Utah Jazz at Toronto Raptors preview: The Jazz are who we wanted to be

Utah jazz toronto raptors previewIn a weird way, the Utah Jazz are the team that most Raptors fan’s, myself included, wanted the Raptors to turn out like just a few years ago.  The Jazz are a young supremely talented team, with young hopeful players at almost every position.  Not all their players will make it, and based on history maybe one or two will become a star.  But they’ve built a roster filled with potential and flexibility.  It’s easy to imagine them in a few years as a perennial playoff team and even more potentially. They’ve tanked effectively, and what many people would call the “right way.”  And the other part of being a team like this, they’ve taken advantage of good opportunities. 

Last year they won just a little too much, and fell outside of the all-important top five of the draft after the lottery.  It was doom, and then something funny happened, a potential top of the draft talent Dante Exum fell to them at number 5.  A stroke of luck, and good scouting that could be the move that really sets the Jazz up.

The Jazz have a history of this, taking full advantage of good opportunities when they come along.  They have been a very good organization for a long time.  Good organizations make the trade the Jazz made a few years ago, it’s what kick started their rebuild .  They did what the Raptors should have done with Chris Bosh a year before, they traded Deron Williams–their superstar–before he could leave via free agency for a number of assets.  In that single trade they received Derrick Favors, Devin Harris and two draft picks that turned into Enes Kanter, and Rudy Gobert.

At the moment, three of those players make up their big rotation.  Favors is a starter and a burgeoning star, while the other two are at least intriguing.  That’s how you rebuild, and keep a franchise healthy.  Add in the drafting, and development of Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, Trey Burke, and Dante Exum and you really have something.  This year you are seeing it, under first year head coach Quinn Snyder they are really improving.

The most exciting part of the Jazz season to me, has to be Dante Exum. 

Even though he’s coming off the bench in shorter minutes, so far so good.  He’s out playing the struggling starter Trey Burke.  For Trey Burke this isn’t a great sign for his prospects as a long-term starter on a playoff team, but for Dante Exum it is a great sign.   It appears that Exum is living up to, at least in glimpses, the high praise many experts heaped on him pre-draft.

I’ve only seen him a few times so far—so I am by no means an expert on Exum—but he looks very promising.  Listed at 6’6” and 190 lbs Exum is a big guard with the type of profile that teams love.  Even better, he’s extremely athletic.  While not Russell Westbrook in terms of sheer explosiveness, Dante is super-fast, agile and very long.  It’s easy to imagine him staring eventually.  He’s already shown a knack to get to the rim, has fit in with the starting unit and is a good willing passer.  Of course he’s not perfect, Exum needs to get stronger, tighten his handle and most importantly develop a consistent outside shot.  As Utah Jazz play-by-play announcer David Locke has hammered home, it’s the development of this jumper that could make him a star. 

Jazz are exciting now, and will only get better.  Gordon Hayward now legitimately looks like the 2nd best player on a championship team.  A big development for Utah’s future.

Four years ago, I would have dreamed about writing like this about the Raptors today.  I was pro tanker right up until last year, I thought trading veterans for young players and draft picks was the best way to make the Raptors a sustainability good team.  I thought it would be the easiest–not guaranteed work–but the most obvious way to acquire the type of young superstar talent the Raptors have rarely ever had.

But man…things have really changed over the last two years. 

At the moment, even after the loss to Chicago these Raptors are clearly a very good team.  They’re better than the Jazz now, and with the fickle nature of pro sports may stay better than the Jazz. 

Don’t let this week convince you of anything different. But all that matters tonight is beating this scrappy and competitive Utah Jazz team.  A loss today wouldn’t be “disastrous” by any means, but make no mistake it would be hugely disappointing no matter how good these young Jazz are.  This is a game the Raptors should win, because they’re better and the Utah Jazz are coming off a game last night in which they beat the Knicks and are winding down a long east coast road trip.  They should be confident.

Here are three keys for the Raptors tonight:

  • Contain Gordon Hayward: Terrence Ross is going to have a tough cover this evening.  Hayward comes in tonight as the 10th best player in the league by PER according to ESPN, and is proving his big extension this summer is money well spent.  Entering the year, the worry for some was Hayward may top out as the 4th best player on a championship team, but this year he looks liek he could even be the number two on a championship team one day.  Hayward has improved his shooting from last year, even surpassing his numbers from a few years ago.  But what really distinguishes him isn’t his scoring, it’s his ability to do everything.  He’s a great facilitator from the three, rebounds well, scores and can even defend.  Ross needs to keep Hayward out of the paint so he can’t drive and kick, and contest his shots keeping him out of rhythm.  As Hayward goes, so go the Jazz.  His on and off splits are hysterical, basically the Jazz are good with him on the floor and shockingly bad with him off the floor.  The difference is staggering.  Get him in foul trouble and this could be a much easier game.
  • Get to the bench: The Utah Jazz starting unit, and most five man line ups with Hayward and favors are functional.  One key to facing the Jazz is getting to the bench.  Aside from Trevor Booker, and Exum the bench is bad.  Gobert is ok, but very inconsistent and a poor offensive player now.  Even Exum is inconsistent.  The Jazz bench will get throttled by the Raptors bench.  Look for Lou Williams to have a very good game, and James Johnson to continue his strong play with the number of miss matches on the Jazz bench for him to face.  The bench should be able to stretch the lead.  Which should force the Jazz to bring their starters back early, and could lead to fatigue issues in the fourth quarter.  Aside from point guard, the bench is Toronto’s biggest advantage.  They need to take advantage of it tonight.
  • Try to get JV and Demar going: The Raptors can win without this happening, but games like this are about more than winning.  This is a “schedule” game, where Toronto is going to win largely on the back of a tough schedule for the Jazz.  So the Raptors need to take care of business, and also try to get their struggling players going.  Find ways to feature JV more, and Demar too.  You can build players confidence in these games, and figure out different ways to attack that you can use in future games against better opponents.

Prediction:  Raptors 102 Jazz 94

I think the game will be close in the first half, but as the game wears on the Jazz will tire and the Raptors will build a lead.  But as much of the year has gone, the won’t finish the Jazz off, they’ll let them hang around a bit and not win by as much as they should with the Jazz winding down a long road trip on the second night of a back to back.

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