What did the Jazz front office learn at NBA Draft Combine? Exploring first-round options

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The NBA Draft Combine has come and gone this week, and the Utah Jazz are set to progress to the next stage of the draft process. That stage will begin this week when they start individual workouts.

So, what did the front office learn in Chicago? What did they get done with their individual interviews? And how has that affected their strategy for the draft, which will take place in a month?

The Jazz conducted more than 20 player interviews during the combine last week. They went to multiple pro day workouts. They watched the scrimmages. They looked at and analyzed the numbers, the vertical jumps, the shuttle runs and the player measurements.

Among the players they interviewed are Taylor Hendricks and Jarace Walker. They also interviewed Anthony Black, Andre Jackson, GG Jackson, Jalen Hood-Schifino, Cam Whitmore and a host of others.

Utah has come away convinced that a good player will be available when it picks at the No. 9 spot. Also, the Jazz are optimistic about the value of the draft when they pick at No. 16 and No. 28. They feel that the draft is deep enough that they can add impactful talent at all three of their draft positions. Ideally, they want to add a lead ballhandler at some point in the draft. But, they won’t draft for fit at the expense of talent.

So, expect the Jazz to pick the best talent available on the board, regardless of position, when their turn comes at No. 9. About the only spot that should be exempt from this credo is at center. They obviously aren’t going to draft Victor Wembanyama, and, other than Dereck Lively from Duke, there isn’t another center on the board who carries a lottery projection.

But, every other position is in play at No. 9. So, if Hendricks is the best player on the board, or Ausar Thompson, or Black, or Whitmore, the Jazz are going to take the player who is at the top of their board when they use their lottery pick. The roster that the Jazz finished the season with makes this possible. Kessler, Lauri Markkanen and Ochai Agbaji comprise the current core. Everything else can be mixed and matched around them.

Markkanen’s versatility helps a ton here, as he’s equally effective at small forward and power forward. So, if the Jazz draft Hendricks or Walker, expect Markkanen to play a lot of his minutes at small forward. If the Jazz draft Whitmore, who is more of a natural small forward, expect Markkanen to slide to the power forward slot. If the Jazz pick Ausar Thompson, that also becomes interesting, because he has been a small forward to this point of his career, but there is belief that he can develop into a lead ballhandler.

Whatever happens with picks No. 16 and 28 depends a lot on what happens with Utah’s lottery pick. A big question concerning the lottery pick: Will the Jazz try to trade up? We know that the Portland Trail Blazers at No. 3 would like to trade their pick in order to secure help for star point guard Damian Lillard. What we also know is that the Charlotte Hornets and Houston Rockets, at Nos. 2 and 4 respectively, have fit issues for the best players available at their respective draft spots.

That could mean opportunity for teams to make a phone call, and the Jazz are probably going to be one of those teams. That doesn’t mean a move is imminent – far from it. But it does mean that, as we hit the four-week mark towards the draft, you can’t rule anything out.

Assuming Utah stays at No. 9, the depth of talent of this draft puts the Jazz in a good spot. It also could dictate what happens at No. 16. If the Jazz take Walker or Hendricks, or even Whitmore or Ausar Thompson at No. 9, there are a number of lead ballhandler types that could be available at No. 16. Those players include Keyonte George from Baylor, Nick Smith from Arkansas and Hood-Schifino, assuming he doesn’t get plucked somewhere in the lottery. We are also talking someone like Kobe Bufkin, the point guard out of Michigan. Utah can also take the safe route and draft someone like Kris Murray, a 6-foot-8 shooter out of Iowa, who is the twin brother of Sacramento Kings forward Keegan Murray.

Duke guard Dariq Whitehead remains an intriguing option with pick No. 16, or 28. A lot of his viability will depend on his medical evaluation. But he’s relatively young for this draft class and has a real blend of athleticism and skills. More importantly, for someone who played ball in hand all through high school, he was forced to adapt to a role playing off the ball this season at Duke, became a much better defender and contributed to winning instead of complaining about his situation. Whitehead doing that has endeared him to decision makers in the draft process.

What the Jazz believe even more strongly after the combine is that they have options. Those options will be dictated by what happens with their lottery pick, but the talent and versatility of this draft is what they learned in Chicago at the combine.

(Photo of Taylor Hendricks: Peter G. Aiken / Getty Images)

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