The Utah Jazz packaged and shipped Enes Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder at the trade deadline last week, for the low flat rate cost of Kendrick Perkins and a 2017 first-round pick. Kanter was once viewed as a franchise cornerstone when Utah selected him third overall in 2011, but the Switzerland native quickly became disgruntled in his role alongside Derrick Favors, ultimately demanding a last-second trade. Removing fourteen points and eight rebounds from an already struggling team should translate into more losses, right? Well, not exactly. Since Kanter’s abrupt departure, the Jazz have defeated two of the Western Conference elite opponents in the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs.
Rudy Gobert’s emergence played largely into Kanter’s diminished role during the waning weeks of his Jazz career. Standing at a monstrous 7-foot-1, the second-year center has quickly manifested himself into a promising franchise cornerstone following a rookie season in which he played a mere 9.6 minutes per game. With an absurd 9-foot-7 standing reach, Gobert instills fear into the opposition due to his elite rim protection abilities. While his minutes are expected to drastically increase througout the remainder of the season, Gobert’s stats per 36 minutes are off the charts averaging 11.1 points, 12.1 rebounds and 3.6 blocks.
The centerpiece to the trade, which sent Deron Williams to the New Jersey Nets in 2011, was power forward Derrick Favors. Selected third in the 2010 NBA Draft, Favors is often subject to scrutiny for not evolving into the 20-10 machine Utah had originally anticipated. He’s not a great individual defender, tends to drift in and out of games and is in the first year of a four-year, $48 million contract extension. All of these glaring issues were magnified as Utah continued to underperform, but when paired with Gobert, Favors has performed tremendously well. In fact, in seven games with a Favors-Gobert starting frontcourt, Utah allows a league-best 89.4 points per game.
The catalyst to this Jazz team is Butler product Gordon Hayward. Utah locked the swingman up long-term last summer, matching a max offer he received from the Charlotte Hornets. Hayward plays a traditional style of basketball, with an emphasis on fundamentals, to make up for any lapses in athleticism. A superior defender in college, the small forward’s lack of quickness and strength are evident when facing the elite class of athletes in today’s NBA. Despite his flaws, Hayward remains a constant offensive threat through his knack for facilitating and attacking the basket. Hayward is averaging a career-high 19.6 points per game this season, on 45.8 percent shooting.
Head coach Quin Snyder has opted to start 27-year-old rookie, Joe Ingles, at shooting guard in wake of Alec Burks’ season-ending injury. A savvy defender, Ingles is a pest who becomes overzealous at times, committing ill-advised fouls. The majority of Ingles’ shots come from behind arc, although he converts a mediocre 31.9 percent of his threes.
Drafting an 18-year-old with little to no professional experience, from a foreign country, fifth in a loaded 2014 NBA Draft certainly presented its fair share of risks. Dante Exum has put together an underwhelming rookie campaign thus far, posting an abysmal 6.60 Player Efficiency Rating, ranking fifth worst amongst thirty qualified rookies. By no means does this warrant a “bust” label just 55 games into his NBA career, but it is unsettling to say the least. In retrospect, Utah would have been better off selecting Marcus Smart. However, management elected to draft based on upside. Weighing a lanky 190 pounds, Exum tends to get bullied by stronger point guards with a lower center of gravity such as Jordan Clarkson.
Keys To Victory:
Expose Dante Exum: As previously mentioned, Exum has yet to fill into his 6-foot-6 frame. Both Clarkson and Jeremy Lin’s bread and butter is attacking the basket, which could be a matchup nightmare for Exum. A 35.4 percent field goal shooter, the Los Angeles Lakers can afford to hedge the screens and go under, daring Exum to shoot.
Effort and Resiliency: Sunday’s victory over the Boston Celtics was by all means a thriller. As Kobe Bryant and Byron Scott have since addressed, the post-game celebrations were a bit over the top considering the Lakers’ 14-41 record. After big wins, it’s easy to become lackadaisical and overconfident the succeeding night, which will ultimately lead to defeat. The Lakers will need to temper their emotions and focus on earning a win on the road against the very beatable Jazz squad.
Bench Scoring: Los Angeles was ignited late in the Boston game by impressive performances from Lin, Nick Young and Wesley Johnson – all of whom have fallen out of the starting lineup. It may be a steep task, but the bench group must emulate Sunday’s performance to have a shot at defeating Utah’s top ten-ranked defense.
Heading into tonight’s game, Lakers are 9.5-point underdogs against the Jazz via Sportsbook.ag.
Los Angeles Lakers (14-41) at Utah Jazz (21-34)
6:00 PM PST, February 25, 2015
Energy Solutions Arena, Salt Lake City, UT
TV: TWC SN
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)
Jazz Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Dante Exum
SG: Joe Ingles
SF: Gordon Hayward
PF: Derrick Favors
C: Rudy Gobert
Key Reserves: PG: Trey Burke SG: Elijah Millsap PF: Trevor Booker
Lakers Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Jordan Clarkson
SG: Wayne Ellington
SF: Ryan Kelly
PF: Carlos Boozer
C: Robert Sacre
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