Commitment to player development at the heart of Utah Jazz's rapid rise

The Utah Jazz are ripe for a sudden rise that few expected to come quite this early. 
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There has been nothing but crickets from the Utah Jazz thus far through free agency. Utah could have pressed the fast-forward button on its current rebuild after a surprising 38-win season under rookie head coach Quinn Snyder. The Jazz had the opportunity to clear near-max salary cap space to chase one the NBA’s premier free agents this summer. Instead, Utah has opted to stay patient. Patience has been a virtue for the franchise of late.

Utah’s front office is bullish, to say the least, on their young core of Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. David Fredman, who is entering his 42nd season in the NBA, said as much. The Jazz director of pro player personnel moved with the Jazz from New Orleans to Utah in 1974, and spent 15 years as an assistant to Jerry Sloan. 

“I’ve seen about all the regimes [in franchise history] and I will say that I’ve seen nothing as exciting as what we’re doing now,” says Fredman. “It’s certainly the most excitement we’ve had since the run to the Finals in ’97 and ‘98.” 

The front office’s optimism is warranted. With the Clippers and Blazers expected to step back next season, the Jazz could seemingly compete for a playoff spot right here, right now.

Nobody around the NBA expected this rapid transformation only two years ago, following a dreadful 2013-14 campaign that tallied just 25 wins and culminated in head coach Tyrone Corbin’s termination. Utah higher-ups credit the incredible turnaround to one main factor: the Jazz’s hyper-attention to player development under Snyder with general manager Dennis Lindsey’s heavy influence. The return of the Utah Jazz Summer League on July 6 is merely the latest example.

Lindsey arrived in Salt Lake City with a vision molded by 18 years inside the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs organizations. As the Spurs’ assistant GM from 2007-12, Lindsey watched Gregg Popovich and his staff transform miscast youngsters like Danny Green and Gary Neal from D-League prospects to championship-rotation players. He also recognized the importance of San Antonio’s hybrid relationship with the then-Austin Toros.

Synder’s first head-coaching job came on the Toros’ bench from 2007-10, playing an integral role within San Antonio’s development system. The staff in Utah is littered with D-League alums; assistant coaches Brad Jones and Alex Jenson have both been head coaches in the D-League as well.

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Together, Jazz leadership has meticulously approached player development. After Utah paid roughly $300,000 for a hybrid relationship with the Idaho Stampede last season, according to a source, it’s no surprise the Jazz went all in and purchased the D-League franchise in March. “We think that’s the way of the future,” Fredman says.

Utah’s relationship with the Stampede allowed the Jazz to call up a staggering seven D-Leaguers during the 2013-14 campaign. Four of which—Elijah Millsap, Bryce Cotton, Chris Johnson and Jack Cooley—all inked non-guaranteed, long term contracts with the team.

Cooley may be the modern model of a Jazz player. At 6’9", 246 pounds, the forward has worked tirelessly from his days as a plodding center at Notre Dame—"His first two years, he would almost shed tears the nights before our conditioning drills," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey says—to morph into a prototypical stretch-four in today’s NBA. Agile yet burly, Cooley can pick-and-roll and dive hard to the rim. He’s also capable of stretching the floor with a dangerous outside jumper. Cooley says he converted 70% of is uncontested three-point attempts during spring offseason workouts at the Jazz practice facility.

Utah’s key has been taking an individualized approach to player development. During Cooley’s six weeks with the Jazz this spring, it was the first time a coach literally had a tailor-made workout regimen with Cooley’s name on it. “I feel like a lot of teams out there fall into the trap of ‘All the 4s do this drill, all the 5s do this drill,’” Cooley says. “No two players are the same.”

The Jazz repeatedly drilled Cooley in varying pick-and-roll situations with Jenson and Antonio Lang. He also trained under the watchful eye of Stampede head coach Dean Cooper. The Jazz emphasized Cooley’s explosion off of screens, and Cooley workshopped a floater the Jazz feel confident he can unleash against quality NBA defenders in playmaking situations following a pick-and-pop.

Utah’s coaches tinkered with Cooley’s shooting mechanics as well. The big man spent hours with the Jazz’s staff, shifting the ball further off his palm and into the ideal launch pad of his finger tips. The Jazz filmed every player workout and sent each individual home with a highlight tape to emulate on his own before Summer League minicamp began. The overall strategy has Lindsey and Snyder hopeful Cooley, Cotton and Millsap can improve the way Danny Green and Gary Neal did for the Spurs.

“We’re very impressed with Jack’s growth,” Fredman says. “There’s very little difference between the last few spots in the NBA and many of the players in the D-League. It’s often just about right place, right time.”

The final segment of Utah’s offseason player workouts saw the Jazz send every player under contract to the P3 facilities in Santa Barbara. “We were one of the first NBA teams to start using P3,” Fredman says.

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The Jazz bring their entire roster to Santa Barbara several times a season—a routine for the last six or seven seasons—and will do so again in September prior to training camp. Utah’s strength and conditioning coach Mark McCowen has developed a relationship with P3’s Dr. Marcus Elliot. The players are examined and tested by the P3 staff in the morning and the Jazz coaching staff runs them through basketball activities in the afternoon.

This spring, Cooley learned he needed to strengthen his hips to better withstand the pounding he absorbs against 7-foot behemoths in the paint. Utah credits their 2014 spring stint at P3 with jumpstarting Rudy Gobert’s training to add the muscle and strength necessary for his breakout season in 2014-15. “It’s gotten very scientific,” Fredman says. “I guess there’s basically analytics to the physical conditioning of NBA players these days also.”

Utah has a near-flawless track record under Snyder and Lidnsey, who is now three years into his tenure. Purchasing the No. 27 selection from the Denver Nuggets in 2013 to swipe Gobert has proved an absolute coup. The Jazz are extremely pleased with the defensive potential Dante Exum flashed towards the conclusion of his rookie season, and they’re very intrigued by how Trey Lyles’s crafty skillset can blend with Gobert and Favors’s power and athleticism in the frontcourt. Don’t forget about their promising D-League investment.

All of the above explain why the Jazz have been silent during free agency. “We’re very comfortable with the players we have right now, getting our young players better and seeing what we have before we venture into the trade market or free agent market,” Fredman says. “That’s something that has to do with our reputation as a work program and a developmental staff.” Like the majority of NBA teams, Utah will have the chance to splurge in free agency next season, and they will enter the summer with even more knowledge about the development of Snyder's young roster.

Overall, the Jazz seem primed for a crescendo that wasn’t expected nearly this early.

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