Derrick Favors is one of the young core players for the Utah Jazz who they hope to lead them to continued improvements in the future. (sixersphotos/flickr)

Derrick Favors is one of the young core players whom the Jazz hope to lead them to continued improvements in the future. (sixersphotos/flickr)

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The Utah Jazz are in the midst of a tight race at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture as the regular season comes to a close. Andy Larsen, a beat reporter for and managing editor of Salt City Hoops on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network, joins us to explain why making the playoffs this season is especially important for this young, up-and-coming Jazz team. He delves deeper into whether Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors still have room to grow, how sophomore Rodney Hood has exploded onto the scene and the next steps for the Jazz in trying to become a championship contender. Finally, he discusses Jerry Sloan’s legacy in Utah and how one of the all-time great coaches in NBA history might still be underrated. Excerpts below:

2:11-3:10 on the value of making the playoffs for these Jazz:

“Obviously you hope that playoff experience gives them some idea of how much room there is to still to go… you kind of show the young players how much work there is left to still be a championship-caliber team. I think that’s valuable even if you do get swept or lose in five games… I think it’s helpful for free agents to see that they are a playoff team on the rise and can be part of something good… Then you look at Gordon Hayward, who can opt out of his contract next summer. I think you have to start to put together a case of why he should stay on the Utah Jazz, and that starts with multiple playoff appearances.”

4:12-4:52 on the Jazz’s potential first-round matchup against the Golden State Warriors:“

You look at [the two close losses to the Warriors during the regular season in Utah] and really both games they were one shot away. I think what’s really interesting is they didn’t need a bad shooting game from the Warriors in order to get it… They (the Warriors) actually shot 35, 40 percent from 3 in both of those games. It’s just the Jazz were able to lock down the inside shots and play some good switching defense on the outside, and that kind of frustrated the Warriors… I think that would give you hope for maybe being able to steal one at home and maybe play the Warriors better than the other teams at the bottom of the Western Conference would.”

11:05-11:48 on whether Gordon Hayward still has room to grow:

“This is honestly the level he played at last season as well. There’s kind of a leveling off as you’d expect from a 25-year-old player… I think he will probably add some more skills, probably become a little better on the post, driving, mid-range… maybe get a little bit smarter defensively. The kind of improvements players make from age 25 to 28, but not game-changing improvements… I do think he’s probably one of the 30 best players in the league. I don’t know if he’s ever going to be a top-15 player.”

12:31-13:22 on Rodney Hood’s surprise sophomore season:

“What surprised people is his skill from the mid-range and he’s such a smart player. He’s got sort of a old player’s game where he’s so good at going off of the pick and roll, getting the defender on his back and taking advantage and reading that situation, taking advantage from the mid-range in a way that not a lot of players do in the NBA. Where the Jazz’s player development staff has really helped is on the defensive end, a definite liability at the college level and then immediately in his rookie season he was… average for an NBA player, which is great.”

14:50-15:25 on the importance of Exum’s continued development to the franchise’s future:

“So much still depends on how good Dante Exum is. If he’s the player he was his rookie season, where he’s quite frankly afraid to go into the paint, not a good outside shooter, but a good defender, that’s a nice NBA player, but it’s not the kind of player that will get the Jazz to where they want to go in terms of contending for a championship. His development is very key, and, if not, the Jazz need to find a solution at point guard that’s better than Shelvin Mack and Raul Neto. The Jazz will give every opportunity for Dante Exum to improve and become the player they think he can be, but young players are a gamble, and it may work out; it may not.”

Music: “Who Likes to Party” by Kevin MacLeod