You’d think Utah’s modest 11-21 season start isn’t the stuff other teams might follow as a blueprint.
But Timberwolves coach/front-office architect Flip Saunders sees plenty to admire and replicate from an opponent his team played twice in five days last week, including Saturday night at Target Center.
“They’ve done a nice job,” Saunders said. “They’ve set a course how they want to go build a team, and they haven’t veered off that course. Even though they’ve gone through some rough times, they’ve stuck with it and their guys are developing, like us.”
The Jazz has done so by investing $63 million in fifth-year forward Gordon Hayward after Charlotte made him a maximum contract offer unsuccessfully intended to make the Jazz balk. Utah has done so by investing patience in the development of big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, among others.
And the Jazz has done so with a commitment to the youth, the same path the Wolves went down when they traded Kevin Love away last summer for Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thaddeus Young.
The price paid since letting both Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap leave in 2013 so Jazz management could commit to youth: A 25-57 record last season and this season’s 11-21 start that for the second consecutive year will leave it out of the playoffs, which Utah last made in the strike-shortened 2012-13 season.
“They’re young, but yet they’re not,” Saunders said. “They’ve got a good mixture. They went through growing pains — kind of like what we’re going through — letting Favors and Kanter develop. But they’re playing better.”
Hayward is just 24 but already deemed worthy of that max contract and on Tuesday, at least if only for a night, he played worthy of it by scoring 11 of his 26 points in the final four minutes of a 104-99 victory over the Wolves in Salt Lake City.
More importantly perhaps, he provided two critical steals in those four minutes that he turned into decisive slam dunks.
“The difference is they have a player in Gordon Hayward who took over the game,” Saunders said afterward. “That’s why he’s a max player.”
Favors is 23 and showing why New Jersey drafted him third overall in 2010 and why the Jazz signed him in October 2013 to a four-year, $49 million deal that bet on the player he’d become, not the player he was at the time.
Those two players are the relative old guys on a team that has five players who are 22, one who is 21 and 19-year-old rookie Dante Exum. Three of those 22-year-olds — Kanter, Rodney Hood and Trey Burke — start now that 23-year-old guard Alec Burks is out for the season because of shoulder surgery.
“Our average age only moves down a little bit because Alec was 23,” said first-year coach Quin Snyder, who has replaced Burks in the starting lineup with Hood, a rookie.
The Jazz is young enough that Snyder isn’t quite sure what to call them all.
“We were trying to figure out, if you’re born in the ’90s, that’s not Gen X, right?” Snyder asked. “Is it millennials? So, we have five millennials in the starting lineup. It’s youth, youth, youth and experience helps us all.”
Before playing the Wolves last week, Snyder was asked how it feels to be the older team for once?
“I’m not sure about that,” he said. “We’ll have to do the math.”
He was told the Wolves start two 19-year-olds, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, as well as 21-year-old Shabazz Muhammad and 24-year-old Gorgui Dieng.
“Yeah,” Snyder said, “we come off the bench with our 19-year-olds.”
NBA short takes
Into the Rookie of the Year void steps …
With the clear favorite now absent for the season’s remaining four months, the “race” might not be much of a race in a season filled with injured rookies.
Here’s a look at the early leader(s) in the clubhouse:
1. Andrew Wiggins, Timberwolves: He’s THE favorite now that the Bucks — the Wolves’ opponent on Friday — are without Jabari Paker, a player instrumental in their dramatic turnaround from last season’s 15 victories.
He’s the one both because of the playing time he gets and his increasingly consistent production as he learns to assert himself night after night.
2. Nikola Mirotic, Chicago: A 23-year-old rookie who was drafted in 2011 but stayed in Europe, he might be the most NBA-ready rookie, but the Bulls’ depth and an unpredictable role probably will keep him from seriously contending.
3. K.J. McDaniels, Philadelphia: A second-round pick playing for a lousy team started fast, but he could fade just the same as the season progresses.
4. Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia: A sleeper pick before the season began, he started as slowly as teammate McDaniels did quickly, but he has the kind of talent and shot-blocking to play himself back into the conversation.
Runners-up: Boston’s Marcus Smart, Orlando’s Elfrid Payton, Houston’s Kostas Papanikolaou , Houston/L.A. Lakers’ Tarik Black, Wolves’ Zach LaVine.
Cavaliers need some Love
Relegated largely to a third wheel, it’s time for former Wolves star Kevin Love to step forth in Cleveland now that LeBron James is out for the next two weeks because of back and knee injuries.
James already had missed two games and the Cavaliers already had lost four of its past five games when the team announced on Thursday his upcoming absence. He’ll miss a testing trip to Dallas, Houston, Golden State, Phoenix and the L.A. Clippers.
Love, who has been bothered by back spasms himself, stepped up Friday night, scoring 27 points in a victory over Charlotte.
Wolves’ Week Ahead
Monday: 7 p.m. vs. Denver (FSN)
Wednesday: 8:30 p.m. vs. Phoenix (ESPN)
Friday: 7:30 p.m. at Milwaukee (FSN)
Saturday: 7 p.m. vs. San Antonio (FSN)
Player to watch: Eric Bledsoe, Suns
The Wolves showed some interest last summer in the restricted free agent who eventually signed a five-year, $70 million contract to stay in Phoenix. Remember that now both when the Suns come to town for a late 8:30 p.m. ESPN game and in the future.
« I’m walking like Redd Foxx. »
Wolves rookie Zach LaVine referring to the late comedian and showing a cultural awareness beyond his 19 years after he limped away from treatment on his sore legs last week.