In many ways, analyzing Tibor Pleiss as a fit with the Utah Jazz is a tale of two players. One on side of the ledger is a backup in European competition, one who struggled to carve a consistent role at an even lower level than his anticipated Jazz assignment, and displayed only flashes of NBA-level skills and speed. This version of Pleiss showed limited shooting range, very few auxiliary offensive skills beyond pick-and-roll play and a few serious defensive holes which would threaten to be exposed on the NBA stage.
On the other side is the guy the Jazz see. This player was simply stuck behind one of the top big non-NBA big men in the world1, which impeded his ability to show his full range of skill. He’s a talented roll man with excellent feel and good finishing, a shooter with touch that could extend out to the NBA 3-point line and a defender who can succeed when placed and coached correctly.
The truth may lie somewhere in the middle in these situations, but Pleiss’s expected workload and what we know about him up to this point could make for a long wait before we have any definitive answers.
Count me slightly skeptical, but certainly with several bits of interest. A combination of tape watched and conversations with a few friends who are very informed on the European game2 has left me both intrigued and somewhat muted in my expectations.
When the Jazz acquired Pleiss and we began to hear rumblings about him coming to the US for next season, the first red flags to surface were on the defensive end. Pleiss is big and long at 7’2, but isn’t anywhere near someone like Rudy Gobert’s class as far as lateral mobility goes3. Xavi Pascual Vives, longtime Barcelona bench boss, didn’t do Pleiss a ton of favors with his defensive scheme – Barcelona bigs were often asked to jump up and hedge high on ball-handlers in pick-and-roll, and this just isn’t right for the Big Toblerone4. Watch how a well-run Olympiacos team strung him out and found easy looks when he couldn’t recover in time (Pleiss is 21 in yellow):
This shouldn’t be much of a concern in Utah. Quin Snyder has varied his scheme for big men defending P&R to a point, but has done so based mostly on personnel – guys like Favors and Gobert (despite good mobility) most frequently hang back in a conservative look, often conceding a midrange shot but allowing Derrick and Rudy to play to their strengths and protect the interior. Expect much of the same for Pleiss when he sees the court; he’ll see action almost exclusively against backup units, and will therefore be spared truly difficult matchups like Steph Curry and his ilk, guys who could force Pleiss back into a scheme he’s not made for with their ability to kill a team off the bounce.
And aside from that wart, much of the rest of his game defensively appears as though it’ll translate well. Pleiss is already excellent as a communicator defensively, and he understands where to be on the floor to leverage his size in the right ways. He plays alert, hands-out defense and is a good helper, if not quite the shot-blocker one might expect from a guy his size. He’s also a very good defensive rebounder, with excellent box-out instincts. The Jazz will ease him into things on this end, likely pursuing matchups that allow him to stay within himself, and he can absolutely be an effective defender at this level if they’re successful.
The other end of the floor is even more of a mixed bag, in part because some of the things the Jazz might expect from Pleiss are elements we basically haven’t seen so far in his career.
Shooting is the big one here. Jazz brass firmly believes Pleiss has the touch to be a floor-stretcher at the 5-spot. This isn’t PR-speak or wishful thinking; I’ve heard from sources within the organization that it’s a true belief, one supported by an impressive workout with the Jazz5 and other separate scouting.
The hitch: Pleiss has basically zero track record of doing this at any professional level. He’s attempted just 21 triples in his European career (at the shorter three point line, no less), and shot only 33 midrange jumpers in Euroleague competition last season. It’s not something he’s demonstrated an ability to do at game speed, which will only get faster in the NBA.
If the reality is closer to the Jazz’s opinion than what we’ve seen so far, it’s a game-changer. His form isn’t bad, though his stroke will be among the slowest in the league – but this rightly doesn’t deter the Jazz, who know the value of extending his range lies as much in what it opens up for the other Jazzmen on the court as it does for Pleiss’s own offense. If he knocks down a few open looks early in the year and develops reputation as even a moderate threat from distance, spacing for Jazz second units becomes a brand new ballgame. Imagining the likes of Alec Burks slashing to the hoop while the nearest 7-footer has both feet outside the paint is exciting.
Again, there’s nothing close to a guarantee this will happen. And if Pleiss is more limited as a shooter, the rest of his offensive game has ups and downs.
A “down” would definitely be his court vision, which is in stark contrast to a guy like Tomic, perhaps one of the most gifted passing big men in the world. Pleiss gets tunnel vision to a large degree with the ball and can really only pick out the very most obvious of passes. This could be a problem in the NBA, and particularly within a Snyder system that emphasizes moving the ball. It could even be a hindrance if his shooting is indeed a plus – it becomes a lot easier to account for his potential spacing if teams know they can close the nearest defender out quickly to him without a high risk of him finding the next open man on a rotation.
There are positives elsewhere though, a few which could make him a good fit. Pleiss is an excellent and active screen-setter both on and off the ball, with great timing and understanding of which angles he can open up with a particular pick. Barcelona typically used him as a fulcrum offensively, roaming the middle of the floor and setting heady picks both for ball-handlers and elsewhere. Watch here as he sets a pick for the ball-handler, resets, sets a well-timed flare on the weak side, slips a side pick to roll to the hoop, and eventually finds an easy putback in part due to his activity level (Pleiss starts the play at the top of the screen):
Not only is he good at setting picks and enthusiastic about doing so, Pleiss has some real deception to this part of his game. He’s great at disguising the direction of his screen until the last second, an underrated talent at the NBA level that should translate easily.
His skill here makes Pleiss an asset in pick-and-roll play, a big plus for the Jazz. He complements it with good timing and great hands for a guy his size; he should quickly draw gravity on dives to the basket in a similar manner to Favors and Gobert, another element that could open things up elsewhere before long. He finished at an excellent clip at the rim for Barcelona last season, and is a lob threat. His lack of passing skill could limit his overall impact here to a large degree, though.
As a projected backup who’ll turn 26 in November, it’s important to remember that expectations aren’t mile-high for Pleiss as far as development. He could be a positive net asset for the Jazz with some decent progress in just one or two of these areas, especially if one of them is his distance shooting. He’s shown virtually no primma donna-like qualities even while often buried behind Tomic, and should hopefully be comfortable as a bit player at the NBA level also. The Jazz added another potential bit of competition for frontcourt minutes Monday with the addition of 7-footer Jeff Withey, which could be healthy for Pleiss.
Whether he can crack the full-time rotation and make a bigger dent remains to be seen, and may not be fully known for some time. But it counts for a lot that Utah has taken such interest in him given this front office’s track record for talent evaluation, and he’ll get a real chance to showcase what they see in him starting in a few short months.