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30 preseason predictions: Utah Jazz

The league's next great defensive big man might be hiding in plain sight.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Jazz are working one of the smartest rebuilding plans of the modern NBA. They traded their franchise player before it became evident he was going to bolt and his value was at an all-time low. They kept trucking along as most of us begged them to rebuild, choosing instead to remain relatively relevant by relying on veterans. They let the contracts of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson expire when conventional wisdom advised them to take pennies on the dollar and salvage something, anything, for the rebuilding effort. Instead they decided that cap versatility was the way to go and absorbed toxic contracts for likely better assets than the ones they would have received in a panicky mid season trade.

Now they will probably start the youngest lineup out there, will have cap flexibility for the next couple of seasons and could be one of the worst teams in the league just when the most promising crop of draft prospects in years is looming. Not too shabby for one of the few small-market teams that has always managed to use smarts to offset its lack of geographical and cultural appeal.

Utah Jazz

Prediction: Derrick Favors will win the Most Improved Player award

When the Jazz offered Derrick Favors a lucrative four-year, $49 million extension, some monocles dropped around the league's intelligentsia. NBA blogosphere darling Larry Sanders had just received a slightly lower extension after putting together a masterpiece of a defensive season. Favors, on the other hand, had been a bench player for the underwhelming Jazz. The Georgia Tech product's potential impact on defense had always been touted ever since he declared for the draft, and he had showed glimpses here and there on his young career. But the Jazz seemed to be bidding against themselves for an unproven commodity. And yet this extension could be one of the smartest ones yet.

While Favors has never received the playing time of a starter, his per-minute production has indicated he should. The Jazz had two very solid veterans ahead of him but Favors 14 points, 11 boards and 2.6 blocks per 36 place him with some very impressive company. But those numbers, however impressive, can't really reflect just how profoundly he can affect the game on the defensive side.

The Jazz allowed only 102.8 points per 100 possessions with Favors on the court, a number that would have had them ranked 12th in the league in defensive rating. That's almost five points lower than the team allowed with Al Jefferson on the court and three points lower than they did with Paul Millsap playing. He ranked fifth in the league in block percentage and 19th in defensive rebound percentage. And unlike his equally statistically impressive bench running mate Enes Kanter, he is genuinely mobile enough to be the type of pick-and-roll destroyer that modern defenses need anchoring the paint.

Watching Favors play defense in space is enthralling. He's one of the few players out there that has the length to challenge even the most efficient of pick-and-roll ball-handlers both inside and out and can recover to his man after hedging hard thanks to his length and quickness. It doesn't always work to perfection, of course. The decision making is not always correct - in fact, that's likely where he needs the most growth - but the physical tools and the mindset are there for Favors to be genuine difference-maker on the defensive end sooner rather than later.

Offensively, the prognosis is not as encouraging. Favors is not a go-to guy at this point and he might never turn into one. After surviving on athleticism for most of his hoops playing career, he simply doesn't possess the skill level of a polished post player. But that's OK, as long as the Jazz understand that and don't force him to be something he is not. As a pick-and-roll finisher, Favors has gobs of potential thanks to his good hands and explosiveness. If he figures out when to make himself big and when to slip the screen, he could be deadly. He doesn't have the pick-setting mastery of Splitter or Noah yet but figuring out passing angles shouldn't be that hard for a guy that seems to understand how to close them just fine on defense.

How successful Favors can be next season, and therefore how accurate this prediction will look in hindsight, is hard to say. The Jazz will need a playmaker that can create for others to be successful and Favors' growth in particular will be tied to it. If John Lucas III or Jamaal Tinsley can lead the young big to the rim, he should put up enough points to garner attention for one of the league's most nonsensical awards. If the crowning of Marc Gasol as defensive player of the year taught me something is that defensive impact is being recognized asides from blocks and steals. And on that alone, Favors will likely deserve consideration.

Other Jazz predictions:

  • Gordon Hayward will not sign an extension
  • Brandon Rush will be traded during the season
  • Richard Jefferson will play well enough to earn another NBA contract
  • Rudy Gobert will get dunked on mercilessly on garbage time

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