The Utah Jazz are right on the brink of joining the upper echelon of NBA teams.
Of course, that could all go wrong if Gordon Hayward departs for greener pastures — or, at least, the iconic green jerseys of the Boston Celtics, or perhaps if he pulls a LeBron James and takes his talents to South Beach to join the Miami Heat.
But, it’s possible that what happens in Thursday’s NBA Draft, and the Utah Jazz Summer League that begins July 3 at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, is just as important.
Even with Hayward, the Jazz are a flawed team. They need more pieces if they hope to join the likes of San Antonio and Houston in the Western Conference’s second tier, let alone if they want to compete with the juggernaut that is NBA champion Golden State. The draft is a good place to find those missing pieces for relatively low cost — an important consideration for a small-market team like the Jazz, which also has the added difficulty of trying to lure big-name free-agents to small-town Salt Lake City and its supposed lack of nightlife.
The summer league also is a great opportunity to uncover those diamonds in the rough who can become valuable role players down the line for the Jazz. There have been a significant number of talented players who have gone undrafted over the years, including guys like Ben Wallace, Jeremy Lin, Avery Johnson and Udonis Haslem — not necessarily All-Stars, but players who have been more than merely serviceable NBA players.
More likely than not, the Jazz are going into the next couple of weeks trying to fill those last couple spots on the end of their bench, assuming that the fact that they can offer more money than anyone else allows them to keep Hayward in the fold. But, if Hayward leaves, finding someone in the draft or through summer league play could make the difference between making the playoffs in a suddenly crowded Northwest Division or slipping back into the mediocrity that has largely plagued the franchise since the end of the Jerry Sloan era.
Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah. He is looking forward to this year’s summer league in Salt Lake City since the 76ers will be bringing their new No. 1 pick with them. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.