2023 NBA draft: A Q&A with the Utah Jazz’s VP of player personnel
The Utah Jazz have been working around the clock for months, with some front office personnel working for years, preparing for the 2023 NBA draft.
Thursday night’s draft marks one of the most pivotal moments in the team’s rebuild, which is why the Jazz have been more secretive than usual as they’ve conducted draft workouts this offseason.
After not having the rights to a single pick in the 2022 draft, Danny Ainge, Justin Zanik and the rest of the Jazz brain trust go into Thursday night with three first-round picks (ninth, 16th and 28th). The Jazz will have a lot of options on draft night and have been looking at players who are projected to be selected at all areas of the draft because of the flexibility they’ll have.
On Wednesday, Utah Jazz vice president of player personnel Bart Taylor met with local reporters to field questions ahead of Thursday’s festivities. Below are the questions and answers from that conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
So, how’s this summer been? Easy?
Yeah, it’s been a breeze. We already knew who we wanted at the three spots, so we haven’t done any work. That’s why we haven’t announced anything and we’ve just been chilling here, really.
You can just tell us who you’re taking tomorrow then, right?
Pretty much, yeah. I mean, I think that’s against league rules, so I can’t do that unfortunately.
Roughly how many players have you brought in for workouts?
We’ve brought a lot — that’s all I can really say. With the three picks, we’ve been able to get a lot of the guys in from really the whole spectrum of the draft. We’ve been working a lot on those — seeing all those players, evaluating them, taking them to dinner, interviewing them, getting to know them. So, we have had a lot of workouts and I think the staff is very happy that we’re not doing that anymore.
Teams often say to take the best player available in a draft, though sometimes you have to consider the roster — you don’t want to end up with 11 centers. This year, given where the roster is at, have you really been able to consider anything?
I think where we’re at, we have a lot of flexibility. Danny and Justin have done a great job of positioning us at this point. We feel like we can just take the best players in all three spots. We don’t have a roster crunch on positions and we have the ability to house all three picks. We also have a great developmental staff and the resources to help them grow and develop in the ways that they need to develop and help us down the road.
Big picture, how do you like this draft compared to others?
I think it’s good. There’s obviously a lot of talent at the top, but I think there’s a lot of talent throughout the middle of the first, the late first and the second round. There’s a lot of good players. I think looking at some of the NIL stuff has helped guys go back to school and continue to get better. So you have some older players in the draft, later, but they’re definitely more ready to contribute right away, which I think is very helpful for us say at No. 28, where maybe we’re taking some younger, developmental guys that need a little more time to grow. But I think there is a lot of depth throughout the late first and second round as well.
Is the NIL going to make the second round weaker moving forward?
I think it might make it stronger and the guys more ready to play. Maybe weaker from the standpoint of you’re not gonna have 19-year-olds that you can swing on, but a lot of those guys don’t pan out either. The second round in general doesn’t tend to work out very well. So, I think having older guys with more of a track record and more of a base that we can evaluate is going to be helpful to teams to make probably more informed decisions on those guys.
How many tiers do you think there are in the first round?
I don’t know. That’s hard to answer.
With your flexibility — three picks, a lot of future capital — does that make it more difficult for you to go in with a clear idea of what you’re going to do on Thursday night, because so much can change — you guys could move up, you could package for the future?
Yeah. I mean, a lot of teams have been asking us since like April, ‘Well, are you going to pick all three picks?’ And I have no idea. I don’t know as of right now if we’re gonna pick all three tomorrow, right? We don’t know what’s going to come our way, who’s going to call, who’s going to offer us something, what opportunities will be there, because, that’s just kind of the nature of the draft. It doesn’t happen till you’re on the clock that teams want to make a decision.
I think everyone wants us to have this clear picture of what we’re trying to do, and the answer is it’s just very fluid. We’re just trying to be opportunistic, with whatever comes up. If it’s something where we can package the picks to get a better veteran player that we think can help us win now at a higher rate, we’ll do that if we think that’s better than the players available in the draft. And vice versa, if we think drafting the player is better than the guy we could trade for. We don’t know what is going to come our way and we’re just trying to stay flexible and have an open mind and evaluate everything that does come our way and see what is the best thing for this team moving forward.
There’s been so much chatter around movement that could happen just in the top 10 of the draft — as far as teams moving up, trading out, etc. Does it feel to you like there could be a lot more movement this year compared to more recent years?
I want to say yes, but I feel that way every year with all the chatter. I think you just don’t know. I do think there could be more movement, but I don’t know. A lot of it is like teams just putting stuff out to try to create buzz and try to see what other stuff could come their way, right? Teams try to use the media a lot to generate other trade ideas or get teams to maybe show their hand and what they’re thinking a little more. It does feel like there is a lot of chatter and a lot of potential movement, but I think teams could end up just saying pat as well and just picking the guys that are there.
Are you confident in the talent one through nine?
Yes. For sure. I mean we’re actually very confident with the talent through 28. We feel like at all three picks we can get a good player.
It seems like there’s a lot of good defenders in this draft, even the one-and-dones, which is a little bit unusual. Is that gonna be a theme going forward where kids have to be better defenders to play early? Or, do you think this draft is just uniquely strong?
I think it’s probably this draft that’s uniquely strong with some good defenders. ... I’m just trying to think of some of the younger guys, like a lot of them went to programs that are more defensive-oriented and that probably helped that as well. But, scoring the ball is still very important in the NBA. I think it could end up being that way, but every draft is different, right? Every draft is unique — like there’s a lot of wings in this draft. There aren’t as many big guys or guards in particular, there aren’t a ton of guards. So, it’s interesting how positional stuff has shifted year-to-year.
In previous years there seemed to be more international prospects who were projected as first-rounders. This year, obviously you’ve got one very, very, very, very high and then it’s maybe not quite as many in the rest of the first round. Does that seem to be the case this time around?
Yeah, that’s what it feels like. A lot of them pulled out, a lot of them went back to Europe. That’s what they’ve decided after doing their due diligence and going to workouts. I guess they just felt like that was the best decision for them. I wish there were more international guys, but you know, there’ll be more down the road for sure.
How do you tend to evaluate international guys versus collegiate guys as a general rule? What are you looking for as a comparison point between them?
It’s really just are they a good basketball player. The good thing is a lot of the high school guys that are really highly rated, they play in international events — they played for Team USA, they play the (Nike) Hoop Summit, things like that. So, we’re able to compare them at those events. But there is value to guys playing at a professional level against men and older more veteran players.
At the same time, a lot of those guys maybe play like seven minutes a game and so there you have to weigh the lack of playing time with their production. So we do try to look at if they play on the youth team for their team and watch those games. Do they play with the U-16, U-17, U-18 teams and all those things? In the summer, against their own age group, how did they do there?
Those are all things that we try to look at and we study. We have a great international staff run by Luca Desta, he does a great job of getting all the information that we have and we’re very confident not just for this year’s draft, but drafts going out and we’re very, very confident in our coverage of those guys.
Can you give us a sense of the league that the Metropolitans (92) play in?
Yeah, I think if you look, there are guys that were very successful in the G League that play in that league and are successful there. So I think it’s very comparable maybe to the G League if you were gonna say one-to-one.
Do you feel comfortable with the amount you’ve seen of the international players?
Yes. I’ve been overseas a few times and I saw basically every guy that’s in the draft live this year.
When you are evaluating shooters that are coming out of college, or guys who maybe struggle with their jump shot, but the rest of the package looks very nice — what is it that can differentiate between a player who you feel you could develop their shot versus someone who you don’t think you can?
That is not my expertise. I have my opinions on if the shot can get better or not. But really what we do is we rely on our coaching staff for that. So when we bring them in the building, we put them through shooting drills, we put them through things where we can see them rep their form, see how it breaks down maybe as they get tired throughout the workout. And then we really lean on the coaches for ‘What do you guys think? You work with our players, you have gotten guys better throughout your careers, is this something you think we can do, or not?’
What value was there in the Overtime Elite games?
I mean, a lot. You got to see the guys play. I know the guys are younger that they’re playing with but they have a lot of talent there. A lot of those guys are gonna end up in professional leagues, maybe not all the NBA, but there’s a lot of talent there.
There’s more than just the two, the (Thompson) twins. There’s guys that will be on other teams next year, like in college and potentially I think even G League Ignite and things like that. So it was helpful to go and watch them play and see because it wasn’t just them. There were guys that were 16, 17, 18 years old that they’ll be in the NBA as well. There’s value. I know it’s not the most structured thing and I’m sure that’s what you’re asking about, but when you can see guys play, it’s always more valuable than when they don’t play.
At what point do you finalize your draft board?
Like 5:35 tomorrow (laughs). Maybe 5:59.
In years past we’ve tried to do it like 24 hours before the draft to kind of remove all the emotion of draft day. Draft day also gets a little crazy with teams really starting to call in. That’s kind of where Justin’s on the phone all day, answering calls. But we’ve tried to do it 24 hours before and then, I don’t know if that always lines up with the decision makers and what’s in their minds, but we try to at least get them done 24 hours before.
The G League Ignite has like five guys that are potential first-rounders or top-40 picks. Does it help that they’re playing off one another, or is it easier when it’s kind of one guy or two guys?
I think it’s great. We scouted the Ignite a lot. I think it’s a great platform for them to play and we get to see them play against ... like we (SLC Stars) played the Ignite a bunch and we got to see them play against Ochai (Agbaji) and guys that we know like Micah Potter and Johnny Juzang, guys that we know very well, and to see them go against those guys and have kind of a baseline for how they play against NBA players. That’s really helpful.
I know that Justin is probably gonna have like 24 sugar free Red Bulls through the span of just the draft broadcast. Are there any other nervous tics in this front office? What do you do? Are you a pacer? Sweater?
I’m definitely a sweater. That’s why I wear black. I’m not a pacer. I don’t know, I mean, this is our first draft with Danny so we’re excited to see him kind of operate and learn from him. Obviously he has a great track record with this and I’m very excited to see kind of how he maneuvers and what he decides on. I don’t know though, I haven’t picked up on too much else. If I have picked up on it, I don’t know how much they want me to share so I’ll keep some of the stuff quiet. I mean obviously the Red Bulls you know about.
How have things been different with Danny?
They’ve been different from the standpoint of just, he leads in his own way. We’ve had to learn him, he’s had to learn us and I think it’s not necessarily like the process being different. Because everybody’s process is basically you watch a lot of film, you bring guys in, you take them to dinner, you interview them, you get to know the players. That’s kind of the things every team does.
But I think where he’s different is that he’s challenged us on the way he sees the game and the way he thinks about players. You know, maybe we should think more about this specific aspect that maybe he values more than other people or he maybe has a different risk tolerance for different things that maybe other people I’ve worked for in the past didn’t have as high of a risk tolerance ... so just things like that. You have to shift kind of how you think or how you approach a prospect a little bit differently just because he’s maybe a little more open minded on something or maybe there’s something that he doesn’t like that maybe a past head coach or GM wanted more of. So things like that, but that’s nothing too crazy.
You said like correcting shots wasn’t your strength, so what is your strength?
I think I can evaluate players pretty well, what they can and can’t do. I think one thing I’ve tried to develop and get better at is really kind of framing who the player is to the coaches and to Justin and Danny. Trying to give them a good reference of what I see the player able to do and that’s where I think he can grow and try to accurately project that.
I think everybody wants to really project guys to be way better than they are. Like, everybody wants every guy that they like to be an All-Star, but I think there’s great value of if the guy at 16 turns into the seventh man off the bench and is a contributor to a winning team. Like, that’s a win. I think just being able to reference and frame correctly, where these players are and then you know, just organizing the group. I think we have a great staff of scouts. They’ve worked tirelessly all year. We went to tons of college games, Ignite games, Overtime, we went overseas, so just managing and organizing those guys so that they can execute what Danny and Justin need them to do.
What role has Will (Hardy) played?
Will has been pretty hands-off overall. He comes to the workouts and he gives his opinions on the guys and we’ve had him meet with different prospects that come in and so he’s definitely been involved, he’s watched video and given his opinion. But he continually says, ‘Hey, I’ve watched this guy for like an hour but you’ve watched him all year. So, here’s my opinion, but I trust you guys.’
Has NIL made it harder with some guys going to schools that they wouldn’t traditionally go to? Or like, you get a Nick Smith Jr. and Anthony Black on the same roster, which might have not happened in the past. As far as fit goes, has that made it more difficult to diagnose guys?
I don’t think so, no.
How many guys are in the room on draft night and how many of them have like a say in what transpires with the picks or the trades or whatever happens?
Honestly I don’t know because we’re gonna have our first draft with Danny tomorrow, like I said. Usually we have the coach, obviously Danny and Justin, we’ll have myself, a few other members of our scouting staff. In the past when I’ve done these it really just comes down to what like Danny and Justin think. We’ve kind of done our job of giving them their information, getting all the information, scouting the players, giving them our opinion, bringing the guys in. We’ve done our job and now it’s on them to just really make the decision. I think if you get too many people’s voices, it can get pretty messy.
How many conversations prior to draft night, as you’re whittling down players on your board, are you actually saying, all right, ‘this guy or this guy’? Like literally comparing two players and moving them accordingly?
Yeah, definitely. That’s what it comes down to. We have tons of conversations constantly of ‘Where do you think your guy is? Where do you think they’re gonna go?’ With the agents, with other teams, we’re trying to figure that out even as of today. Who might be there and that way we can have those conversations today and tomorrow leading into the draft. So, if these two guys are there, who will we be taking? We’re trying to get all that out so that we’re not on the clock just like, ‘Who are we taking?’ And you know, Ryan (Smith) is sitting there like, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ So we try to figure all that out before so that we look at least semi-educated.
Ultimately, how does it get resolved if you’re entrenched on one guy and someone else is entrenched on another guy?
Now it’s really Danny and Justin’s preference, and they’ll get together and talk it out and wherever they feel like it’s best. But we obviously had those conversations early in the process and in April, May, things like that leading up to this point.
And really, we go to the theater and put on the video and just talk it out. ‘Hey, show me exactly what you’re seeing.’ And we watch that and then OK, this guy doesn’t see that. ‘Well, what do you see?’ So then we watch examples of those things and and then we try to have everybody kind of dig back in and which side is right basically. What this person saw, or this or that person saw and is it as bad as they think? Or as good? And we kind of just discuss that and beat it up and figure it out.
Some of these guys you’ve watched for more than a year. So, when they come in for a workout or an interview, is it often that somebody surprises you when they get in front of you?
Not really. Very rarely. I think that’s one of the misnomers in the workout, especially with the players. We tell players all the time when they ask us what advice we have for them, and it’s like, ‘Don’t go into places and try to be someone you’re not.’ We know who they are.
We put them in situations and workouts to see their strengths and then really to see some of their weaknesses and maybe they’ve gotten a little better some of their weaknesses type of deal. So I think that shows, okay, they’re aware of what they need to work on. Or maybe they are a little better at shooting the ball or defending than we thought. If someone does stand out in something that’s like, OK, let’s go back to the film and see how real is this. Or was it just, the guy had a good day. So it’s a constant, kind of evaluation and rechecking, making sure you’re not overvaluing any one piece of the process.
What do you most try to gauge from these guys during the interview process?
For me personally, it’s more how are they as people. Are they able to converse with you? Are they able to understand what you’re trying to ask about? Do they understand basketball, and can they think about the game at a higher level? Are they self aware of who they are as a player and the things they may need? Because really, we’re just trying to learn who they are. I think a lot of questions we ask maybe they think we’re trying to dig deep on something, but it’s more like, ‘OK, if we do pick you, we just want to know, what do we need to do to support you to help you? Maybe you need more player development work, maybe you need stuff off the court, maybe you need stuff from our chef for dietary reasons,’ like whatever those things are. You want to kind of dig in and make sure that they are comfortable with us, so if we do draft him, he’ll come in and we’ll be like, ‘This is what we see as a plan to help you be the best player you can be.’
Realistically, how many players will be available at the ninth pick? Or, I should say, how many are in play?
A lot are available. ... But really, we have nine right now and one of them will be there. Well, one of them I know will not be there, for sure (laughs).
But he’s in your top nine?
(Laughs) I think so.
With all the information that you have, and saying that maybe a workout or interview wouldn’t necessarily change things, if a guy declines a workout does that change how you have him ranked?
Um, no. Like I said, we try to not put too much weight into one thing. If a guy does decline it then usually, you know it takes Justin to call the agent and really see, why is he declining? Why won’t he come in? If he’s in our range and we like him, what’s the deal? And that happens every year. That happens with agents and they look at our roster and they just say ‘Hey, I don’t want my guy there.’ And that’s fine, but if we still think he’s the best player at that pick we can draft them. It’s not like they’re off the board.