SALT LAKE CITY — Bringing back a roster virtually unchanged from the end of last season isn’t intended to be a sign that the Utah Jazz have embraced the status quo.
The Jazz want to send a much different message.
This is a team eager to prove last season’s strong finish was simply a snapshot of a climb toward becoming an elite team. One thing is certain: Utah will not be sneaking up on anyone this time around, so an even better encore performance will be needed.
“That focus for me is maybe the unspoken thing when you talk about a team that has guys back and all of that,” coach Quin Snyder said. “I want to see them get better. I want to see guys get better individually and I want to see us collectively get better.”
Donovan Mitchell lessened the blow of Gordon Hayward’s departure, averaging a team-high 20.5 points per game during a breakout rookie season. He was even better in the playoffs, averaging 28.5 points on 46.2 percent shooting to help power a first-round series win over Oklahoma City.
Stopping Mitchell will be a focal point in many defensive game plans this year and he’s preparing himself physically and mentally for the challenge, which will begin Oct. 17 in the season opener at Sacramento.
“There’s a difference in how people are going to play me this year and how they’re going to guard me,” Mitchell said.
Rudy Gobert, last season’s NBA Defensive Player of the Year, is eager to make himself equally forceful on offense after averaging 13.5 points on 62.2 percent shooting — mostly near the rim. Gobert has worked on extending his range and feels like it will add a dimension to his game.
“I haven’t scratched the potential I can have and the things I can do on offense,” Gobert said. “I feel like this year is going to be my best year so far.”
Utah posted a 96.0 defensive rating after the break last season as the Jazz went 29-6 to close the regular season. Snyder is convinced the Jazz can be even better.
“We can be elite defensively,” Snyder said. “Not just good. Not just great, but elite. There’s a difference there. If we can do that, I think we’re gonna have a chance to win some games.”
Utah’s biggest moves in the offseason were keeping Derrick Favors, Dante Exum and Raul Neto, signing all of them to multi-year contracts. Favors arguably could have signed elsewhere and carved out a bigger role given his inconsistent minutes in Utah.
The veteran forward dropped 14 pounds over the summer and has worked on extending his shooting range. Favors attempted 63 3-pointers last season after attempting 26 total in his first seven seasons combined.
RUBIO GROWING AS SHOOTER
It took some time for Ricky Rubio to adjust to the Jazz offense after coming over in a trade from Minnesota. Once Rubio did, he emerged as an actual shooting threat late in the season. He finished as Utah’s No. 3 scorer, averaging 13.1 points while shooting 41.8 percent from the field and 35.2 percent from 3-point range — all career highs.
Defenses had to start thinking about Rubio on the perimeter, instead of automatically ducking under screens once he got the ball. Rubio gained a ton of confidence in his shot and is eager to see what he can do now that he is familiar with the Jazz system.
“It’s something that last year everything was new,” Rubio said. “I was in the league for six years, but (moved) to a new franchise. I had never changed franchises and seeing a new system, a new coaching staff and now knowing how it works, it’s going to be better, more comfortable. I hope the results are even better than last year.”
THREE AND D CLUB
Utah has its share of dangerous shooters and in-your-face defenders, led by Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder, whose shooting touch dipped last season Crowder also dropped 14 pounds over the summer, like Favors, and should be quicker.
Can Exum finally reach his full potential in his fifth season in Utah? He missed the entire 2015-16 season with a knee injury. A shoulder injury limited him to only 14 games a year ago. Still, Exum showed signs of being a stopper and a playmaker in limited action late last season. He posted averages of 8.1 points and 3.1 assists in 16.8 minutes per game.
The Jazz gambled that Exum will keep moving forward. They brought him back on a three year deal worth $33 million.