After losing to the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 22, the Utah Jazz were 19-28 and out of the Western Conference playoff mix. From there, they won 29 of their next 35 games to reach the playoffs. Not bad for a squad that saw its top scorer (Gordon Hayward) walk in free agency months earlier. Rookie Donovan Mitchell starred in Utah’s playoff run alongside Kia Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and others who give Utah a bright future.
Utah worked quickly in the summer to re-sign free agents Derrick Favors, Dante Exum and Raul Neto … Reserve forward Jonas Jerebko was waived and later signed with Golden State … The Jazz added former Duke sharpshooter Grayson Allen with their first-round pick.
1. Can Mitchell carry the load again? Teams will be keying more than ever on the slithering guard after his showing in the 2018 playoffs. He can’t afford to stumble, though. Need proof? Last season, the Jazz were 31-15 when he scored 20 or more points -- and 17-18 when he didn’t.
2. A need for more 3s. Mitchell, Joe Ingles and the departed Rodney Hood were the only players on the Jazz to make 100 or more 3-pointers last year. Utah ranked 13th in 3-pointers made (887) and Gobert and Derrick Favors aren’t shooters. That means the Jazz would benefit greatly if Ricky Rubio, Jae Crowder or someone else took a step forward from deep.
3. That “other” key sophomore. Many of Utah’s best five-man defensive lineups last season featured undrafted rookie Royce O’Neale. If he can become a more reliable shooter (42.3 percent) in 2018-19, the Jazz will be even stronger overall.
MAN ON THE SPOT
Dante Exum remains a question mark for the Jazz and their future. The standout perimeter defender (98.9 defensive rating) has been slowed time and again by injuries. However, the Jazz showed faith in him by giving him a new contract this summer, and Exum has grown as a player over the years. But after picking him No. 5 overall in 2014, Utah wants a big return on the investments it has made in Exum over the years. Will he come through at last for the Jazz?
Ricky Rubio | 13.1 ppg | 4.6 rpg | 5.3 apg
Set career highs in 3-point percentage (35.2) and effective field goal percentage (47.6).
Donovan Mitchell | 20.5 ppg | 3.7 rpg | 3.7 apg
Utah’s go-to guy proved it in playoffs, upping his scoring average to 24.4 ppg.
Rudy Gobert | 13.5 ppg | 10.7 rpg | 2.3 bpg
Jazz were 15-7 last season in games where reigning Kia DPOY winner had three or more blocks.
Jae Crowder | 11.8 ppg | 3.8 rpg | 1.5 apg
Forward fit in perfectly with the Jazz, providing defense, intangibles and 3-pointers.
Grayson Allen | 15.5 ppg | 4.6 apg | 37 3-point pct (Duke)
Coach Quin Snyder not opposed to playing rookies and Allen’s 3-point shot may earn him minutes.
Like a few other teams in the division, the Jazz made little-to-no changes to their core group from 2017-18. Snyder’s defense-first philosophy and a fully healthy Gobert gives Utah a chance to again make noise out West and perhaps surprise many with their finish in 2018-19. If Gobert doesn’t miss time and Donovan takes a big leap forward, 53 wins and a Northwest Division title look fairly likely.
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