Five Jazz Duos to Watch This Season

July 21st, 2015 | by Clint Johnson

This duo taught Jazz fans what a synergistic basketball partnership can be. [Antoine de St Exupéry]

Few basketball fans know the potency of a great dynamic duo better than Utahns. The Jazz franchise is built upon a frame laid by John Stockton’s passing and Karl Malone’s scoring.

The modern Jazz lack a player the statue of either of those first-ballot Hall of Famers, much less a pair of such players. The nearest available approximation1 is the exciting young trio of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert. The team’s ability to compete rests on these three players more heavily than any others.

Even so, the synergy between even two less central players can influence a season’s outcome. On a squad as young as the Jazz, nearly any two rotation players could be examined in tandem for developmental synergy. But five duos in this Jazz iteration stand out, either for their importance or their intrigue.

1) Dante Exum and Derrick Favors

There is so much already invested in Exum’s development it’s almost unfair to add to it. However, one of the least discussed potentials for improvement in the Jazz offense is the pick and roll game, essentially a two-player action. Half of that combination is in place. Derrick Favors is an elite screen and roll player and has been for the past two years–at least, he has been when used. Which is the problem.

A great pick and roll needs a distributor as adept as the finisher, and in this area the Jazz are notably deficient.

Trey Burke receives frequent criticism for being a high-volume score-first point guard, largely deserved, but lost in the noise is the fact that he’s proven the most capable facilitator to Favors. Last season Burke and Favors played 1,472 combined minutes, and in that time Burke assisted Favors 101 times2. That breaks down to a successful Burke to Favors connection roughly every 14 minutes of game play.

While Exum and Favors shared a substantial 933 minutes on-court, in that time Exum assisted his capable roll compadre only once every 36 minutes. For comparison’s sake, Hayward assisted Favors roughly every 23 minutes. To put these numbers in contrast, Chris Paul assisted Blake Griffin every eight minutes of shared court time last season.

Given his speed, stature, and court vision, Exum’s pick and roll potential exceeds that of either Burke or Hayward. If he’s as good as his word about playing the season with greater confidence and aggression, that may express in notable gains in the pick and roll game. Should that happen, look for Exum to Favors to become a sturdy plank in the Jazz’s offensive foundation.

2) Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood

For much of the last two seasons, Gordon Hayward has labored under the burden of being Batman-in-training without a prospective Robin. Lack of a consistent second option only complicated the already difficult responsibility of driving the offense. Late last season, Rodney Hood returned from injury to, at times, lessen that burden.

Before the All-Star break, Hood’s inexperience and injuries limited him to a usage rate of 16.8 percent. After the All-Star game, however, he pumped that up to 21.7 percent, behind only Hayward, Burke, and Favors among regular rotation players. In the last twenty games of the season, with team stars worn down and increasingly resting, Coach Snyder began settling first option responsibility on the young Duke product. That sign of trust and confidence in Hood’s offensive game suggests exciting potential this upcoming season.

While it’s likely Alec Burks will return from shoulder surgery to reclaim his staring spot at guard, Hayward and Hood will most likely share the court regularly this year. If Hood develops into a respectable second option with a sweet shot, as many foresee, it will be exciting to see possible repercussions in Hayward’s game.

What would the Jazz offense look like playing two perimeter players capable of scoring efficiently from the three point line to the rim? This season many begin to answer the question.

3) Rudy Gobert and Trey Lyles

Perhaps no Jazz tandem drips more upside than this pair: one rim protecting monster and one positionless Jack-of-all-trades. But while the upside is tantalizing, this likely pairing will have to find a way to hold their own this season.

Gobert easily makes the most sense as a frontcourt partner for the 19-year-old Kentucky product. The Stifle Tower’s rim-anchored offensive game should greatly benefit from Lyles’ ability to play away from the hoop both with and without the ball3. Simultaneously, Gobert’s defensive prowess should cover some mistakes of a very young player trying to adapt to the strength, speed, and skill of the NBA game.

Yet even Gobert may struggle to compensate for Lyles’ present weaknesses on the defensive end of the floor. The returns are extremely early, but Lyles looks to have a long way to go as a defender. Through his first five summer league games, Lyles averaged less than eight rebounds per 36 minutes of play while only blocking 0.4 shots per contest in his 23 minutes of play. In the same amount of minutes per game last season, Trevor Booker, far from an elite rim protector, blocked shots twice as often as Lyles, and that was against NBA-caliber competition.

The rookie will be a significant defensive downgrade from Derrick Favors and even Trevor Booker in the minutes he gets. Will Gobert be able to pick up the defensive slack? Can Lyles’ apply his versatile skills to great enough effect to compliment Gobert offensively, offsetting his defensive vulnerabilities? They are interesting questions impossible to more than guess at now.

4) Alec Burks and Trey Burke

Much of the uncertainty about the Jazz is positive and expresses in terms like “potential”, “hope”, and “upside.” The Burk(s/e) Brothers are the exception. If there are pockets of worry about the team, they concentrate on these players. Both are scoring guards who have yet to prove their defensive value to a franchise that demands defense. But it is offensive efficiency that may determine their futures.

The trade of Enes Kanter left only four Jazz players who tallied usage rates of 21% or greater last season. Burks and Burke were the least efficient of those four4. It isn’t hard to see a scenario where Rodney Hood earns a starting slot sometime next season. So long as Dante Exum starts at point guard, that would mean that Burks would then come off the bench with Burke. Even without a change to the starting lineup, the pairing will certainly see court time together.

That formula looks troublesome. Ample opportunity to use possessions + two players prone to doing so, one of mediocre efficiency (52.4 TS% last year, Burks) and one of poor efficiency (45.5 TS%, Burke) = ???

5) Tibor Pleiss and Trevor Booker

Anyone saying they know what to expect from the Jazz’s 7’3″ German acquisition is lying5. Pleiss projects as sharing at least some minutes with Derrick Favors, but it will be uniquely interesting to see when he is paired with Trevor Booker.

The cereal-loving undersized four certainly won’t complain. Last season saw him serving spot minutes at center to largely catastrophic results. According to 82games.com, Booker’s field goal percentage dropped 18% when moved up from power forward. That’s bad. That his opponent’s field goal percentage jumped 24% as well is turrible as a Charles Barkley pitch shot.

While not expected to replace the rim protection of Gobert or Favors, Pleiss is… Well, 7’3″ is 7’3″. He’ll bother at least some shots by accident at that height. And by keeping Booker at power forward, he presents the Jazz with an interesting possibility of a bench pairing of stretch bigs.

It’s possible Pleiss and Booker may provide the Jazz its best-shooting frontcourt since Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur.

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.

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4 Comments

  1. IDJazzman says:

    I don’t quite understand why it seems that Burks TS% is mediocre and the article seems to imply that Rodney Hood’s is not? Hood’s TS% is .529, just 5 thousandths better than Burks or essentially identical and mind you, Burks shot just 5 thousandths lower than Hood with a bad shoulder. I think it is too early to tell who will be the better shot between the two, but it could be Burks this coming season with a healthy shoulder?

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Astute observation. While I like Burks and am fairly confident he’ll quickly prove himself better than his doubters, I don’t think there’s a question whether he’s a better shooter than Hood. Hood’s TS% following the All-Star break was 57.5 percent. That’s better than either mark put up by Hayward or Favors last year. It’s better than Burks best season of 54.7 percent.

      Hood’s irregular play and injury history for the first half of the season, combined with being a rookie, make that efficiency late in the year only more impressive. I suspect the 57.5 percent is a truer representation of his game than the struggles early in the year.

      In total, I think I’m on pretty solid ground grouping Burks with Burke. Hayward, Favors, Gobert, and Hood have all demonstrated greater efficiency than Burks has ever managed to show. Exum’s USG% of 14.1 clearly disqualifies him as a parallel. That leaves Burke as the least efficient high-usage player with Burks second.

      • IDJazzman says:

        I think that is a valid point on Hood, especially being his rookie season. I hope the 57.5 for Hood is where he is and can improve on that. I don’t think I agree on lumping Burks and Burke together. The difference between those two is a lot more than the difference between Hood and Burks.

    • Erik says:

      Alec Burks’ TS% was .506 as a 20-year-old rookie, with essentially no improvement in his sophomore season before jumping to .547 in his third year. If we write off last year’s decline to his shoulder problem, getting back to .547 or better would be respectable. That would have put him tied for 24th last year among qualified shooting guards.

      Most wings improve their shooting from their rookie year (Gordon’s a notable exception) and league leaders like Danny Green and Anthony Morrow started their careers with worse numbers than either Burks or Hood. Hood is likely to improve. So Hood’s rookie year he was a little better shooter than Burks, and commonly players get better.

      If you look at Hood’s TS% from February on, he was at .575, which is pretty darn good and is further reason to think that Hood projects to better than .529 this year. Hood started slow.

      4 seasons, Burks has never been better than decent in TS%. Post all-star break Rodney Hood was really promising.

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