For Jazz, how young is too young? Draft night for Utah is 'going to be hard to predict'

SALT LAKE CITY — Last year, as the NBA Draft approached, Utah Jazz general manager Justin Zanik sat down and looked at the board of available players. He looked at the order of teams selecting and then correctly predicted the exact order of the players in the lottery with the Jazz eventually using the ninth pick on a young forward out of Central Florida named Taylor Hendricks.

As the 2024 NBA Draft looms with Wednesday night’s first round, and Thursday’s second round, Zanik can make no such predictions. If last year’s draft represented stability, this one is the ultimate crapshoot. It’s extremely difficult to put together.

It puts the Jazz in a unique position. Sitting at the 10th spot, two days before it all goes down, it’s difficult for Zanik and team executive Danny Ainge to know who will be available once they get on the clock. It’s made for casting a wide net, and having a few good contingency plans is a must.

“This draft is much more flat than in other years,” Zanik said Monday morning. “I really think it’s going to be hard to predict this year. I think that someone can go at No. 5, or that same player can be available at No. 10 or even later. Maybe we’ll know a little more in a couple of days in terms of how the order is going to go.

“But, right now, it’s difficult to see how the order is going to go.”

For a Utah team that didn’t qualify for the playoffs for a second straight season, everything is on the table. If you are a Jazz fan, don’t be surprised by anything that happens before Wednesday, on Wednesday night or even beyond Wednesday. Utah can try to trade up for someone it likes. The Jazz could trade back and try and pick up more assets. Utah can even trade out, although that scenario seems increasingly unlikely.

The Jazz are a major chess piece in this draft because they have three of the first 32 picks. In addition to No. 10, they also have picks No. 29 and 32. Because they had three rookies this season — Hendricks, Keyonte George and Brice Sensabaugh — ideally Utah isn’t wild about having six players on its roster in the infancy of their professional development. And we can even throw center Walker Kessler into this mix because he’s headed into his third year.

Still, Zanik certainly isn’t ruling out the possibility of using all three picks. The Jazz are still in a stage in which they are developing a roster and trying to figure out what makes sense. Heading into the offseason, the lump of clay that is the Jazz roster still features Jordan Clarkson, John Collins and Colin Sexton. Lauri Markkanen is still the safest bet to be in a Jazz uniform for the long term. But this is a team that still needs a major overhaul, and Wednesday night’s draft is step one on that road.

“We’re a team that’s developing,” Zanik said. “But it’s important for us to have some veterans on the roster. However many young players that we have, we know the kids can’t raise themselves.”

Because the Jazz are in the middle of a rebuild, they are committed to taking the best player available on their board rather than drafting for a specific need. In terms of specifics, the Jazz need wings. They don’t have a single natural small forward at the top or in the middle of their roster. The NBA has been proven to be a small forward’s league, as evidenced by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics.

Zanik, Ainge, and the Utah front office have done extensive work in the past two months. They were front and center at the NBA’s Draft combine. The front office has gone to multiple pro days put on by various agencies. Utah has worked out almost 100 players, prospects whom the Jazz have had in mind in consideration for all three spots. Zanik said Utah has whittled that work down to eight players it would ideally like to draft at No. 10, and six players immediately below that tier.

What we know historically is that there will be an All-Star and probably multiple All-Stars that come out of this draft. Every crop has someone emerge in a big way, even the ones panned by the critics, such as this one. If you look at the 2013 NBA Draft, that group had Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert, players who have become surefire Hall of Fame-level players.

So Utah’s challenge, and the challenge of the rest of the NBA, is to find the players in this draft who will eventually become significant guys within the landscape of the league. The difference is that it’s more difficult to do in this draft than in previous groups.

Because the Jazz have two first-round picks and an early second, if they choose to make all three selections, they can mix it up a bit. They can choose an older guy, one without as high of a ceiling. They can choose a guy who has a bunch of upside, but who isn’t as NBA ready. Whichever way Utah chooses to go, the Jazz know they have done the work needed to make some decisions. After the draft, free agency begins this weekend. The offseason is officially upon us. How the Jazz deal with their roster will be as intriguing as the season itself.

“It takes a lot more projecting,” Zanik said. “But I believe and I have always said that there are no bad drafts. This draft is obviously a bit different than last year at the top of the draft. But I do think this draft from picks eight to 20 is every bit as deep as it was last year.”

(Photo: Rocky Widner / NBAE via Getty Images)

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