Jazz breakout player Rodney Hood always just wanted an opportunity to play.
When Hood was a senior at Meridian High School in Mississippi, even as his team would be blowing out opponents by 25 points, as his coach Randy Bolden recalls, he still longed to stay in the game. But it wasn’t to pad his stats, even though sometimes he only had 13 points heading into the fourth quarter.
“When it was time for me to get him out of the game, he would intentionally miss the free throw just so he could play longer,” Bolden told the NBPA. “How many kids are going to sacrifice giving up a point to be out there to play? And the thing about it, he just loves the game. It’s not about him scoring the ball—it’s as long as he’s out there being a part of the game. He’d rather for you to score than himself.”
After being the second-to-last player in the green room on draft night two years ago, and missing 32 games as a rookie because of different foot injuries, Hood is now getting plenty of opportunities to play. And he’s helping to keep the Jazz in the playoff hunt, in the same giving mood like he was in high school.
On Wednesday night against the Rockets, with less than 10 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Hood was given the ball with the score tied at 87. He maneuvered around a pick-and-roll and made the game-winning pass to Derrick Favors for the two-handed dunk. With the win, the Jazz moved ahead of the Rockets to claim the eighth spot in the Western Conference.
That floor leader role as a teenager now fits Hood to a tee this season, as he’s become one of the best young versatile playmakers in the NBA. With unique qualities being a 6’8″ lefty point forward, he can collapse a defense while maintaining his dribble in traffic with a defender on his back; drive and hit floaters in the paint; knock down step-back threes off hesitation crossovers in switch opportunities; take his opponents one-on-one inside and then post into spin-fadeaway moves; and make swing passes to the baseline corners or throw lobs to Favors and Rudy Gobert.
The 23-year-old was never supposed to be that type of player that soon in only his second season, especially after missing all those games in 2014-15, and with Trey Burke, Alec Burks and Dante Exum initially ahead of him with ball-handling duties. Hood’s agent, Travis King, calls him the “Silky Smooth Southpaw from the Sip!”
“Coming into the season, I wouldn’t think I’d be playing the role that I’m playing now,” Hood told the NBPA.
Bolden added, “When they drafted him, I don’t think they anticipated that he would be excelling at this point in time. For him to be doing the things he’s doing in his sophomore season, I think people are definitely surprised by him.”
Even Hood knew the perception he had to overcome entering the 2014 draft.
“People were saying I was just a spot-up shooter, and now I’m a really good pick-and-roll player,” said Hood, who’s averaging 14.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 31.9 minutes per game.
— Fanzz (@FanzzSports) June 27, 2014
With Burks sidelined since December with a broken left fibula and Exum out for the season rehabbing from a torn left ACL, Hood has taken advantage of the increased minutes. Only missing three games this season, Hood is averaging 1.034 points per play in isolation with a minimum of 75 opportunities (according to Synergy Sports). It’s the best mark in the league among swingmen—above the likes of Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Kawhi Leonard. Hood has also made 133 long balls this season (35.2 percent), which is the second-most in a single season in Jazz franchise history.
In addition, he’s averaging 0.879 points per play as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, which places him seventh among non-point guards with a minimum of 300 opportunities. Usually he’s the second go-to facilitator in half-court sets after Jazz leading scorer Gordon Hayward. Notably, Hood’s dishing per game ranks him 10th among swingmen 6’8″ and taller (according to Basketball-Reference.com).
“He’s always had great ball-handling skills, court vision, and a lot of times they were double and triple teaming him [in high school],” Bolden said. “So he always made the right play. If you watch him now, he’ll pass up a good shot to pass to somebody else for a great shot.”
There was, however, a small indicator in 2014-15 that Hood could be on to something. With Burks out from left shoulder surgery and Burke sitting out with a sore lower back, coach Quin Snyder inserted Hood in the starting lineup for the last month of the season—and the move delivered positive results. Hood averaged 16.7 points, 3.4 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.1 steals, while the Jazz went 5-3.
“It was motivating,” Hood said. “It was just a chance to play a lot of minutes and get a lot of experience, and we were winning games as well, so it was fun. I think I really got better because I had that confidence knowing I can play significant minutes in the NBA, so it just took off from there.”
Driven from Draft Night
It was the night of June 26, 2014, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and after the 19th draft pick was read (Gary Harris), Hood found himself alone in the green room, along with Shabazz Napier.
Pick No. 20, 21, then 22. No word yet. Hood never thought he would fall that far.
“Going into draft night, I had a sense of how high I could go, but I didn’t think I would drop to No. 23,” he said. “All I wanted was my foot in that door, and when names kept going and I didn’t hear my name called, I got a little antsy, my family was a little antsy. I just told my sister, ‘They’re going to regret it. I’m going to remember this day.’
“Ever since that day, and until I’m done playing basketball, I’ll always remember that moment, where I just kept seeing people’s names go up on the board, and my name wasn’t getting called. It wasn’t an embarrassment—nothing like that—but I just felt like I was better than that.”
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) June 27, 2014
But in the moments after, Hood realized Utah presented a solid foundation to start his career.
“I feel like I had an opportunity to play and a chance to prove as a young player, and I think that was the biggest thing,” he said. “The draft is really about where you’re going to spend your first three years. It doesn’t mean you’re going to have the 23rd-best career out of everybody. It just means that’s where you’re starting, and it’s about what you do from that night on—how much work you put in. I was coming into a rebuilding process where I had a chance to play and showcase my skills, so I think it was the perfect situation.”
Last summer when Hood was healthy, he stayed in Utah for a bit to directly train with Snyder and his staff focusing on “affecting the game from a pick-and-roll standpoint,” by learning how to make reads in different coverages. As this season’s gone on, Hood has noticed more traps and double teams coming at him. “It’s a lot of respect for what I’m able to do in the pocket,” he said.
Hood also spent some time with Bolden at Meridian, trainer Dan Barto at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and for one week in the fall he ran pickup games at his alma mater, Duke, with Gerald Henderson, Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor, Jabari Parker, Shavlik Randolph, J.J. Redick, Justise Winslow and others.
Hood also takes cues from watching women’s basketball, which he’s done since he was younger. His mother, Vicky, played at Mississippi State and coached youth teams, and his sister, Whitney, suited up at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“Every Sunday, they used to watch Duke winning basketball and they were big Pat Summitt fans,” said Hood, who teamed up with WNBA player Lindsay Whalen during All-Star Weekend in Toronto to host a basketball clinic for Special Olympics athletes. “My favorite player growing up was Ivory Latta when she was at North Carolina with Alana Beard and Kara Lawson. It’s just the fundamentals of the game. It’s not about athleticism. It’s not about really the show; it’s about just skill.”
The first phase of Hood’s pick-and-roll playmaking included studying Chris Paul, Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson, the latter two who are 6’7″ and around Hood’s height. He watched how they took their time attacking the paint, being deceptive, while surveying the court and keeping their defender on their back. He also saw how they used their body to bump off their defender and score in the midrange area, which is Hood’s prime real estate. There he shoots 43.8 percent, his best accuracy range outside of the restricted area (according to NBA.com/Stats).
Hood already has phase 2 mapped out for this offseason.
“I think finishing at the rim,” he said. “I think I got better at lob passes and things like that—just continuing to make the right reads, trying to make my guys better on the court with me. I think I’ve been doing a good job of that, drawing two people. But I can always get better at that.”
Looking ahead, Hood said the Jazz can be a “powerhouse in the West” if they keep progressing with in-house development. For now, he doesn’t believe this season will be a bust if the team doesn’t make the playoffs.
“Our General Manager, [Dennis Lindsey], really does a good job of keeping a great environment as far as the culture and the mood of every single day—just hard work and keeping upbeat,” Hood said. “We have a young group of guys, but we all are very professional and we handle things the right way. Hopefully we get the chance to make a playoff run in a couple years.”
Hood is not only playing for a postseason berth; he’s also playing for something bigger than any basketball result. With his first child, Rodney Jr., born on Jan. 3, it’s given the new father a different perspective on life.
A photo posted by Rodney Hood (@hoodie5) on
“After the game is over—tough game, bad game, good game—my mind automatically switches to getting home and making sure he’s alright and spending time with him,” Hood said. “It just gives you added responsibility, and it gives you something more to play for than you already did. I’m just trying to make sure he’s well off and things like that.”
Rodney Jr. was actually born six weeks early. The night of his birth is quite the story.
“It was crazy because [on Jan. 2] we played Memphis at home, and I had my career high, [32 points], and we beat them,” Hood said. “And like four hours later, I was asleep and Richa, [my fiancee], just woke me up and told me, ‘I think the baby is coming.’ I’m like, ‘Nah, nah.’ I just turned over because I didn’t think she was serious, and then I saw her water had broke. It was just a crazy moment.
“I drove to the hospital. She was actually getting mad at me because I was driving so slow, but there are a lot of lights downtown. But we got there on time. I didn’t expect him at that time, but it was a great moment.”
Since then, Hood has sought out pointers from Burke, Favors and Hayward, who all have children. He’s asked them about “simple things,” such as when to get the best sleep and how to manage with the hectic game schedule. One purchase Hood didn’t waste any time with was a mini-hoop for his newborn. “Oh yeah,” he said. “He has no choice but to play ball.”
Hood’s ties to family extend to all of the kids he wants to reach and impact at the Boys & Girls Club back home in Meridian, and even about four hours away in Memphis. In fact, when he was there during an early March road trip to play the Grizzlies, he hosted a basketball clinic for 150 middle and high school kids at the local Boys & Girls Club. His father, Ricky, is the director of the chapter in East Mississippi. “Hood,” as he’s affectionally called by his family and friends, goes back there every summer.
A photo posted by Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) on
Hood’s key advice to the youth is to always keep an open mind and understand that success comes in different forms.
“I just tell them just to protect their dreams—that’s the biggest message,” he said. “It’s easy coming from their environment thinking that there’s only a couple ways to make it out of your situation, by being a rapper or being an athlete or something like that. I try to tell them if you want to be a doctor, if you want to be a truck driver—whatever you want to be—protect your dream. And don’t let people get in the way of your dream because there’s a lot of people who made it.”
If there’s anyone who knows about protecting his dream, it’s Hood. After an unclear direction on draft night, and battling several injuries as a rookie, he’s proving that he never lost faith in his potential.