Aloha, Hawaii: Utah Jazz Preseason Observations

October 7th, 2015 | by David J Smith
AP Photo/Marco Garcia

AP Photo/Marco Garcia

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.

Quick shots:

  • Raul Neto has been a breath of fresh air. His pass-first, defend-always mentality could be particularly huge in Dante Exum’s absence. He never takes plays off and promises to be an irritant for opponents due to this pesky style that entails occasional full court coverage, steals off inbounds passes and taking charges. He could be a very pleasant surprise for Utah.
  • Elijah Millsap has clearly worked on his offensive game. He has had several impressive inside lay-ups, including the buzzer beater at halftime Tuesday. If he can develop into a maker and not just a slasher, it opens things up for him and his teammates. Millsap has not attempted a 3-pointer yet, so it is unknown how his perimeter marksmanship is coming along.
  • The Jazz bigs need to just shoot the open jumpers that come their way. Specifically, Booker, Lyles and Pleiss need to build up their confidence. There has been some hesitation and overthinking, which throws off the flow. Snyder has given them the green light and would much rather have a 3-point attempt versus a 19-foot 2-pointer.
  • Ingles looks much more aggressive offensively. For the first few months of last season, he was unselfish to a fault at times. This improved as the season progressed and it looks to continue as the regular season commences. Ingles has a nice stroke from downtown, so this could benefit the Jazz a lot.
  • There are not enough superlatives for Alec Burks’ outing on Tuesday/Wednesday. He was dominant from the get-go and that carried through to overtime. His all-around game will help alleviate Hayward’s overall burdens. Burks was penetrating, making good on athletic forays to the hoop and was making the right passes all night.
  • Rodney Hood had a stellar bounce back game. As bad as he was Sunday, he was that good in the second outing. His 3-point shooting and crafty midrange game were integral to the win. He also got a bulk of the ball handling responsibility when Snyder went without Trey Burke or Neto.
  • Booker only plays in one mode. He gives his all and provides an emotional boost for his teammates. We will not delve too deeply in his skirmish with Roy Hibbert, but it is safe to say that no one intimidates Booker.
  • The second game was probably a dream come true for Snyder. It featured runs for both teams, a back-and-forth battle at the end, overtime and some clutch possessions for his team. You simply cannot simulate scenarios better. The youngsters got some good experience to will be valuable going forward.
David J Smith

David J Smith

Besides writing for Salt City Hoops, David contributes to the Utah Jazz coverage for the Deseret News and has written for the Utah Jazz website and (now Basketball Insiders). He graduated from BYU and works for LDS Philanthropies. He and his incredibly patient wife, Elizabeth, have some amazing children--four girls and two boys. Voted "Most Likely to Replace Jerry Sloan" in high school.
David J Smith


  1. IDJazzman says:

    Spot on David. What about Trey Burke? I did see somethings I liked from him, but then, other times it was like he didn’t know what to do and last year’s Trey would take over.
    I kind of think that Withey gets the nod for backup Center. I think that Pleiss is a project, although a very promising one as he gets stronger and learns the system.
    Because of wanting to carry Neto, Pleiss and Millsap, I am thinking Bryce might get cut. After watching both games and Snyder going without a PG tells me he doesn’t need a third PG on the bench.

    • robert basinger says:

      We might keep cotton and let him battle trey. You can’t teach speed. Speed to break down the defense and lead the fast brakes is hard to find.let’s give cotton a chance that’s all he wants. We owe it to him

    • rvalens2 says:

      I would certainly hate to see Bryce get cut. But I do think it’s going to come down to a decision as to whether or not the Jazz feel they need three point guards. The play of Hood, Burks, Neto and Trey Burke (in Tuesday’s game) certainly left me with the impression that the Jazz could get by with just two point guards. (By the way, I still like Bryce Cotton over Trey Burke.)

      The Jazz usually like to leave a roster spot open, so they can experiment with the occasional D-Leaguer. If the Jazz do decide to fill all 15 slots, then I believe Cotton has the inside track to get the last job.

      I agree with you on Withey. His play wowed me! It was not at all what I was expecting. It also makes it more likely that Tibor will spend some time playing for the D-League Stampede in Boise. I’m certain they would welcome him with open arms. It would also give Pliess a lot more playing time.

      • David says:

        @IDJazzman, @Robert, @Rvalens2, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I too am a big Cotton fan and would love to keep them. I think, given the nonguaranteed nature of the contracts, that UTA will start the season with 15 players.


    Pliess is a rudy lite pickup dennis lindsey fooled us all or at least 90% of us the kanter trade looks better by the minute ! IN DL I TRUST!!!!

  3. robert basinger says:

    David, I like your analysis. I would like to know what you think of Bryce cotton. He is very fast and quick something the jazz were enamered with in Dante although itvwas seldom used. Alec ,Gordon , hood, Lvyle’s could sure fill the lanes and with Rudy and faces getting the rebound they should be off and running. That a lo it better than having trey take a 15f . Jump shot against a set defense. As for Bryce being only 6 ft 1 in. He has good company to name a few muggsy boges; Earl boykens kyle Lowery Chris Paul mike Conley ty Lawson tony parker JJ bares Brandon Jennings just to name a few. I hope the jazz aren’t. Trying to save face with their past #9 pick, Trey. Sorry about the typos. I am 70 and even sending e mail is a challeng . Thanks. Bob

    • Chase says:

      Good on you sir. So cool that you are commenting on a Jazz blog at 70!! I’m with you that Bryce may be better than Trey but I think the organization is too committed to it’s 9th pick. It would be a huge failure to trade 2 first picks for someone who didn’t pan out. I would want nothing less than for Trey to prove me wrong. That being said they have to cut their losses if they can do better.

    • rvalens2 says:

      Draft Express lists Cotton’s actual height at 5′ 11.25″ without shoes. With shoes on, they list him at 5′ 11.75″, meaning even with extra thick soles, he’s barely 6 foot when he’s out on the court (as measured by the Clippers in a 2014 workout). But what he lacks in height, he more than makes up with his speed, athleticism and shooting. Yes, Bryce Cotton is the best shooting point guard the Jazz have. His D-league stats were 45.2% on his 3-point attempts and 48.5% on his 2-point shots (34 games). Cotton also happens to come with a 45-inch vertical leap as measured by P3 in California this past summer. I like Cotton a lot and want to see him get as much playing time as possible this season.

  4. LKA says:

    I believe Jazz will keep fifteen players this year. With Cotton being the fifteenth. Cooley, Obrian, Johnson, Jerrett will be cut. Yes three point guards. But if Burke falls behind he might be on the trading block.Or they may use any of the above to make a trade before the final roster.Let’s see where the team is after another half dozen pre season games. And again great article David..

  5. David says:

    Thanks for all the comments, everyone. Sorry for the slow response. I think, , Cotton has talent to play at the NBA level. That, coupled with his minimum contract, makes him appealing for me.

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