a corner … we haven’t turned a corner until we make the playoffs.”

D-League Select Squad: Summer League Underdogs


– They’re the store brand here at the Summer League, to the point that you half-expect to see a bar code on the backs of their jerseys rather than traditional numbers. The D-League Select squad participating against the 21 NBA teams that sent rosters full of young and hopeful players to the desert is the Acme soup or Brand X cereal that allegedly tastes just like the highly marketed, big-label products, only without the big-label price.

No nickname. Just a generic logo from the NBA’s minor league on their shirts. And unmistakable chips on their shoulders.

Compared to other teams’ coaches and even players who have been grumbling about the new tournament format in the Las Vegas Summer League extending their stays and messing with offseason plans, the guys on the D-League Select team are grateful. Grateful for the chance to keep on playing, to keep on winning, to keep on attracting eyeballs.

The 14 teams on Friday’s scheduled of seven games were essentially done – they had dropped into the “consolation round” in the tournament format and, once they completed their fifth and final Vegas game, they were gone. But the D-Leaguers were 4-0 and still plugging, pitted against Charlotte in a quarterfinals game Saturday evening.

So yes, on Friday morning, they were practicing. Other quarterfinals clubs may have been cheerily wishing each other “Bad luck!” – with each loss came a ticket home – but these guys were hoping to stretch their stay through Monday’s championship game.

“We’re playing to win, whereas the NBA teams, it’s more about their one or two draft picks and their young guys,” said Alex Jensen, the D-League’s Coach of the Year in 2013 with the Canton Charge who is overseeing the summer squad. “Really, you can’t blame them.

“But I told [our players], ‘The best thing that can happen for all you guys is for us to win. Because then people will take notice that ‘You’re just as good as guys on any team that we will play. Believe me, it’s the truth.’ ”

Jensen is living the dream that his players still are pursuing; he has joined the Utah Jazz staff as director of player development for 2013-14. Few if any of the guys he is coaching have deals for next season anywhere.

“I just hope I get a job somewhere. Either it’s cross-seas or getting invited to training camp or hopefully be with an NBA team,” said forward Darnell Jackson, who played for the Reno Bighorns after stints with Cleveland (2008, 2009), Milwaukee (2010) and Sacramento (2012). He also has played in China and the Ukraine.

“If not, I’m just blessed to be in the situation I’m in now,” said Jackson, a second-round pick by Miami in 2008 after playing four years (with one NCAA title) at Kansas. “I just guess those guys who are saying they’re ready to go home are having a bad experience.

“With us, we’re all here trying to prove ourselves to the coaches and the NBA teams that we’re willing to be here and to keep working. And we’re having fun at the same time. We’re winning games, we’re playing hard together. We’re gonna keep pushing.”

Dominique Sutton, a 6-foot-5 wing player from North Carolina Central, averaged 10.2 points for the Tulsa 66ers last season and won the Slam Dunk contest at the D-League Showcase.

“We all had a goal at the beginning to try to surprise people, take people by storm,” Sutton said. “A lot of people look at the front of our jerseys and see ‘D-League Select’ and think we’re a bunch of guys that really don’t know the game. ‘It’s the D-League, they’re not playing for an NBA team.’ So we come in with a chip on our shoulders, man. We feel, just play harder and we’ll come up a success.”

In their four games, the D-Leaguers have outscored their foes by an average of 5.8 points, while outshooting and outrebounding them too. Stefhon Hannah, a 6-foot-1 guard from Missouri, the Santa Cruz Warriors and assorted teams in Europe, Asia and South America, was their leading scorer (14.8 ppg), and 6-foot-6 guard Elijah Millsap was next at 14.3.

Millsap is familiar – thanks to his brother Paul, the former Jazz and now Hawks forward – with what life in the NBA is like. But guard Kyle Weaver is one of the D-Leaguers who actually knows, having played 73 games in three seasons with Oklahoma City and Utah. He played in Belgium and Germany, too, and was with the D-League’s Austin Toros last season before being traded to Canton in February.

“A lot of guys are curious to try to get up there,” Weaver said after practice Friday. “That’s why you can see on the court how we’re playing. Guys are scrapping, guys just want to get that opportunity. Grinding with these guys has been good. It’s definitely worth it.”

So the D-League Select team keeps grinding toward the Summer League championship. It’s a crown mostly scoffed at by the established NBA teams but something the D-Leaguers are happy to chase, because it keeps them playing. The auditions aren’t over.