SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Rodney Hood wasn't shy about announcing that he wants to be named the NBA's Most Improved Player this season. The Utah Jazz may need that kind of effort from him to earn a second consecutive playoff berth.
The franchise was shaken when Gordon Hayward signed with the Boston Celtics on July 4. The Jazz had been building the program for years with Hayward as its offensive centerpiece and were left twisting when the team's leading scorer decided to head East.
''Kind of understood that during the summer when everything went down,'' Hood said of the new opportunity. ''Just preparing for it. Got in the gym, put in a lot of work. Getting ready for that opportunity. To be in my fourth year and get this opportunity to lead such a great team and be alongside (Rudy Gobert) and help us get back to where we were ... I'm ready for it.''
Between Hayward and George Hill, who signed with the Kings, the Jazz lost their top two scorers, who combined for 38.8 points per game. That's exactly where they need Hood to step up. Hood has shown the ability to be a big-time scorer, but injuries and consistency have been a persistent issue. He worked on his post game with Joe Johnson during the summer and has been aggressive in the preseason.
Recent history suggests Hood will need at least a 7.3 jump in his scoring average to be named Most Improved. He averaged 12.7 points in 59 games last season and the last four winners of the award all averaged at least 20 - Giannis Antetokounmpo (22.9), C.J. McCollum (20.8), Jimmy Butler (20.0) and Goran Dragic (20.3).
That's a significant jump for Hood. Only 31 players averaged 20-plus points last season and that was the first time in Hayward's career. The Jazz hadn't had a player average 20 points since Deron Williams during the 2010-11 season.
A healthy Derrick Favors and Gobert are expected to help on offense, but the Jazz are hoping Hood can make the kind of leap that Hayward did in recent years that turned him into an All-Star.
''Our challenge is going to be to score,'' coach Quin Snyder said. ''Being able to score in the half court, particularly at the end of the game. (Hayward) developed into that for us. That's one thing everybody agrees on, we have a really balanced team and are looking for guys to step forward and want the ball in those situations.''
Here are some things to watch for with the Jazz:
LOCKING UP: That Jazz led the league in scoring defense (96.8 points per game) last season, were No. 2 in 2015-16 and No. 1 in 2014-15. That effort on the defensive end won't change. The unit is anchored by Gobert, who led the league in blocks last season, and the Jazz added known defenders in Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha and Epke Udoh. Rookie Donovan Mitchell is also a dogged defender.
STILL TRENDING?: Gobert has turned himself into one of the league's best defenders in the last three seasons as his rebounding average has risen from 9.5 to 11.0 to 12.8. The 7-foot-1, 245-pounder's points per game have done the same - 8.4 to 9.1 to 14.0. Expectations are for those offensive numbers to keep trending upward. He's one of the better big men in the pick-and-roll with excellent screens and the ability to dive toward the basket. Gobert has also worked to develop a knack for catching lobs and passes in traffic and finishing around the basket.
''I've just got to keep doing the things I do well even better,'' Gobert said. ''Yes, I'm going to be in some different situations where I get the ball in the post or on the elbow. So, I've got to be able to help my team in those situations.''
NO LUCK: Guard Dante Exum has sustained a significant injury for the second time in three years. The 2014 No. 5 overall pick missed 2015-16 with a torn ACL and could now miss all of 2017-18 with a shoulder injury suffered last week. Many believed Exum was on the verge of a breakout season after struggling early in his career.
SPREADING IT AROUND: Snyder's system has always emphasized ball movement, but he's only had shoot-first point guards leading the way between Trey Burke and George Hill. Rubio brings a traditional pass-first guard to the starting lineup for the first time in years. The seventh-year veteran has struggled with his shot throughout his career, but the Jazz anticipate more easy buckets because of Rubio's natural court vision.
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