We at Salt City Hoops, and myself especially, spend a lot of time talking about Jazz players within the context of the team as whole. That’s likely the case for most similar sites, particularly those covering a young team like Utah; many broader comparisons league-wide are rendered useless or require excessive added context for an inexperienced group still figuring things out with each other. But it isn’t an entirely needless exercise to wonder about Utah’s personnel and how it compares around the league – after all, the team has to hope some of their most vital pieces will soon be approaching the NBA’s best at their positions. With that in mind, let’s have a quick look at Utah’s starting lineup (plus a couple bonus players) and how they compare league-wide.
A couple quick qualifications. First and most importantly, all evaluations for the purposes of this piece are being made based on players’ current level of play only. I’ll certainly discuss future potential contextually1, but the comparisons to other players are only based on current performance unless otherwise noted. Also, you’ll see that I’ve given each player three categories of comparison:
a) Comparables: Others at the position with similar on-court value.
b) Reaches: Others at the position with higher on-court value, but whose current level of play their Jazz counterpart could be reasonably expected to attain at some point in their career with solid development. For older guys like Marvin Williams or Richard Jefferson, this category will refer more to players whose level of play they can match when playing particularly well, since neither are likely to develop as much as all the core pieces.
c) Ceiling: The player’s best-case career scenario. Again, for older players this will refer more to their level of play on their very best night rather than a developmental curve.
Also, please note that while I stand by these general comparisons and find them pretty accurate, they are indeed subjective. Let’s get to it.
PG Trey Burke:
Comparables: Ramon Sessions, Michael Carter-Williams
Reaches: Jrue Holiday, Jose Calderon, George Hill
Ceiling: Mike Conley, Damian Lillard with better defense
Up first is the guy who, perhaps along with Favors, seems the surest bet to hit at least his “Reaches” category sometime in the next few seasons. Burke is already a capable offensive point guard who I’ve gushed about at length for his court vision and high basketball IQ. Like any rookie, he has his share of bad tendencies – shot selection and defensive lapses chief among them – but he also has an uncommonly low turnover rate for any point guard, probably the most common bad habit for young ball handlers. He distributes well2 and shows patience with the ball, and is a danger with his jumper if left unattended. With the keys to Utah’s offense already in his hands, Burke is a solid bet to work out some of his kinks and become, at minimum, a solid ball-control guy capable of hurting teams with his range, in the mold of someone like Calderon. With an extra-large leap on either end, he could even become one of the game’s elite players at his position; it’s not unreasonable at all given his smarts to imagine him utilizing his long reach and becoming something like Conley, who has quietly become a top defensive point in Memphis to complement a simple-yet-effective offensive game. Even if his development were to stall, Burke already has enough tangible assets to make a positive impact right now.
SG Gordon Hayward:
Comparables: Vince Carter, Kevin Martin, Bradley Beal
Reaches: DeMar DeRozan, Lance Stephenson, Aaron Afflalo
Ceiling: In-his-prime Manu Ginobili, James Harden (poor-man’s version with better defense)
Hayward is one of the toughest Jazz players to classify at this moment, his vastly increased offensive role causing certain metrics to paint him as something close to elite while others blast him for his dwindling efficiency and defensive lapses. Stats aside, he brings a variety of skills to the table; at his best, Hayward can be an above-average defender capable of contributing with scoring, distributing, and boards. His development mostly depends on a simple idea: are his issues since his increased role a result of growing pains and a lack of other solid offensive options, or is Hayward just not quite capable of being the go-to guy for an NBA team without his game suffering to the point where it hurts the team? A full dissection of this question could fill an entire piece of its own, but don’t doubt it’s on the minds of Utah’s front office.
Hayward is a good-to-great shooter, albeit one who thinks he’s much closer to “great.”3 The Jazz lack another offensive player capable of generating good looks in isolation, and Hayward has clearly pressed his shots at times to try and make up for this.4 Should he remain in Utah in the coming years, the hopeful addition of another one-on-one threat in this year’s draft (or Burke becoming something close) could really lessen this burden. He’d then be free to show more of the all-around game many had hoped for, along with a potential rejuvenation defensively – his game could look similar to the one Stephenson plays in Indiana with others on the roster capable of handling more offensive burdens. In a perfect world, Hayward could become like Ginobili in his prime years with San Antonio – not necessarily a sixth man, but a complimentary offensive piece capable of dominating in stretches while contributing all over the court.
SF Richard Jefferson:
Comparables: Mike Dunleavy, Wilson Chandler, Mo Harkless
Reaches: Paul Pierce
Ceiling: Luol Deng
Pierce and Deng could really be interchanged here; they’re simply guys Jefferson shows flashes of similarity to when his game is really on, but he’s unlikely to ever consistently show that kind of value. He’s added some range5 and the occasional athletic play to Utah’s arsenal, but frequently disappears much like Chandler can be known to. He’s been only marginally horrible on defense rather than blatantly horrible, but certainly a downgrade from Alec Burks in that regard. With the right contender, Jefferson could be a useful bench piece or even a fourth or fifth option for a pseudo-contender like Memphis. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him moved before the trade deadline.
PF Marvin Williams:
Comparables: Channing Frye, Mirza Teletovic
Reaches: Kenneth Faried (with better shooting and worse rebounding), Ryan Anderson
Ceiling: Paul Millsap
It’s been a pleasant year of re-invention for Williams, who has shown real versatility as a stretch-4 in Utah’s small starting lineup. He always had athleticism, but the change in position has enabled him to really showcase his variety of skills. He’s been good from beyond the arc and could provide a shooting boost to a contender6, something folks in Salt Lake aren’t shy about pointing out. On his best nights, he looks like a smaller Faried with much better shooting range, flying around the court and stretching out defenses with his range. At his very peak, he can even resemble the guy Millsap has become this year in Atlanta with increased offensive freedom. For all the complaints thrown his way, coach Corbin deserves a real pat on the back for rejuvenating Marvin’s career this season.
C Derrick Favors:
Comparables: Nikola Vucevic, Larry Sanders
Reaches: Joakim Noah, Andre Drummond, Nikola Pekovic
Ceiling: Karl Malone (without a face-up J hand-crafted by God himself), rich-man’s DeMarcus Cousins, 2011 Tyson Chandler
Like Burke, Favors seems a pretty safe bet to at least come close to his “Reaches” category, if not eclipse it. Though hampered recently by a hip injury, his rapid improvement offensively this season has been a pleasant surprise. He’s shown a solid, gritty post game and more touch around the rim than many had expected.7 He remains a dangerous pick-and-roll threat given his athleticism and dunking ability, though he’s still sorting out some of its finer points. His jumper is still mediocre at best, hitting only 30.5% of his mid-range attempts, but he does at least appear to be putting some work into the fundamentals of his shot.
Defensively, his rim protection has left something to be desired based on the skill set he’s shown in the past. Of 122 players defending at least three shots at the rim per game, he’s a pedestrian 58th, allowing opponents to shoot 50.7% per NBA.com’s SportVU data. He’s been slowly improving this number over recent weeks, and there’s reason to believe there may be noise surrounding it: the Jazz switched primary pick-and-roll defensive schemes mid-season, and the new hang-back style for bigs is friendlier to Favors’ abilities at the rim. Furthermore, fellow SCH writer Clint Johnson surmised on our most recent podcast that Favors, like Hayward, might be feeling the effects of an added offensive workload on his defensive game – that Utah’s lack of another big defender/rebounder in their starting lineup, combined with increased fatigue from the other end, might be affecting both the frequency and effectiveness of his challenges. In any case, a return to his previous levels in this area along with a continued leap offensively could carry Favors to some great heights – should he ever develop a reliable jumper, he might really become nearly as hard to contain as the Mailman.
BONUS Alec Burks:
Comparables: Tony Allen, Eric Gordon, Jimmy Butler
Reaches: Monta Ellis, Lance Stephenson
Ceiling: Poor-man’s Dwyane Wade
What fun would this be if we didn’t include all the core pieces? Burks should be starting anyway8, perhaps my largest current beef with Corbin’s rotation – he’s younger, better, and infinitely more valuable to the future than Jefferson, but doesn’t seem to be able to find any starts despite eventually logging more minutes a night. He’s been on fire of late, scoring 17 points a game on nearly 50% shooting since January 13th with a somewhat insane (for a bench player) usage rate of 25.5% in that time. He can get to the basket whenever he wants, and can finish with both hands and a variety of bodily contortions. His mid-range jumper is still seen far too often (he shoots only 33.3% but has attempted 147 tries), but he’s actually improved his corner-3 to a respectable 38.9%, albeit only on 18 attempts.
But vastly under-mentioned this season has been his defense, particularly his on-ball defense. Of qualified players, Burks is second in the entire NBA in per-possession defense against finished isolation plays, allowing only .34 PPP according to MySynergySports. He’s still learning all the intricacies of complex NBA defense as far as helping and scheme goes (more time against starters could help), but the improvements he’s made to his balance and positioning on the ball are huge9 – he’s become Utah’s best wing defender given Hayward’s drop-off, although Corbin is still quick to give Hayward the tougher wing assignments when both share the court. If his jumper ever improves to acceptable levels, Burks could easily end up being the most underrated of the Jazz core when it all shakes out.
BONUS Enes Kanter:
Comparables: Andrea Bargnani, Greg Monroe
Reaches: Marcin Gortat, Jonas Valanciunas, Jared Sullinger
Ceiling: Brook Lopez, Chris Bosh
Kanter has been absolutely all over the place this season, his most recent two-game set (28 and 14 in nearly 38 minutes against the Clippers, followed by 10 and 3 in just 20 minutes in a loss to the Raptors that saw Rudy Gobert take his place down the stretch) serving as a microcosm of the year so far. When he’s on offensively, he looks like an even cleaner version of Valanciunas – silky post footwork, great touch, and a menace on the offensive boards. When he’s off, he’s a slow, clunky European bricking jumpers – and either way, he’s ranged from bad to catastrophically awful on the defensive end at basically all times.
His ability to produce next to Favors has been a topic of much ballyhoo recently, but as an individual he may have the widest range of possibilities of any young Jazz player. He may figure it out defensively someday (enough to reach average, at least), continue to add to his repertoire on offense, and become a great two-way player like Gortat or even Lopez. If everything breaks perfectly, he could one day be nearly as valuable as Bosh – a long shot given Bosh’s versatility, but not impossible with Kanter’s range. On the other hand, if he can never reach even average defensively, he may never get the chance to become the offensive force his skill set suggests is possible. Corbin has already benched him for defensive lapses more than once this season, including Monday’s debacle, and there are those wondering if Utah’s bench boss might be growing increasingly fed up with Kanter’s inability to grasp basic concepts and apply them consistently. As we’ve mentioned before, the remainder of this season and his ability to improve these weaknesses will play a huge role in the front office’s decision-making this offseason as Kanter approaches the final year of his rookie deal.