After two games into Will Hardy's coaching tenure — albeit preseason games — it's clear that the rookie head coach has a vision.
"I want a team that competes. … I want a team that cares about winning," Hardy said last week. "I understand that there are individual aspects to playing at this level, but I want people that are solely focused on winning basketball games for the Utah Jazz. We will be tough, we will play with passion, we will be a team."
Not only has he said as much since he was first hired in June, he's getting his players to buy into his philosophies on both ends of the court — never more evident than the amount of growth between the first two preseason games earlier this week.
"I think we were able to stick to our identity as a team on both ends for more of the 48 minutes tonight," Hardy said following Tuesday's victory over Portland. "Everybody who went into the game tonight played the way that we want to play. Tonight was sort of representative of how we're going to have to be this year. … It's a team effort."
Here are five things to know following Utah's first two preseason games.
1.) Rotation Unsettled
One of the most challenging things about coming in as a new coach — with 10 new players entering the fold — is figuring out the starters and rotation players. Hardy admitted as much last week, believing that the preseason would be used as a way to determine the rotations Utah uses moving forward.
Mike Conley, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Kelly Oynyk started both games, while Malik Beasley got the start in the opener and Jordan Clarkson got the nod on Tuesday night.
Only Collin Sexton, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Walker Kessler appear to have carved out roles in the rotation. But solid performances by Stanley Johnson, Cody Zeller, Ochai Agbaji, and Rudy Gay have them firmly in the mix.
With a whole week of practices ahead, one might think that the rotation over the next two preseason games will more closely resemble what to expect when Utah tips off with Denver on Oct. 19 in the season opener. As to what that rotation may be — only time will tell.
2.) Defense Takes Step Forward
When Hardy took over as leading man, he was sure that he wanted tough, hard-nosed defenders who could guard multiple positions.
After a rough showing in the opener against Toronto, Utah responded with a much better performance against Blazers. Armed with a bevy of athletic wings with length and strength, the Jazz were able to cause absolute chaos and force Portland into rough possessions and 17 turnovers.
Looking to find his spot in the rotation, Johnson was close to dominant on defense. Using his strength and athleticism, he defended 1-4 and was sensational on the perimeter, constantly speeding up the Blazers and forcing them into bad shots.
"Stanley really brought a lot of energy and toughness in particular on the defensive end," Hardy said. "That's his identity as a player and that's how he can help our team, being somebody who has a massive impact on the defensive end."
3.) So Much Length
Already touching on Johnson's ability on defense, the Jazz found other proven defenders who made life for the Blazers much more difficult.
Aided by Vanderbilt, Beasley, and Alexander-Walker, the Jazz are full of players with incredible wingspans capable of staying in front of their respective opponents and not getting beat to the rim.
That was never more apparent when Markkanen, an athletic 7-foot wing found himself one-on-one with Damian Lillard, one of the best scoring guards in the league.
Markkanen moved his feet well enough to stay in front of Lillard, forcing up a contested three-pointer that clanked off the rim. While it was simply a missed shot, it was further evidence that this team is buying into Hardy's defensive philosophy.
4.) Conley Turns Back The Clock
After a season last year that did not live up to his standards, Conley entered this year with a point to prove.
Through two preseason games, it appears that he’s ready to put last year behind him and looks much more similar to the player named an All-Star two seasons ago.
In 22 minutes per game, Conley is averaging 11.5 points per game — but most impressively, doing so on 8-of-13 shooting from the floor and 5-of-8 from three-point territory. Conley appears quick and is back to making elite decisions with the ball, whether pushing the tempo or knowing when to pull up from beyond the arc.
His ability to return to form this season will go a long way into determining the success of the team — and through two games, it appears he's on the right path.
5.) Kessler Making Positive Impact
As a rookie who did not play in the NBA Summer League, the odds were stacked against Kessler being somebody who could contribute immediately.
Although it's a small sample size, Kessler should be able to find himself in the rotation throughout the season, showing starter potential as well.
It’s apparent that his skillset and athleticism are NBA-level, as his feel for the game is already advanced for his status. His ability to find himself in the right spot more often than not while showing elite instincts defensively is why the Jazz are so excited about his development.