With many members of the 2011 NBA Draft class hitting unrestricted free agency this summer, the Utah Jazz’s painful mistakes that year sting now more than ever.
With their last action coming in a disappointing first-round playoff loss to the Houston Rockets, it feels like it’s been a long time since the Utah Jazz have hit the basketball court. An originally promising season ended much quicker than fans had hoped, leaving the organization and fans realizing now more than ever that making improvements this summer is beyond vital.
By all accounts, Jazz brass is seeking to do just that. While they’ll face ample challenges in trying to lure in big name free agents or put together a monumental trade, indications are that they’ll do everything they can this summer to pull of a big move.
As they do so, Utah Jazz fans can’t help but get excited about all the potential free agents that their team could go after this summer. While there are many that may not be all that realistic, the possibility of landing someone like Tobias Harris or D’Angelo Russell is at least somewhat feasible. And seeing what plays out for the Jazz regarding those two and other players will be intriguing to behold.
With that said, there are two upcoming unrestricted free agents that are among the NBA’s elite that the Jazz would absolutely love to have in their midst. One is point guard extraordinaire Kemba Walker, who may be looking for a new home since his Charlotte Hornets continue to struggle to make the playoffs. The other is superstar Kawhi Leonard who has led his Toronto Raptors within one game of an NBA Championship.
For a time, many thought the Jazz could have a shot at Kemba, though it’s looking more and more likely that he may remain in Buzz City where he can enjoy a lucrative supermax contract. Meanwhile, as incredible of a basketball fit as Kawhi would be in Utah (then again, where wouldn’t he fit?), I think it’s safe to say that we all know Salt Lake City isn’t anywhere close to being on his radar.
In fact, especially if the Raptors seal the deal and capitalize on their 3-1 lead over Golden State, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see Kawhi stay in the North. And if he doesn’t, it’s almost certain that a place like LA or New York/Brooklyn will have a leg-up on adding him over the Jazz.
So as incredible as it would be to see Kawhi or Kemba suit up in a Jazz uniform, the odds of such happening are essentially slim to none. You may be wondering why I bring up those two players in particular when they’re just two of many free agents that aren’t likely to come to Utah. Well, the reason for doing so is a sad one.
Namely, because rather than having to dream about landing either of these two players in free agency, the Jazz actually could have enjoyed seeing both of them in their midst since 2011 had Utah drafted differently.
Now, let me preface by saying that I know that hindsight is 20/20. The NBA Draft almost always holds so many unknowns that it’s simply unreasonable to expect a team to always get it right. There will always be big misses as well as unforeseen diamonds in the rough as players develop (or fail to develop) differently than predicted. Potential can be overstated whereas other talents can be missed.
Along those lines, it’s not fair to be too hard on the Jazz for potentially drafting poorly, especially when every team in the league has been victim of an atrocious draft blunder at one time or another. Nevertheless, the 2011 NBA Draft just so happens to be an extremely painful one, particularly when looking at the Jazz’s current situation and the free agents that are available.
Because had the Jazz drafted differently on that fateful day eight years ago, they could have ended up with both Kemba Walker and Kawhi Leonard on their roster.
Instead, with the extremely valuable No. 3 pick in the draft, the Jazz whiffed on Enes Kanter. Granted, Kanter has put together a respectable NBA career, more so than many other players taken in the 2011 Draft’s top ten. But his time in Utah was an absolute bust as he quickly became disgruntled with the team and he was traded away for essentially nothing simply to get him out of Rudy Gobert‘s way.
Considering that Kemba Walker was then taken at No. 9, this really hurts. Instead of a disgruntled center who never hit his stride in Utah, the Jazz could have ended up with a star point guard who, if his track record in Charlotte had been equivalent in Salt Lake City, would have been absolutely loyal to the small market team that drafted him. Considering how hard it is for the Jazz to keep players of his caliber, drafting Kemba would have been an absolute dream come true.
But wait, it gets worse from there. Utah also had the No. 12 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, which they used on shooting guard Alec Burks. Three picks later, the Indiana Pacers (who also have to be kicking themselves) took Kawhi Leonard, then immediately traded him to the San Antonio Spurs for George Hill.
Burks had a few bright moments in Utah, but when I say few, I mean very few. His Jazz career was littered with injuries and he never came anywhere close to hitting his potential as a dynamic and athletic scorer. He spent much of his time with the Jazz on the bench, then was traded away for former Jazzman Kyle Korver, who helped the Jazz in the 2018-19 regular season but was a non-factor in the playoffs and may very well log just one season in his Salt Lake return.
In other words, instead of a dynamic combo of Kemba and Kawhi lighting it up in Salt Lake City, the Jazz ended up with an immature center who was quickly dealt for little return (sure, the pick from OKC eventually was traded for Ricky Rubio, but that didn’t help much either) and a wounded shooting guard that never met his potential and was eventually traded for an aging vet.
While, as I stated previously, it’s hard to be too critical of draft misses, and the Jazz’s selections may have very well been justified at the time, they are quite haunting now. Utah can only dream of adding stars of Kemba and Kawhi’s caliber, when both could have very well been theirs had things gone ever so differently in the 2011 Draft.
With that being said, it should be noted that while the 2011 NBA Draft produced several incredible players, the Jazz were far from the only team that blew it big time that year. The Cleveland Cavaliers did alright taking Kyrie Irving first overall, but between him and Kemba were a slew of terrible picks in comparison to those taken later — Derrick Williams to Minnesota, Kanter to Utah, Tristan Thompson to Cleveland, Jonas Valanciunas to Toronto, Jan Vesely to Washington, Bismack Biyombo to Sacramento (traded to Charlotte) and Brandon Knight to Detroit.
Not to mention, a few other big-name free agents from this upcoming summer fell to pretty late in the draft as well, including Klay Thompson at No. 11 (who was selected immediately after Jimmer Fredette of all people), Nikola Vucevic at No. 16, Tobias Harris (another current highly coveted Jazz target) at No. 19 and Jimmy Butler at No. 30. The Jazz also missed out on respectable starter/role players including Nikola Mirotic (No. 23), Reggie Jackson (No. 24), Cory Joseph (No. 29) and Bojan Bogdanovic (No. 31).
So, in case I haven’t already made it painfully clear, the 2011 NBA Draft was a major dud for the Utah Jazz, who left several players on the table – some of which they may actually be pursuing now in free agency – in favor of Enes Kanter and Alec Burks, whose impact on the team was slight.
Utah’s mistakes in 2011 are quite ironic when you consider who many of the guys are that they’re targeting currently in free agency. And if they strike out, failing to bring in any high-caliber players this summer, the missed opportunity of that draft is going to sting all the more.
Let’s hope the Utah Jazz can find themselves on the right side of karma this time by either luring in one of the former 2011 draft class studs that they passed on, or by hitting an unforeseen home run in the draft this time around to make up for the blunders of eight years ago. Their hopes of ascending to a championship level in the next decade may very well depend on it.