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Jazz's stockpile of youth gets chance to prove what they can do

POSTED: Oct 15, 2013 9:47 AM ET

By Jeff Caplan,


A young-but-mostly inexperienced core are likely to make the Jazz an interesting study in 2013-14.

When the most positive comment about a team entering the new season is that at least they've still got those good-looking uniforms, you know it's been a rough offseason.

Jazz Preview: Backcourt

That's one perspective for judging the Utah Jazz. Four of their top five scorers are no longer on the team. Al Jefferson and longtime heart-and-soul Paul Millsap are gone to Charlotte and Atlanta, respectively. So are Mo Williams (to Portland), Randy Foye (Denver), Jamaal Tinsley, Earl Watson (Portland) and DeMarre Carroll (Atlanta).

Gordon Hayward, an improving talent, returns as the most accomplished player on the roster. He is the only projected starter that brings a double-digit scoring average from last season. After beefing up his 3-point shooting last season, the ball will find Hayward more than ever and opposing defenses will be geared to slow him down.

"I'm only 23, still pretty young but leadership has no age and I'm ready," Hayward said at the team's Media Day. "It's weird to think that five years ago I was in high school and three years ago I was in college and nobody knew who I was, but I accept the challenge."

Third-year player Alec Burks, a 35-percent 3-point shooter in his first two seasons as a 16-minute-a-night reserve, figures to get the first crack as the starting shooting guard. The starting point guard, Trey Burke, is a rookie. The starting center, Enes Kanter, 21, averaged 15.4 mpg last season, and replaces top scorer Jefferson. Derrick Favors, the young, big hope at power forward is the only player along with Hayward to average more than 20 mpg last season (23.2). He assumes the starting position Millsap held since 2010.

"Al and Paul were great players, obviously great scorers," Favors said at Media Day. "So obviously [we will try to] do what they used to do, but I think me and Enes can fill their role."

If you're keeping score at home, that's five lottery picks -- two in the top three and four in the top nine --under the age of 24 in the starting lineup. The average of age of the starting five is 21.8 years.

As for the bench, another former lottery pick, Brandon Rush, is the top choice off a thin bench and is making a return from an ACL injury. The coach, Tyrone Corbin, has management's public support, but remains a lame duck.

"We decided to jump in the deep end of the youth movement and we're excited to do so," Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said at Media Day. "We look forward to the journey."

Jazz Preview: Frontcourt

He called the 2013-14 season, "a beginning point."

And that's the other perspective.

The Jazz as previously constructed were going nowhere, stuck on the dreaded treadmill of mediocrity. They missed the playoffs last season with a 43-39 record. A 36-30 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season was good for a No. 8 seed and a first-round sweep by the San Antonio Spurs.

So why not disengage from high-salary veterans and go with a youth movement?

Lindsey said trading All-Star point guard Deron Williams to the Nets in February 2011, shortly after legendary coach Jerry Sloan abruptly retired, signaled the start of the Utah rebuild. Ensuing moves have netted the franchise a cache of draft picks. Jazz management understands the challenges of recruiting a top free agent for a quick fix, and that the Draft plus potential shrewd trades will be the prudent, patient path to climb the mountain ahead.

With an eye on the future, the Jazz also reached back to their past. Sloan has returned to the franchise as a senior consultant. Former Jazz star and Hall of Famer Karl Malone has worked out with Favors, Kanter and ex-Slam Dunk champ Jeremy Evans. Even John Stockton, the NBA's all-time assists leader, welcomed Burke and Burks to his home in Spokane, Wash., for a one-of-a-kind tutorial.

"It was unbelievable to work with a Hall of Famer like that," Burks of Stockton. "He taught us the game is as mental as it is physical."

That's all beneficial for those promising building blocks. For the present, though, it's certainly difficult to forecast much more than a bumpy season full of teaching points. It should position the franchise for a high-percentage shot at a top five pick in next summer's super-hyped Draft, which, realistically, should be part of the plan to continue growing this young core.

As the season progresses, so too will this group. It should be a fun team to monitor and an easy one for Jazz fans to get behind -- provided they can stomach the many lumps that are sure to come along the way.

The good news is a strategy is in place. The bad news is it will require supreme patience.

Three points

Jazz Preview: Tyrone Corbin

1. With an offense that could take time to find a groove, the Jazz defense must improve from last season when its defensive rating ranked 21st. That improvement should start at the basket with the big-bodied Kanter in the middle and flanked by the shot-blocking Favors. Emphasis will have to come on close outs. Utah finished in the bottom seven last season in 3-point defense.

2. Last year No. 6 pick Damian Lillard took over as Portland's starting point guard and ran away with Rookie of the Year honors. The Jazz can only hope No. 9 pick Trey Burke makes such a speedy adjustment. Burke had a rough Summer League, but it's all part of the learning process as he's a lock to start with only journeyman John Lucas III and undrafted free agent Ian Clark behind him.

3. Now that Hayward, Favors, Kanter and Burks are in the starting lineup, Utah's bench is a massive weakness, at least on paper. This is what it looks like: Brandon Rush, Lucas and Clark in the backcourt, Jeremy Evans, Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams at the forward spots and Andris Briedrins and rookie Frenchman Rudy Gobert at center. Rush is going to have to provide some serious scoring for this bench crew to provide any substantial offensive support.

Jeff Caplan has covered the NBA since 2005. You can email him here and follow him on Twitter.

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