JAZZ PLAYERS TO DECIDE THE LOOK OF UTAHS ROSTER IN COMING WEEKS
The NBA draft is literally a week away, and fans around the world are mocking up who their favorite team should be selecting. Here in Utah, that seems to be the pattern as well. With the Jazz owning the 9th, 16th and 28th pick, fans have a lot to be invested in, especially knowing the flare that Danny Ainge adds to the equation. As Jazz fans debate whether Gradey Dick or Jordan Hawkins is the better shooter, or if one of the Thompson twins could slide down to the 9th pick, there lies a lesser factor to what the team may look like regardless of what happens in the draft.
Free Agency is set to begin on June 30th, the first day in which players can commence negotiations with teams. Prior to this however, is the 29th deadline of players deciding whether or not to opt into their player options. “A player option grants the player the power to decide whether to stay for another year or become an unrestricted free agent.” (NBA.com) Before the mad dash for players begins, we have to see who decides to stay put and who is opening up for business. Some notable player options include: James Harden, Kristaps Porzingis, Khris Middleton, Draymond Green, and Kyle Kuzma. Some of these players like Middleton will have to decide their future sooner than the 29th deadline, such as June 21st for the Bucks forward. Some players have already hinted at their intentions, as Harden is likely to opt out and hit free agency, while Porzingis is heavily considering picking up his 36-million-dollar option to stay in DC.
This is pertinent due to the fact that it can severely impact a free agency class that is already underwhelming by typical offseason standards. If all player options decided to stay put, your free agency class would be headlined by Kyrie Irving, Fred VanVleet, Jerami Grant and Nikola Vucevic. With no disrespect to any of those players, you can see the stakes would certainly feel lower. Luckily for us, we know for a fact that the likelihood of everyone with a player option staying home is 0 percent, adding much needed pizzazz to the spending spree teams are hoping to participate in.
What does all that have to do with the Utah Jazz? A whole awful lot actually. Of the upcoming Free Agents that Utah had suit up this past season, four of the six are player options. Juan Toscano-Anderson and former 27th overall pick Udoka Azubuike are both unrestricted Free agents who have likely seen their last days in Salt Lake City. The other 4 create a unique uncertainty for what depth pieces may be back on a retooling Jazz team who may be eager to compete sooner rather than later.
Jordan Clarkson’s 14.3-million-dollar player option looms the largest. The former sixth man of the year and a microwave scorer to boot, Clarkson is a fan favorite. Jordan remains the only impactful piece from a team that was once the #1 seed in the West. Clarkson transitioned into a full-time starter this year, starting all 61 games he appeared in. This was a big detail as he hadn’t been seen as anything more than a sixth man sine his 2nd year in the association with a bad Lakers team. JC made the most of it by averaging 20.8 points a game, which was the 2nd best mark on the team, and a career high for the flamethrower. The most valuable thing however may be the 4.4 assists per game, which easily clears itself as Jordan’s best passing season. There is no doubt that Jazz nation loves Clarkson, and that the front office does as well. Utah has made multiple attempts to extend the scoring guard to no avail. Sadly enough, all sign seems to point towards JC opting out. Clarkson would end the season sidelined, appearing in only 1 of Utah’s last 20 contests, and according to Sarah Todd of the Deseret News, could command up to 20 million a year on his next deal, six million more than what Utah would giving him by opting in. Clarkson also may no longer feel he fits the timeline of the team. Jordan has proven the type of player he is, and would likely find a team that has a specific niche for him. Time will tell, but if the split happens, and it likely will, Clarkson has been nothing but a positive note in years of uncertainty and question marks.
The next big question mark remains at the guard spot in Talen Horton-Tucker. THT spent the year in and out of the rotation, but still managed to appear in as many games as he has in previous seasons at 65. Horton-Tucker would average 10.7 a game, a career high, and 3.8 assists per game, another career high. His 28.6 three-point shooting wasn’t world breaking, but a slight career high considering he had more attempts than any other season. Horton-Tucker was a bowling ball player, meaning if he was coming down the lane, he was likely going to find a way to finish over or through the defender. He has incredible athleticism and the tail end of the season shows how impactful of a player he could be. THT was on a crash course to opt in with the Jazz before his late season surge. Talen stepped into a starting role in Game 47 and would finish the season as a projected starter each night before missing the final three games. In those final 19 games, Horton-Tucker was putting up 18.2 Points on 43 percent shooting while going 32 percent from deep on almost 4.5 attempts from downtown. His Assists numbers nearly doubled at six a game as well. It was clear he was thriving with the extra space he had been given. Now with that performance, there may be a team who wants to give him a nicer contract and a more sustainable role for him to prove himself. Utah likely would appreciate another year to see what they truly have before deciding his fate with the team, but they may not get it. If it wasn’t for those 19 starts and a 41-point barrage against San Antonio, THT may have ended up being a sure-fire thing to opt in, instead I would imagine he will be keen to exploring what offers may pop up in a weak free agency class.
Rudy Gay may be the oddest name on the Jazz roster, last year and now. Its clear his prime is behind him, and although he still has much to give, it was a shock to see him hang around on a rebuilding team, that was on the opposite side of his timeline. He was brought in to chase a championship with Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and his former teammate Mike Conley. Now he finds himself belittled by fans for taking away younger less proven players minutes as the Jazz prioritize youth and development. Gay may want to seek teams with higher expectations and higher winning percentages, which would make his 6.5 million player option a no brainer to opt out of. Yet, it isn’t as simple as that. Gay won’t make anything like he will in his final contract year, and would definitely be sacrificing cash for opportunity. Rudy Gay would tell the media after the season that he “didn’t expect to be here this year” when asked if he would be returning next season. But he cited his relationship with Coach Hardy and the young players as a reason to hang around. Gay may end up taking all the money he can this year by riding out his third season in Utah, before pursuing a championship on a vet minimum elsewhere. After posting a season with a majority of career-lows on the stat sheet, sometimes its best to take what you can as a 36-year-old.
Lastly is one of the newest additions to Jazz nation who could up and leave as quickly as he arrived. Damian Jones was a part of the Russel Westbrook trade to Utah and would appear in 19 games. Jones, the 30th pick in the 2016 draft, saw Utah wind up as his 7th landing spot in 7 seasons. In Utah he would have an opportunity to battle Udoka Azubuike for backup center minutes behind Walker Kessler. He would average about 15 minutes a game, shooting 71 percent from the field on just under three tries for 4.6 points a game. He even hit 10 triples in 14 tries for good measure. He proved himself to be a competent rebounder and electric shot blocker. Jones will likely never be a consistent NBA rotational piece but as far as center depth goes, he’s a great player to stash on the roster in “break in case of emergency” situations. Jones spoke high praises of the Jazz organization and his short time in it. The culture seemed to be more enjoyable for Damian than in his previous stops. When asked about his option he mentioned “I plan on coming back” before adding a “but we’ll see what’s up.” Based on Damian’s comments and the market itself, I would be shocked to see Jones opt out of his 2.6-million-dollar deal. Journeymen dream of having a more consistent place to call home, and with his player option, Jones can give himself consecutive years with the same team, a luxury he has rarely gotten.