Hawaii, you treated the Utah Jazz well. The team’s time in Paradise included a pair of nice preseason victories over the Los Angeles Lakers, the second being a dramatic overtime win in the wee hours of Wednesday morning1. These games may not count in the long run, but wins are enjoyable no matter the venue or setting. Utah will leave the Aloha State with positive memories, both on and off the court.
So, two games are now in the books. That is certainly not enough time to know all about this team, but we have some glimpses. That is, after all, two games more than the squad had played a week ago. Here are some quick observations after 101 minutes of play:
Backup centers can play: The reality: this is Rudy Gobert’s world and we all live in it. He will undoubtedly receive the lion’s share of the pivot minutes. Even so, having a solid back-up is essential. Luckily for the Jazz, they seem to have two back-ups who have acquitted themselves quite well thus far. 7-3 Tibor Pleiss got the first nod both games and held his own. He showed he can finish inside, compete for rebounds2 and take up a lot of space. Pleiss has good hands and moves fairly well for his size. He also has shown his touch from the free throw line. The German center got confused a few times on defense and will have adjustments to the NBA game on both ends. All in all, he’s been impressive.
Jeff Withey was terrific in the second game, playing some crucial second half minutes. His elite shot-blocking skills were on full display and he scored well off teammates’ passes. Withey is active and energetic, which is exactly what you want from your second unit guys. As a result of his effort, he has earned 12 trips to the free throw line in 29 minutes. There is just a natural feel about his game. Withey knows how to play and puts himself in the right positions both offensively and defensively. Signing him as late in the summer as the Jazz did could be a coup.
Barring injuries or other issues, only one will get the minutes behind Gobert. It will be fun to see how things fare between the two, both to start the season and throughout it.
Utah’s versatility: Preseason is a prime laboratory for NBA head coaches to do a little experimentation. The Jazz’s Quin Snyder has certainly taken some looks at different lineups and looks. For example, to close the second game out, he trotted out a point guard-less quintet. Alec Burks, Rodney Hood, Elijah Millsap and Joe Ingles all played down the stretch, even going a while all together. Snyder has naturally gone with traditional rotations, but has also gone small. Gordon Hayward and Ingles have played some power forward, while Trevor Booker and rookie Trey Lyles enjoyed some stints at center. Through all this, Utah has shown some solid versatility. They will be able to play different styles relative to a game’s flow and patterns. It is exciting to watch.
Free throws: It is good to be reminded that this is the preseason for the NBA’s officials, too. Both games for the Jazz and Lakers were tightly called, with a lot of free throws. While not horrible, Utah is just 60-86 from the charity stripe — 69.8 percent. There were four consecutive errant shots in the fourth quarter that helped Los Angeles battle back. Last season, there were certainly games where poor free throw shooting contributed to some big losses. Jazz players simply need to show improvement here. As you look down the line, nearly every player could stand to see an increase in free throw percentage. Snyder’s offense, if executed properly, could led to a lot of freebies. This is especially true with guys like Favors, Gobert, Hayward and Burks, who each sport good free throw rates. You simply do not want to miss out on these easy points, especially in March or April if the team is vying for a postseason berth.
End of the bench battle: The front liners may not be playing the minutes that is expected, but Snyder is giving Jazz fans a good look at who will be sticking when final rosters need to be submitted into league offices. Several of the bubble guys — Bryce Cotton, Treveon Graham, J.J. O’Brien — have not seen a second of game time, while Jack Cooley made just a brief appearance. Chris Johnson was recently cleared for activity, adhering to the NBA’s concussion protocol. It has to be nerve-wracking for them. Chances are, the battle for the last spot will take place in Jazz practices.