Most of the attention the Utah Jazz have received after a solid — and surprising for some media members — 4-3 start has centered around Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward. They are, after all, Utah’s equivalent of a “Big Three.” The praise they are receiving1 is well deserved. Likewise, so is any plaudits head coach Quin Snyder is receiving.
One of the biggest keys for the Jazz’s hot start, however, has been the play of the bench. While some feared that depth would be an issue, the reserves have shown great development and improvement. Here is a brief look at how each player is faring, understanding full well that we are viewing things from our front row seats in small sample size theater.
Alec Burks (15.6 PPG, 44.3 FG%, 53.8 3%, 84.2 FT%, 3.9 RPG, 2.6 APG, 0.86 SPG, 27.4 MPG, 18.8 PER2)
Before his shoulder surgery sidelined him after just 27 games last season, Alec Burks simply did not have the same spring in his step. He never appeared fully comfortable in Snyder’s newly introduced system. It is amazing how a clean bill of health can make a difference. Burks is back to his confident, attacking self and his return truly has been a boon for the Jazz. Each passing game, his decision-making is improving. While there is the occasional ill-advised shot, for the most part, Burks has been very good knowing when to shoot, drive or set up a teammate. His ability to get to the hoop and improvise have sometimes bailed out the Jazz from a stagnant offensive spell. After a precipitous drop in his percentage around the basket, he is back to 60 percent — the mark he hit his first three seasons. In customary Burks fashion, he is getting to the line (.481 FTr) and is hitting them.
His playmaking has picked up, doling out 15 assists over the past three outings — including eight dimes against the Denver Nuggets. This has been particularly helpful when Snyder has rolled out his three-wing lineups. He continues to crash the boards from the back court. Burks has picked up where he left off last season in terms of his 3-point shooting. Given his accuracy, it would behoove the Jazz if he attempted more treys.
He was touted repeatedly by Jazz brass as their key “free agent acquisition.” While some bristle at that notion, his return has been one of the most welcome developments of the early season.
Trey Burke (13.4 PPG, 48 FG%, 52.2 3%, 100 FT%, 2.3 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.0 SPG, 23.3 MPG, 19.6 PER)
Perhaps the best story line thus far is Trey Burke’s play. There are not enough superlatives for the way he has come back and is defining his role as the season progresses. His off-season work is clearly paying off. After a tough opener, he has strung together six good to great games. Simply put, Burke is playing very heady, smart basketball. His shot selection has been excellent, which undoubtedly has contributed to his greatly improved efficiency. His 59.2 TS% greatly eclipses his 45.5 mark last year. His 3-point shooting, including his six trifecta game, has really helped open things up. The concern between Burke and Raul Neto was their ability to hit their perimeter jumpers. So far, so good.
Like Burks, Burke’s decision making has been stellar. He is putting himself in the right places on both ends of the court. His assist totals are down, but his role is vastly different. Playing largely with Burks and/or Joe Ingles, it is not necessary for him to facilitate as much. He is working hard on defense, and while there is the missed assignment here and there, he has been solid. In short, it could be argued that Burke has been the Jazz’s most consistent performer. He has accepted his role as a bench scorer and is excelling at it.
Joe Ingles (5.6 PPG, 57.7 FG%, 43.8 3%, 100 FT%, 2.3 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.43 SPG, 17.6 MPG, 16.6 PER)
Ingles has been a rock for Snyder this season. There were some questions as to who would fill the fourth wing spot. Ingles has left no question there, thanks to his consistently good play. The affable Aussie is giving the Jazz excellent minutes off the bench. Ingles is sporting a stellar 72.5 TS%. That is elite. His 3PAr is higher than last year, which is smart, seeing as he is draining them consistently well. If anything, he could stand to shoot a bit more often, something that can again be chalked up to his natural unselfishness. He is working harder on the boards, makes smart passes and fights on defense. There may not be many fourth wings in the league performing as solidly as Joe Ingles.
Trevor Booker (3.5 PPG, 27.8 FG%, 25 3%, 5.2 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.5 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 21.o MPG, 4.9 PER)
This is where things change for the bench. To be blunt, Trevor Booker has had a rough start. He continues to lay it all out on the court, hustling every minute he is in the game. Booker’s energy and passion are evident. But the rest of his game has struggled, most on the offensive side of things. After finishing at the rim at a pristine 72.3 percent last season, Booker is down to just 35.7 percent, and worse yet has shown a major reticence to attempting 3-point shots. There have been several instances where Booker has passed up wide open treys, which often has resulted in less welcome shots or turnovers. It is almost instinctual for him to pump fake when he catches the ball, even beyond the arc. His game versus Denver was encouraging, but the other games have been tough. This is something to watch, especially with him playing as much as he is. The Jazz definitely need him to return to last season’s form, and he certainly can do so. As the third big, Utah needs him to add more offensively. He is still crashing the boards without abandon and plays physical defense.
Trey Lyles (1.3 PPG, 20 FG%, 50 3%, 50 FT%, 1.7 RPG, 0.3 APG, 0.14 SPG, 6.3 MPG, 1.3 PER)
It is good to remember that Lyles just barely turned 20. He is a work-in-progress, as evidenced by his performance seven games into his career. Lyles is having difficulties knowing where to be on the court. There have been plays where this has caused some poor spacing or less desirable shots. On the defensive end, he is learning by fire. He is getting overpowered inside and his rotations have been slow on the pick-and-roll. His pairing with Booker has been perplexing at times, given these struggles. While Burke and Burks are doing most of the heavy lifting with the bench scoring, having some help from the bigs would be welcomed.
There are some early positives. Lyles hustles and is an active body. He also has shown flashes of potential as a playmaking big. It will take time, but he has gotten into every game and is getting some experience under his belt. Look for him to show gradual improvement. The talent is there.
While it was assumed that Chris Johnson earned the final roster spot, that might not have been the case. It is clear the team likes him. In a modest surprising development, he has moved ahead of Elijah Millsap in the wing rotation — though there is not a lot of playing time there, of course. Johnson has gotten the nod for a few spells the past few games and has done some nice things. He can hit the open jumper and is scrappy on defense. Millsap has had a rough go. His offensive game can be a liability for which his defensive prowess may not adequately compensate.
Tibor Pleiss and Jeff Withey have not seen much time at all. With Lyles and Booker struggling, it is interesting that they have not been given more of a chance. If Gobert’s ankle injury sustained against the Cleveland Cavaliers proves to be more serious than expected, they may been pressed into duty, even though Favors would naturally assume the bulk of the center minutes if needed. Both had their moments in the preseason. Withey, especially, proved to be an effective player in the minutes he was given.
In summary, the Jazz bench has been a big catalyst for the early success. The play of reserves, particularly from the wings, has been a major reason why Utah has comes out so strongly. The hope is that this continues as the season moves forward.