Belated breakout of Rockets guard Jalen Green has Jazz preaching patience for own young players

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SALT LAKE CITY — Before his team took on the Utah Jazz Friday night, Houston Rockets coach Ime Udoka spoke generally about the development of his team’s young core, and more specifically about the recent incendiary breakout of third-year guard Jalen Green.

“It’s not always gonna happen overnight for guys,” he said. “Patience is really important.”

It’s a message that his former colleague and now-Utah Jazz counterpart, Will Hardy, is only too happy to latch onto, considering how integral to the organization’s future his own collection of young talent is considered to be.

Green, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft, was until recently considered nothing more than a high-volume, low-efficiency chucker who had zero impact on winning and had generally become considered an inferior prospect to teammate Alperen Sengun, who was selected 14 picks later in that same draft.

That narrative — the first part, anyway — is presently nowhere to be found.

In the 18 games he’d played since the All-Star break (before Friday), Green was averaging 25.3 points on 46.5% from the field and 41.1% from deep, to go along with 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game.

He’d been especially electric in the seven games immediately preceding the Jazz matchup, bumping those figures to 33.7 points on 53.2% from the field and 49.4% from 3-point range, plus 7.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists.

Oh, and incidentally, his scorching hot play just happens to coincide with an epic winning streak, as Houston is now up to 11 consecutive victories, and in hot pursuit of a play-in tournament spot.

Hardy certainly has taken notice.

“Jalen is a great example of you don’t want to judge players too early. But that’s where this business is,” he said. “It can be hard at times, because you don’t want to judge them too early, but you also have to judge them at some point, because you have to make decisions as an organization about what you’re going to do moving forward. So you’re trying to look at signs and trends.

“I don’t think anybody’s ever questioned Jalen’s talent. … Jalen is a good reminder for all of us that how people play at 19 and 20 isn’t necessarily going to be the end of their story,” he added.

That’s certainly the hope with the likes of Keyonte George, Taylor Hendricks, Brice Sensabaugh, and Walker Kessler.

Each has had their moments in the league, but there’s also been plenty of inconsistency and myriad struggles to this point.

In the coach’s view, that’s pretty much to be expected.

Hardy noted that player development is far different now than even in the recent past, considering that then, the “one-and-done” college route was pretty exclusive to only the most elite of the prospects; while now, it’s fairly standard for many who view themselves as future NBA players.

“There’s so many guys coming into the league now after one year of college, and we can’t take that for granted,” he said. “I think the arc of development is different now than it was eight years ago, when maybe you had rookies coming in at 22 who played four years of college basketball; and not only had they played more basketball, but they were physically more mature. The difference in strength and athleticism sometimes between 19 and 22 can be pretty big.”

Houston Rockets guard Jalen Green (4) is blocked by Utah Jazz forward John Collins (20) during a game at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Mar 29, 2024.
Houston Rockets guard Jalen Green (4) is blocked by Utah Jazz forward John Collins (20) during a game at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Mar 29, 2024. (Photo: Marielle Scott, Deseret News)

The Jazz’s cadre of youth certainly looked the part on Friday.

George had 6 points (on 3-of-12 shooting) and six assists, but also racked up six of Utah’s 21 turnovers. Sensabaugh, who got the start with Lauri Markkanen out injured, notched 4 points and five assists, but was scoreless on 0-of-8 shooting. Kessler, meanwhile, totaled 4 points and six rebounds off the bench, but had zero blocks and three turnovers.

Hendricks was arguably the most effective of the group, with 8 points on 3-of-7 shooting from the field, while contributing nine rebounds and two blocks, and being the only player from the quartet on the court in the game’s clutch final minutes.

“It means a lot to me. I want to be one of the cornerstones of this team, and I feel like close games is a big part of that,” Hendricks said postgame. “My decision-making in the fourth quarter, things like that, it’s all building for something bigger.”

Utah has now lost eight games in a row. An individual game result, though, at the end of a season such as this, is pretty secondary now to the big-picture ability to bring players along.

Hardy noted that Hendricks and Sensabaugh are, for the first time, getting the experience of driving to the arena knowing that they’ll be getting playing time every night.

He added that he has “an end goal in mind for each” of the aforementioned four, and that the only issue now is resolving the ongoing debate between he and his assistants about “which pieces of that plan need to be addressed now,” and what can wait a bit.

“​​Right now, our biggest focus is trying to help our young players build a foundation of habits on both sides of the ball. … We’re trying to build some really foundational stuff for them that we’re hoping will be able to be carried forward throughout their career,” Hardy said. “I’m thinking about Taylor and Brice and Keyonte and Walker — sort of the younger guys on our roster — in terms of ‘How do we set them up and set ourselves up for the best possible future?’ by trying to plan their next four months, now through the summer up to next training camp.”

It’s a path that could bear fruit with future development. Green finally seems to be set up well for the future.

Certainly some of his recent statistical bump can be attributed to the absence of Sengun (season-ending ankle injury) and a corresponding leap in usage, but frankly, his field-goal attempts can’t be considered out of pocket when he’s been as efficient as he’s been.

He’s been impactful, too.

Green shook off a slow start Friday in which he managed only 4 points before halftime, as he amassed 20 in the third quarter and 10 more in the fourth, to finish with 34 points (on 11-of-24 shooting from the field and 4-of-11 from three) plus nine rebounds and six assists.

One of the Jazz players hoping to emulate his path of down-the-road success certainly is well-aware of Green’s transformation.

“Obviously, the first few years was rough for him, but I’m sure he worked his butt off, because jumps like this, they don’t just happen overnight; it’s constant work every day,” Hendricks said. “So I can learn (that) if you just put your head down, keep working, don’t worry about what’s going on in the moment, the future’s always bright.”

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