Sixers Host Jazz in Home Opener

The 76ers will take on the Utah Jazz tonight at the Wells Fargo Center

Jazz head coach Quin Snyder talks with Rudy Gobert during a preseason game. Gobert turned the Jazz into a defensive juggernaut | Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Jazz head coach Quin Snyder talks with Rudy Gobert during a preseason game. Gobert turned the Jazz into a defensive juggernaut | Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers will host the Utah Jazz tonight at the Wells Fargo Center, the first regular season home game of the new season.

The Sixers started off the season on the road against the Boston Celtics, falling 112-95. The game was filled with positives, though, most notably Jahlil Okafor‘s record-setting debut performance.

Okafor and the Sixers will look to build upon that performance tonight against the Jazz, but they’ll have a much tougher front court to do it against. Rudy Gobert has become one of the preeminent defenders and shot blockers in the game. If Okafor has even close to the same level of dominance against the Jazz that he did against Boston, it would be quite the feat.

Guard Nik Stauskas, who missed the entire preseason with a stress reaction in his leg, was going to make his debut in the opener before back spasms forced him to miss the game. He is probable for tonight’s game.

The Details:

What: Sixers vs Jazz

Where: Wells Fargo Center

When: Friday, October 30th, 7 PM

Watch: Comcast SportsNet

Projected Starting Lineups:

Sixers: Isaiah Canaan, JaKarr Sampson, Hollis Thompson, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor

Jazz: Raul Neto, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert

(Note: Official starting lineups are released about an hour prior to tipoff).

Injury Report:

Joel Embiid (out, right foot), Kendall Marshall (out, right ACL), Tony Wroten (out, right ACL), Carl Landry (out, wrist), Robert Covington (out, sprained knee), Nik Stauskas (probable, back spasms).

About The Opponent:

The Utah Jazz were one of the darlings of the NBA last season, and for good reason. After the Jazz traded Enes Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder at the trade deadline and started playing Rudy Gobert heavy minutes in his place, they turned into a defensive force.

Just how good was the Jazz defense? From February 20th on the Jazz allowed 94.8 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in the league. The second best mark? The San Antonio Spurs at 98.9. During that span there was as much distance between the 1st and 2nd ranked defensive teams as there was between the 2nd and 17th ranked teams. In fact, no team had held a defensive rating as low as 94.8 over the last four seasons.

That defense propelled the Jazz to a 19-10 record after the trade deadline and has them thinking playoffs this year.

Gobert was downright dominant. He averaged 9.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game in 26 minutes per game on the season, which jumped to 12.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 34 minutes per night as a starter, which would rank 4th and 2nd in the NBA in rebounds and blocks, respectively, if he did that over the full season. He accumulated 4.3 defensive win shares (7th in the league) and had a defensive box plus/minus of 5.1 (4th).

His impact on team defense was even more drastic than his accumulated stats: the Jazz defense was 7.2 points per 100 possessions better with Gobert on the court.

The Jazz are also strengthened by the continued improvement of Gobert’s front court mates, Derrick Favors (16.0 points per game, 8.2 rebounds per game, 1.7 blocks per game last season, all career highs) and Gordon Hayward (19.3 points per game, 4.9 rebounds per game, 4.1 assists per game last year). Both Favors and Hayward are just entering their primes, at 24 and 25 years old, respectively, and along with Gobert form a tremendous core to build around.

One area where the Jazz aren’t strong at is point guard. They invested the 5th overall pick in the 2014 draft in Dante Exum. Exum showed some promise defensively, but struggled on the offensive side of the court. While the Jazz were hoping Exum would take the next step in his development, he tore his ACL playing for the Australian National Team and will miss the season.

The Jazz also invested the 9th overall pick in 2013 on the position, drafting Trey Burke out of Michigan. Burke has been a disappointment in the NBA and came off the bench for the Jazz in their first game of the season, going scoreless in 16 minutes. The Jazz instead started Raul Neto, a second round pick in the 2013 draft out of Brazil. It was Neto’s first game in the NBA.

The Jazz struggled offensively in their first game of the season, falling to the Detroit Pistons 92-87. Derrick Favors had a monster game, scoring 26 points on 10-15 shooting to go along with 6 rebounds, and Rudy Gobert finished with 12 rebounds and 3 blocked shots.

What To Look For

All eyes will be on Sixers rookie big man Jahlil Okafor, and naturally so. Okafor asserted himself offensively against the Celtics, scoring at will early on in the game and forcing the Celtics to double team the rookie in the first half of his NBA debut.

He’ll have a much tougher task tonight against a formidable Utah front line, specifically with Gobert. Whether the Jazz elect to go with Gobert guarding Okafor directly or letting him use his massive 7’8″ wingspan and 9’7″ standing reach (comparison: Noel was measured at 7’3″ and 9’2″) to contest Okafor’s shots from the weak side will be interesting, although it’s entirely possible the Jazz end up using both strategies to give Okafor different looks.

Hopefully Okafor can cut down a bit on his turnovers, as he totaled 8 last game, the one blemish on an otherwise spectacular night. Okafor will need to learn how to handle double teams at the NBA level, and he struggled with that against the Celtics. On the positive side, Utah may not double nearly as much as Boston did if they elect to have Gobert match up with Okafor directly. While this would limit Okafor’s ability to generate offense for his teammates, it should at least limit his turnovers as well.

Anything even remotely approaching the level of success Okafor had against the Celtics would be an incredible accomplishment for the 19 year old rookie.

Hopefully the Sixers will get to see Stauskas in his Sixers debut tonight. Stauskas would likely only play a few minutes even if he is available, and it would probably be best to temper expectations about what Stauskas will contribute early on, but getting him back on the court and building him up so he can start playing major minutes soon would be good for the Sixers.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s new Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.