SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors have fully stepped into the spotlight for the Utah Jazz, whether they are ready or not.
After seasons of deferring to players like Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, the fourth-year players are the unmistakable future of the Jazz. Utah moved into rebuilding mode by shuttling four of their top five scorers after finishing last season at 43-39, just missing the playoffs.
Management hopes loyal followers will show patience as youngsters like center Enes Kanter, forward Jeremy Evans and guard Alec Burks become the supporting cast to Favors and Hayward.
"I think we recovered more quickly than most people around the NBA thought we would after trading away a franchise player in Deron Williams," Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said. "We had two pretty good seasons after that but it got to the point where we had to make some decisions to allow our young players to grow and plan well for the salary cap."
The Jazz showed their full commitment to the youth movement by signing the 6-foot-10, 263-pound Favors to a four-year extension that is worth more than $50 million with incentives. A similar deal for Hayward is in the works and is expected to be signed before the Oct. 31 deadline.
"It's going to be a challenge for sure but it will definitely be exciting. We are ready to take the next step and we can't wait for the season to get started. It's going to be quite a journey for this team," said Hayward, a 6-foot-8 athletic forward who averaged 14.1 points per game last season.
"We will be looking to have Gordon and Derrick make big plays for us this year on both ends of the court," coach Tyrone Corbin said.
Here are five things to watch for with the Jazz this season:
ROOKIE POINT GUARD: The Jazz traded their two first-round picks to move up and claim Trey Burke in the draft. Burke was set to be the starter at point guard before breaking his finger in his third preseason game. He faces a two-to-three month post-surgery rehabilitation while Utah hands the reins to journeyman John Lucas III. Once Burke returns, the Jazz have high hopes for the consensus player of the year at Michigan but realize it may be a bumpy road. "He is a special player. You'll soon see how good he can be," Hayward said.
DEFENSIVE EMPHASIS: The signing and promotion of Favors demonstrates Utah's new focus on defense. Instead of Jefferson's reliable offensive game and poor defense, the Jazz have bet on a rim-protector in Favors who has no go-to scoring moves around the basket. "I know people have low expectations but I'm excited to prove everybody wrong and we can do that by making it tough for them to score," Favors said.
WARRIOR INFLUX: Since youth breeds inconsistency, the three players who came to the Jazz from Golden State primarily as a salary dump may become important. Richard Jefferson, who rarely played last season and has the highest salary on the team in the last year of his contract, has been starting at forward in the preseason for the Jazz. Brandon Rush will be a primary rotation player because of his defense and 3-point accuracy when he returns from knee surgery in a month or two. Center Andris Biedrins was an afterthought in the deal so if he and the other newcomers are playing big minutes it will be a sign the Jazz youngsters rate not as far along as the team hoped.
EFFECTS OF LOSING: None of the Jazz players have publicly mentioned the word "playoffs" and it remains to be seen if morale stays high when losing streaks become common. Players repeat the mantra of concentrating on giving maximum effort and just improving. "It's exciting to see how this group of guys, who really work well together, come into their roles. Our only expectation is to compete every night and lay it all on the line," Corbin said.
WHO WILL SCORE?: The Jazz don't have a proven creative scorer on the roster and will be operating without a top-flight point guard for the first part of the season. The traditional, methodical Jazz offense may be substituted with an up-tempo, opportunistic attack. "We need to find points now that the veterans are gone. I think we'll be going more in transition this year," Favors said. Hayward may also become more of a playmaker. Corbin said, "Gordon has grown every year and now his time has come to shine. He's going to have the ball in his hands more."