The Utah Jazz have a well-deserved reputation of finding rotation players in interesting places. While their first-round draft pick history has been hit-and-miss — and which team’s is not? — the Jazz have typically fared quite well in the second round. Likewise, they have had success mining the D-League, discovering undrafted rookies and acquiring overlooked veterans via trades or free agency. If one looks at some of the franchise’s most successful squads, each one has featured some of these role players who came to Salt Lake City and just fit in well with the team’s culture and style of play1.
Could center Jeff Withey be another shrewd addition by the Jazz’s front office? Based on the early returns, and specifically his recent play, Withey looks like another solid get by a team which is tireless in searching for diamonds in the rough.
Withey was a late summer addition, inking a partially guaranteed two-year pact at the minimum salary for a two-year veteran. Few thought to much of it, with more attention being given to Tibor Pleiss, one of the results of the Enes Kanter trade. If anything, Withey would battle for one of the final vacancies and if he made the regular season roster, he would would mostly ride the pine or be a regular on the team’s nightly inactive list.
Four months later, things are different for Withey. Not only did he make the team, but after a fairly impressive preseason, he jumped ahead of the more offensive-minded Pleiss to be the team’s back-up center. Then came the Rudy Gobert injury which, out of necessity, gave him more of a prominent role. And now, he finds himself as as a part-time starter who is doing some nice things on the court.
The Jazz have had Withey on their radar, dating back to a pre-Draft workout in June 20132. He was a surprisingly productive player in his two seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans, who had acquired him in a Draft night trade with the Portland Trail Blazers. Whenever he played, he did some nice things. Unfortunately for him, the Pelicans had a good deal of big man depth with Anthony Davis, Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca. Because he only averaged 7.0 MPG last year and appeared in only 37 games, he was not the hottest commodity in the free agency market. The Jazz were able to swoop in and bring him aboard.
Much like point guard Raul Neto, Withey’s overall statistics are anything but overwhelming: 3.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG and 1.0 BPG. But as of late, few have been as steady. In the past three outings, the big man is putting up 8.7 PPG (60 FG%, 80 FT%), 7.7 RPG, 1.33 BPG and 1.33 SPG. With both Gobert and Derrick Favors out, Withey may be the most consistent front court performer.
His 17.1 PER ranks third on Utah’s roster, behind only Favors and Gordon Hayward. In fact, he has sported a solid PER each of his three campaigns. His .137 WS/48 is also third for Utah, behind the same pair. Not too shabby.
Withey plays within himself, as evidenced by his 58.9 TS%3. He has a nice touch around the basket (47.1 percent on shots 3-10 feet out, second on the team) and manages to get to the line frequently (.407 FTr). He shows good mobility for his size and is fundamentally sound on offense. Withey has displayed good hands when being set up by teammates4.
Withey has been great on the boards. He gets good position and fights inside for rebounds. His rebound percentages — 10.5 ORB%, 25.2 DRB% and 17.7 TRB% — mirror Gobert’s 11.8, 25.7 and 18.6. This has been valuable, especially against opposing team’s bench units.
His elite talent is his defense. That was his calling card at Kansas and that has carried with him in the playing time he’s received during his NBA career. Withey is a naturally good defender who plays good man-on-man. He bodies up and does not back down. Withey is very good on the weak side, helping erase teammates’ mistakes. His timing is great. Sounds a lot like a certain Frenchman. In fact, Withey’s 7.2 BLK% is tops on the team. If he qualified, that would be the second best mark in the NBA, behind just Hassan Whiteside and ahead of guys like Davis, DeAndre Jordan and Serge Ibaka. His block-to-foul ratio is 0.72, and has only committed 29 fouls in 251 minutes. Add in a 2.1 STL%, which is excellent for a center.
He does need to cut down the turnovers, as evidenced by his 20.1 TOV%.
Withey has proven to be a very capable back-up center who is able to assume a bigger role when the situation warrants it. The fact that the Jazz signed him for such an economical contract that late in the offseason has been a boon. The deadline to guarantee contracts is in two short weeks, but for Withey, it is simply a formality. Moreover, the Jazz could retain him for a mere $1.015 million next season.
While it is early yet, Jeff Withey has been a nice story for the Utah Jazz. He could prove to be another astute addition for a team that simply has a knack for finding such players.