Let’s get this out of the way from the jump: Trey Lyles wasn’t anywhere near the top of my Jazz draft board. If I were Dennis Lindsey, he wouldn’t be in a Jazz uniform.
Luckily for everyone involved, I’m not Dennis Lindsey. DL and his team have exponentially more resources, time and effort sunk into draft scouting and all the accompanying due diligence than I could approach. They’ve earned our sincere benefit of the doubt several times over during recent drafts. With that in mind, I dove back even more deeply into Lyles, trying to see what the Jazz see.
Every draftee will have different standards and expectations from college to the pros, but Lyles is among the most extreme cases here — it defines him as a prospect, really. Precious few NBA bigs spent their entire college career operating as wings before shifting up a slot in the big leagues, but that’s exactly what Lyles will do. In so many areas, it makes parsing his NBA fit even tougher than the average prospect.
His defensive outlook, for instance, is wildly varied and in many elements incomplete. He spent virtually no time at Kentucky doing the things that will be asked of him most frequently at the next level.
Lyles guarded the roll man in pick-and-roll action only a handful of times all season, and the Wildcats preferred to switch most of these. Fully predicting how he’ll fare with elements like positioning, footwork and timing against these sets is legitimately impossible at this point, which throws a huge part of his NBA potential on this end into uncertain territory. Great balance1 and lateral agility suggest he could fare well, but the two-man game is equal parts mental and physical — some guys just never pick it up entirely.
He’ll be able to switch a portion of these in the right lineups, and projects very well here as far as bigs go. Spending a year at Kentucky chasing wings around helped him learn how to maximize his strong lateral mobility; he won’t be a safe option right away against quicker wings or guards, but can hold his own in a pinch and should do well recovering against pick-and-pop bigs. If he progresses here, the Jazz could conceivably field Warriors-esque switch-everything lineups down the road2.
He’ll need work to get there, though. His time against wings helped, but Lyles is still a bit slow to react to opposing first steps and can be put on ice skates by guys with deception to their game. He recovers decently most of the time, and was generally solid with “verticality” at the college level, though the Towns/Cauley-Stein pairing at the rim behind him saw him take a lackadaisical approach to fully contesting some drives — he won’t get away with that at this level.
Lyles should struggle for a bit against more traditional bigs. His center of gravity is strong and he has long arms, but in his limited time against bigger guys at Kentucky he frequently allowed easy post position and was sometimes bullied down low. He doesn’t have the vertical lift to make up for this and will have to get even stronger moving forward. Defensive rebounding could be a struggle early on, another area that’s really tough to parse given all the time he spent on the wings.
There’s a bit more to work with offensively. One area less frequently discussed pre-draft where I do like Lyles’ long-term potential is in the post — he saw only 50 of these possessions last season (pass-outs to shot attempts included), but flashed several NBA-level skills. He bullied wings when single-covered, an early positive sign for his prospects combating small-ball lineups at the next level, and made the right pass when doubled. Hidden among mostly grunt work were some good fundamentals, including some convincing misdirection3, an ability to turn over both shoulders, and most of all solid footwork:
He did get several opportunities on the block against guys his own size or bigger as well, and while athleticism in these cases will be heightened in the NBA, these guys were no match for him at the NCAA level. He’d blow right by more stationary bigs:
Both in the post and elsewhere, Lyles needs some work with his touch around the basket. This is one area where a small sample combined with the less sustainable elements of the college game confused scouting services pre-draft — his 59.5 percent figure inside the paint, per Synergy Sports, was often cited as a positive. But actually watch all these attempts (I did), and you quickly realize a high percentage of his makes were easy dunks and putback attempts over helpless 6’5 wings. He won’t get those so easily at the next level, and when he tried to finish on the move or with any sort of traffic around, he often looked rushed and a little silly:
Don’t be surprised if we’re discussing Lyles’ finishing inside as one of his largest warts sometime in the next couple years.
His work on the offensive glass won’t evaporate by any stretch, of course. He won’t have the unfair size advantage he often did crashing in from the perimeter at Kentucky, but he’s more agile than many NBA bigs and has excellent instincts. He’s smooth and has a few sneaky positioning tricks up his sleeve — watch him time this shot perfectly and then use his defender’s backward momentum on his box-out attempt to slither around him and snare the board (#41 in white, lower right part of the screen):
How consistently he can make this kind of stuff work in the big leagues is yet to be seen. But his center of gravity is excellent, and with some further work on his body he may even be able to bully some 4s.
Lyles is a mixed bag in certain other bits of minutiae. Like the defensive end, his experience with the pick-and-roll is virtually nonexistent — the few ball screens he did set were almost all of the pick-and-pop variety, though he seemed comfortable in this role. He’ll need a lot of practice with his timing, footwork and feel as the roll man in P&R sets.
He’s got solid passing instincts, if not transcendent ones. Lyles’ greatest strength here is a microcosm of his game as a whole: he’s decisive. He doesn’t pause to survey the landscape. He sees an open window and jams himself into it as quickly as possible before it closes, including making the right pass more often than not when his simple aggression collapses a defense:
The previous clip was in pseudo-transition, and brings us to the first of two areas that could make or break his eventual value, both to the Jazz and overall. Utah was the league’s slowest team by pace last year, among the least aggressive teams in the NBA pursuing transition chances. Dennis Lindsey has spoken openly about a desire to become as versatile as possible, and Lyles could be the lynchpin in this regard.
He’s fantastic running the floor for his size, with fluid strides, great acceleration and an ability to lead the break himself with a solid handle. He has good anticipation for leak-out opportunities following turnovers or defensive boards4. If his touch around the rim improves, he could be a catalyst for more aggression on the break while on the floor.
And of course, the other paramount factor for Lyles as an NBA success is his jump shot. Jazz brass believe he can become a legitimate shooter at this level despite iffy numbers at Kentucky, and a deep plunge into his mechanics reveals they might be onto something. Lyles doesn’t have the quickest release, but his form otherwise is actually somewhat pristine. He keeps his feet set and at a good distance apart, lifts straight up with no hitch or leg kick, and releases the ball high and at the apex of his jump. Take a look at a slow-motion version of his J:
Lyles’ sample as a shooter at Kentucky was small. He shot just 42 no-dribble jumpers all season, per Synergy. There are a number of outcomes where this becomes a real NBA shooter with some refinement and repetition, and Lyles absolutely has the off-the-bounce game to become a legitimate “playmaking 4” down the line if the jumper clicks.
Let’s be clear: this is miles from a certainty, as are several of the what-if’s posed herein. Great form simply does not automatically equal great shooting results — ask Trey Burke. Likewise, there are plenty of scenarios where several of his other skills don’t translate and Lyles is a non-factor at the NBA level.
And that’s fine. The 12th pick is no guarantee of anything, as its history showcases.
So upon further review, we can upgrade my feel on Trey Lyles from cold to lukewarm, and the oven doesn’t necessarily need to be turned off yet. If he ever simply gets to the mid-30s as a 3-point shooter on decent volume, the narrative changes pretty quickly. He could give the Jazz a whole other world of small-ball options with his potential ability to essentially be a wing offensively5 while toggling back and forth as necessary between the 3 and the 4 defensively. Aren’t best-case scenarios more fun to imagine?
Welcome to Utah, Trey Lyles. Here’s hoping you make me look like a fool for my pre-draft assessment. I’d be happy to have been wrong.