The Utah Jazz’s worst fears were realized this offseason as star forward Gordon Hayward decided not to #Stayward and instead went East to team up with college coach Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics. Even the slight consolation of landing Jae Crowder in a possible sign-and-trade, which could’ve softened the blow of Hayward’s departure, fell through as the Celtics eventually dealt Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons to clear the space for Hayward’s contract.
With their best wing and offensive player gone, the Jazz now have a gaping hole on their team in terms of finding a consistent shot creator that won’t be easy to fill. It took Hayward a handful of years to realize his potential as an All-Star caliber player, and it could take another handful of years—maybe longer—for the Jazz to stumble onto the next Hayward.
However, there’s a possibility the Jazz might already have their next star perimeter player on the roster via young guards Dante Exum and Donovan Mitchell, who were both standout performers during the recently-concluded Utah Summer League.
Exum has yet to justify the hype he came into the NBA with out of Australia, which convinced the Jazz to take him No. 5 overall in 2014. To be fair, he did lose an entire year of development after tearing his ACL in 2015 and didn’t get a ton of playing time on a very deep Jazz team last season, where he averaged 6.2 points and 1.7 assists in 18.6 minutes.
Exum will still be behind Ricky Rubio in the depth chart next season, but big things are nevertheless expected of him, especially now that Hayward is gone. And health should no longer be an issue as the young Aussie should be back to full strength now that more than two years have passed since his injury. If there’s any chance of him becoming the star he was once touted to be, he’ll need to show it next year, which will also happen to be a contract year.
He certainly showed some of that sense of urgency in Utah Summer League, where he was arguably the Jazz’s top performer. Exum averaged 20 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 6.3 assists in 27 minutes to lead the Jazz to an undefeated record.
Of course, there’s the obvious caveat that this is just summer league, and a three-year pro like Exum really has no excuse but to dominate. Still, Exum’s summer league performance was at least a promising sign ahead of his real test which starts next season.
While Exum’s excellent summer league showing in Salt Lake was almost expected, rookie Donovan Mitchell’s performance was a very welcome surprise.
The Jazz traded Trey Lyles and the 24th pick to move up to 13 and take Mitchell, who rose up draft boards during the draft process. Mitchell was Louisville’s go-to guy offensively last season, but it’s his defensive upside that was likely a bigger factor in him shooting up into the lottery. Standing only at 6-foot-3, Mitchell has a 6-foot-10 wingspan and terrific athleticism, which should allow him to be a beast on the defensive end of the floor.
Mitchell showed his summer league opponents just what a beast he could be. That included No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum as he accepted the challenge of guarding the Celtics’ offensively-gifted rookie. He also gave a taste of his own abilities offensively, particularly with his 23-point debut against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Mitchell’s speed and athleticism can allow him to get to the rim and finish consistently, while his jump shot also improved significantly last season. It’s still way too early to tell whether he can ever be able to be a No. 1 offensive option in the NBA, although the potential is there. However, his ability to affect the game on the defensive end looks much more certain, and would be a perfect complement to the Jazz’s defensive identity along with Rudy Gobert.
Search for the next star
Hayward’s departure has undoubtedly set the Jazz back, not just for the present, but also the future. With his combination of scoring and playmaking, he provided them with the consistent star-caliber offensive production that will be tough to replace. Yet, the Jazz’s present is still solid with Gobert, Rubio, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Joe Johnson, Rodney Hood, Exum, and Mitchell forming the backbone of a good team that should still be able to compete for a lower-seeded playoff spot in the West next season.
Their future also has a chance to be bright if Exum or Mitchell, or both, can fully maximize the talents which made them lottery picks. There’s obviously no certainty in that happening even with their excellent summer league displays, but Jazz fans can at least sell themselves on that hope.
Hope is all they really have right now because unless Jazz management somehow gets a hold of a high draft pick — either through tanking or a trade — Exum and Mitchell might be their best shot at being that star that can take the Jazz back to where they were headed before Hayward left.
Will the Jazz managed without Hayward? Comment below!