Jazz giving lottery pick Taylor Hendricks room to grow: ‘A lot of work to be done’

Once the Utah Jazz traded Kelly Olynyk and Simone Fontecchio last Thursday, the next phase began for a team in transition. Part of that next phase is to get Taylor Hendricks into the rotation and keep him there for the remainder of the season.

In case there’s some ambiguity to this, Jazz head coach Will Hardy announced this intention in the moments before the Jazz lost to the Phoenix Suns last Thursday. He also made a point to emphasize that Hendricks’ foot is in the door, but the rookie’s viability in the rotation will depend on how well he plays.

It’s the obvious move by the Jazz. Hendricks, 20, was the No. 9 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. Outside of a two-week December stint, he had been mostly relegated to the SLC Stars of the G League where he’s played well. He’s a better player now than when the Jazz drafted him. But there’s no simulation for NBA minutes. That’s one of the reasons, as painful as it was, the Jazz knew they had to trade Olynyk. They had to clear a path to get Hendricks onto the floor.

The overall goal is to see Hendricks play for 30 games and evaluate his progress. That will give the Jazz an idea of what they need from him during the offseason. Even after their 129-107 loss to the Golden State Warriors, the Jazz are still in the Play-In Tournament hunt, 1.5 games behind the Warriors for the West’s 10th spot. The good news is that Hendricks will be able to play in some important games down the stretch — the more important the better.

At the beginning of the season, the 6-foot-9 Hendricks wasn’t exactly ready for real minutes. If we are being honest, he’s still not ready for minutes. He didn’t play well on Monday night’s lopsided loss to the Warriors. For the most part, he looked lost. He struggled to defend. He was non-existent offensively. He got into foul trouble. In almost every way against the Warriors, Hendricks looked out of place.

But the Jazz know that getting him into the rotation meant there are inevitably going to be some rough nights. But, now they will have film to watch and to show him where he needs to improve. This is the next step in the process.

“What I appreciate about Taylor is how professional he’s been,” Hardy said. “He’s not naive to where he’s at right now and what has to happen. He knows there is a lot of work to be done and he knows what he needs to work on.”

When you look at his skillset relative to what he is physically, he isn’t the typical lottery pick. His rise up the draft boards last season was borne of two traits that aren’t typical in 6-foot-10 guys: He defends the perimeter as well as protects the rim. He can shoot. Hendricks did both in his one season at Central Florida, immediately becoming one of the best freshmen in college basketball.

What everyone needs to realize is that Hendricks is raw and he will need to be molded for at least another season. For Jazz fans, the thing to do is look for the flashes of talent. Outside of the obvious superstars, his ceiling is as high as anyone in the 2023 draft.

Yet, as this season has proven, the floor is low. It’s why the Jazz are getting him into the rotation. He needs reps now, even if it negatively affects Utah’s bottom line of wins and losses. He needs to play game after game. He needs to find a rhythm.

When he found one in December, he affected games positively, particularly on defense. He’s an uncommon defensive talent.

Check out this possession in isolation against Kevin Durant:

KD is one of the best offensive players in NBA history. He’s almost impossible to stay in front of without some sort of help. There are very few players who can meet Durant at the summit of his shot. Hendricks not only stayed in front of Durant, but he easily blocked Durant’s layup attempt off the backboard. Look at the timing of the block. He allowed Durant to commit to his finish, and then erased it. The instincts of that one play are incredible.

One of the reasons I consistently compare Hendricks to Memphis forward Jaren Jackson Jr. is that JJJ — and possibly Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac — are the only two players who come to mind with that kind of size and length that are capable of making that kind of play. If I were a Jazz fan, it’s one of the reasons I would be patient with Hendricks. The flashes, when he shows them, are unique.

That’s one of the reasons Hendricks went so high in the draft, and why he was coveted by a number of teams. The NBA as a league are consistently trying to find 6-9 guys who can switch through positions, and hold up defensively in isolation against the league’s best. When you find that player, your defense has a chance in a league where most defenses don’t have a chance. Hendricks has a chance to be one of those guys.

The Jazz are confident that Hendricks eventually will become a useful rotation player. His strengths don’t lend to much bust potential but they are hopeful he can become a star. For that to happen, he must develop on the offensive end. Right now, he can shoot and make 3-pointers. He can finish above the rim if he has a clear path to the basket. He can attack a closeout and use one or two dribbles to get into the lane.

But this is where he is raw. Most important this offseason is he needs to hit the weight room every day. He must become stronger. He also needs to become a lot more confident on offense. You can argue that will come with time, experience and a belief that he can be good at the NBA level. The biggest difference between Hendricks and Utah’s rookie point guard Keyonte George lies here.

George spent most of his upbringing as one of the best players in his age group. He played for Team USA. He was a McDonald’s All-American. George knew from an early age that he would be playing in the NBA. He came into the NBA confident that he belonged. George being drafted by the Jazz at No. 16 lower from where he was ranked as a player for years.

Hendricks never experienced that. He wasn’t a consistent top-100 kid in high school. He was an unknown heading into UCF. In that aspect, he’s had much more of a learning curve than George.

If Hendricks is going to be a star, the swing skills on offense will be the key to becoming one. The Jazz are hoping he develops into at least a hybrid forward, and ideally that he can develop into a small forward. That will take a lot of work, a lot of repetition and a lot of force-feeding Hendricks into uncomfortable positions.

Still, as we saw on the defensive end, there are flashes. Check out this play, where Hendricks hit John Collins for a dunk:

The pocket pass was beautiful, but it’s just that Hendricks ran a pick and roll here that’s encouraging. Rather than making a premeditated read, the pass seemed instinctual. You want premeditated reads, but that Hendricks delivered this, and hit Collins for the dunk, has to be encouraging if you are the Jazz.

In the game Hendricks has played after the trade deadline, you can see the Jazz trying to develop him. In December, Hendricks played exclusively out of a corner on offense. If the ball came to him, great: shoot it, dribble, or pass it. If not, stay in that corner and crash the glass if a shot went up.

Against the Warriors, the Jazz ran him off the same baseline screen action they consistently run star forward Lauri Markkanen. They got Hendricks into some dribble handoff action. He was playing a lot more above the break from the 3-point line than out of the corners.

It’s all a clear attempt to accelerate his development.

What the Jazz know is that Hendricks is going to be rough around the edges, and there will be times where he’s not going to look good. But, like the rest of this rebuild, they are aiming for tomorrow and not today. It’s why they traded Olynyk, who was one of their better players. They need to know exactly what the data is on their lottery pick.

Now, we are all about to find out.

(Photo of Taylor Hendricks: Melissa Majchrzak / NBAE via Getty Images)

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