At times, it’s tough to remember that Joe Ingles is an NBA rookie. Despite a growing number of foreign players making their way to the league, many not until midway through their professional careers, it’s still often natural to identify the term generally with 19 and 20-year-olds fresh out of school. But while those who have spent time in the pro ranks abroad will typically take different routes to their development, they’re still “rookies” as far as the level of competition, which isn’t really approached anywhere else in the world. And Jingles is no different.
In the early parts of the year, despite effectively being the elder statesman among Utah’s rotation players at 271, he looked the part – though, unsurprisingly, in slightly different ways than some of Utah’s younger pieces. Where guys like Trey Burke and Alec Burks (pre-injury) worked through more typical issues like shot choice and general selectivity, Ingles was on the opposite end of the spectrum – he appeared to have many of the skills, but seemed utterly petrified of putting them to use.
Using his November numbers as a barometer2, Jingles was on pace to join some fairly rare company as far as his on-court involvement. Going back to 1946, there have been just 37 individual player seasons from a guard or forward where the player in question logged at least 18 minutes a game (Joe was playing 19.6 for the month) and used under 10 percent of all team possessions while on the floor (Joe’s usage was 9.4) – and nearly all of them were either pure defensive specialists on stacked offensive teams3 or deep bench roleplayers.
Since Jingles wasn’t advertised as any sort of defensive stopper, his potential inclusion among this group was strange. It was even more so given Quin Snyder’s equal-opportunity offense that stresses the open man being found, and for a player who had shot 41.7 percent and 39.4 percent from deep in his two most recent Euroleague seasons before making the NBA jump, it was curious to see his hesitancy. Joe seemed hugely unwilling to fire away even when found wide open beyond the arc, often passing up better looks to create a tougher situation for himself:
His apprehension wasn’t confined simply to potential long balls, either. Jingles was simply thinking too much with the rock in his hands, rather than conforming to Quin’s theme of knowing what to do with the ball before it arrives. He was timid to the point of comedy in transition, something that he’s still working on even as he’s improved in other areas. More commonly, he was far too quick to pick up his dribble on the offensive end, often short-circuiting the flow of a given play by stopping the ball in a bad area.
As the year has worn on, though, Ingles has progressed rapidly. His previous pro experience is likely a factor – that much time in a similar environment surely gives him a slight leg up on some of his younger teammates as far as grasping schemes and concepts.
His hesitance is almost completely gone, replaced by the exact sort of reflexive response to the play unfolding in front of him that his coach preaches so regularly. When he’s open from 3, he’s taking the shot. When he senses his man closing out too quickly, he’s making hard, incisive drives that force the defense to account for him and leave openings elsewhere:
Snyder stresses process over results at this point in the game for his team, and Jingles could be his poster boy for the approach’s success so far this year. As Joe has begun to integrate Quin’s concepts into his instinctual hard drive, he’s quickly found both his numbers and his team’s numbers when he’s on the court rising dramatically.
His per-minute assist totals4 have increased incrementally as a result of his more aggressive play, and he actually led the entire team in this category for the month of January by nearly a full assist per-36 over Gordon Hayward. Nearly all are coming from drives to the hoop like those in the clip above, and Ingles has shown the sort of crafty, opportunistic game that led to his initial NBA interest in the first place. He’s an expert at catching guys leaning a hair in the wrong direction and exploiting them, and has a very strong spatial awareness for how these little advantages translate into openings elsewhere once defenses rotate.
And most importantly, he’s no longer a burden to the offense with his shooting, both in terms of frequency and accuracy. He’s attempting more and more per-minute shots as the season wears on, and while he’s still a secondary option here in most lineups, he’s become a real threat. This is mostly due to a sudden discovery of his accuracy – Ingles finished January shooting 38.3 percent from deep on nearly 50 attempts, a huge improvement from the high-20s figure he was posting before that. It’s too early to tell if he can maintain such a torrid pace, of course, but the eye test is on his side; he just looks so much more willing and comfortable in recent weeks, and it’s clear his stroke is following suit.
His team is feeling the difference while he’s on the floor, as well. Jingles posted Utah’s best per-possession net rating while on the floor for the month of January (among rotation players), and on the flip side, they’ve been at their worst when he sits down. Their shooting declines noticeably when he’s replaced by a lesser threat like Elijah Millsap, and despite Ingles’ promotion to the starting lineup recently against more skilled opponents, they’ve defended at a well above average rate while he plays.
Ingles is making early doubters, this writer included, wish they had given him a bit more time. It was unreasonable to expect him to instantly adjust from European pro-level competition after multiple years there, and as he’s had time to get in tune with the speed and tendencies of NBA play, his game has improved tremendously. He’s still a complementary piece on any contending team, to be sure, but this is a player who has more than proven that he belongs at the highest level and can be part of a productive wing rotation. His experience will prove valuable for the team’s younger guys, Exum especially, as they attempt to make similar leaps at a young age. Jingles is here to stay, and will be yet another positive Jazz roster move if he continues his current level of play.