The second-year forward says he sees the coming season as another rookie campaign and is delighted to show off his defensive sense.
It’s safe to say that after hearing his name called on draft night, the rest of Elijah Hughes’ rookie season in the NBA didn’t quite go the way he had hoped.
As a second-round pick on a Utah Jazz team with championship aspirations, regular season minutes were always going to be hard to come by. They became even rarer when the coronavirus pandemic reduced the G League season to a few handfuls of games, and when, on top of that, Hughes sprained his ankle in one of them.
In total, the high-scoring Syracuse product has appeared in just five games with the Salt Lake City Stars and has played a total of 64 minutes in 18 appearances for parent club Jazz. Which is why, in some ways, he’ll treat his upcoming sophomore campaign like almost some kind of rookie.
“Absolutely. I’m really looking forward to it,” Hughes said ahead of the Salt Lake City Summer League at Vivint Arena.
Jazz fans and coaches are also looking forward to it.
The unwavering prowess he has displayed with the Orangemen has convinced many that he has a legitimate role to play on an NBA roster.
So, naturally, he intends to show his progress at the other end of the court in the weeks to come.
“I’m trying to focus on defense, number one, and let my offense come to me,” Hughes said. “… I look forward to showing my versatility in the Summer League, keeping one to four, sometimes even five to a small ball. I’m ready to show what I can do in defense. I’m a guy from Syracuse, so I know there’s a stigma on guys coming out who aren’t good defenders, so I just want to erase that stigma.
Jazz assistant coach Bryan Bailey, who leads the Utah-White entry into the SLC Summer League, agreed defensive consistency is key to Hughes’ future in the NBA.
“For him, the challenge is just to defend at a high level,” Bailey said. “If he can do it, that would be good for us. “
The 6-foot-5 winger performed well on this side in Tuesday night’s game against San Antonio, albeit against a Spurs roster largely devoid of players with NBA-level experience. Ironically, Hughes couldn’t find much rhythm to score the ball in play, sending his first 3-point attempt off the rim and backboard and then later having a engulfed rim drive. After a scoreless first half, he totaled seven points.
Anyway, when asked if he thought he was a better player than a year ago, he said, “Yes, 100%. “
He cited his improved footwork, communication, understanding of how he fits into patterns, and conditioning as the areas where he has improved the most.
He will have many more opportunities in the next few days to show them off. In the meantime, he’s just happy to have a few chances to play. What kept him sane last year, he explained, were the 3-on-3 games played by members of the organization who were not part of the regular rotation.
Being in live matches against opponents he doesn’t see every day is a bit special at this point.
“I love basketball. I have been playing this game since I was 4 or 5 years old. That’s what I prefer to do, ”he said. “… I love what I do. So just so I can play in the Summer League for the next few weeks, I really tried to focus on taking everything in its time. I can’t look too far. I want to. just make sure I’m better today. “What did I do today to get better?” It’s a bit summer [my] mentality.”