Though they sport vastly different backgrounds and eventual paths to the NBA, Elijah Millsap and Joe Ingles have found themselves in a very similar place. Both were “rookies” in the traditional sense last season, this despite the two being the elder statesmen on the roster following Steve Novak’s inclusion in a trade to Oklahoma City. Both were plucked from relative anonymity after toiling at lower professional levels for years. Both saw larger roles than expected, sometimes heavily so, with injuries decimating Utah’s wing depth – and both proved generally up to the task.
But despite levels of success in their first NBA season few could have expected, both may find their continuing paths to consistent roles and minutes with the Jazz an uphill climb.
Ingles has the slightly longer track record of the two after being claimed off waivers by the Jazz just days before the beginning of the season, remaining on the active roster for the entire season and suiting up for 1,673 minutes in 79 games. Though he had interest from multiple other NBA clubs after an impressive run in FIBA play last summer1, it was assumed in some circles that his signing was as much for the benefit of young draftee and countryman Dante Exum as it was for Ingles’ on-court value. After all, his only NBA experience to that point had been 2009 and 2010 Summer League stints with Golden State, and he’d bounced around a couple other professional leagues. Already 27, it was easy to assume his developmental days were behind him.
And early on, this assessment didn’t seem too far off. My own early February look at his progress revealed a historically rare combination of minutes and low usage in the early months of the season, a widespread apprehension that heavily muted the game we’d seen from Ingles just a couple months earlier in FIBA play. He’d pass up wide open looks, would stall the offense at times – heck, he needed a written and notarized invitation to take an open layup in transition.
But he’d begun to turn things around by the time of my writing, and continued to impress from that point on in the year. Ingles came out of his deferential shell in a big way, starting a number of games and turning a detrimentally absent style into a calm, steady influence. His percentage of team possessions used while on the floor rose steadily as the year went on2, as did his efficiency. His confidence grew exponentially as a ball-handler within Quin Snyder’s offense. And from the beginning of the 2015 calendar year through the end of the season, he shot almost exactly 40 percent on nearly 150 attempts from deep, or over three per game3.
Millsap came to the team via a different route, though his early years were similar to Ingles’. He jumped around pro leagues while playing Summer League stints for various NBA teams, and like Ingles spent brief time in Israel. He was toiling with Bakersfield in the D-League before the Jazz snatched him up with a 10-day contract in early January following Rodney Hood’s latest injury, later signing another 10-day before inking a guaranteed deal for the remainder of the season that also contains the next two seasons fully nonguaranteed.
He took less time than Ingles to grow comfortable in his role, though much of this was surely due to said role placing far less offensive responsibility in his hands. Millsap is a quick and aggressive defender capable of checking up to three positions, and he fit perfectly with the sort of penetration denial Snyder covets from his wings. He’s among the league’s elite navigating screens both on and off the ball, and quickly became Utah’s de facto shutdown defender on the perimeter. He played a low-key vital role in the Jazz’s team-wide ascension on this end.
He’s limited offensively, with a highly inconsistent shooting stroke likely the only thing that stood between him and an NBA rotation spot much earlier in his career. The 31.6 percent he shot on all open or wide open4 three-point attempts on the year was 200th of 245 guys league-wide who shot at least 50, per NBASavant.
Millsap is a heady player on both ends, and progressed enough in other areas to at least stay on the floor offensively. He was a decent enough cutter away from the ball once he got in the flow of things, and embraced Snyder’s catchphrase “go-and-catch” (as opposed to “catch-and-go”) to burn overzealous close-out perimeter defenders on a few occasions. That he managed to be nearly a net neutral by season’s end offensively5 was a small victory on its own.
Monitoring both guys’ situations moving forward will be interesting, but to continue an oft-stated offseason theme, Jazz fans may be in for some harsh realities. Alec Burks will return for the start of next season, and the wing rotation will be a lot more crowded from the jump if he and Hood can both stay healthy.
It feels as though there might only be room for one of Ingles and Millsap as far as regular minutes go. Two point guards, three or four bigs, plus Burks, Hood and Gordon Hayward is already an eight or nine-man rotation.
From a contractual standpoint, Millsap has the leg up. His deal is team-friendly and could keep him in town for two more full seasons at under $1 million a pop, where Ingles is a restricted free-agent. It’s tough to gauge the offers Joe might receive, but in the midst of a postseason where depth has been of paramount importance6 – particularly for wings who can hold their own on both ends – it’s a fair bet to be a higher figure than Millsap’s.
This is fair, seeing as Ingles has the higher on-court value due to his shooting and creation abilities offensively. If he’s really a 40 percent shooter from deep consistently at this level, he’s a solid enough defender to be a fourth wing in a playoff rotation.
But Millsap could remain valuable even if he never improves offensively. Tony Allen has proven there’s at least some merit to a defensive specialist who knows where to stand and how to cut offensively. This kind of ace in the hole could be of particular value if the Jazz find themselves in the matchup-heavy postseason or even just a few vital end-of-game defensive possessions here and there. His salary makes holding onto him easy even if he’s the 10th or 11th man in the rotation; he could be a valuable situational piece if he’s willing to accept the role, and proved last year he’s capable of stepping in for larger minutes when injuries in front of him come up.
Of course, all this assumes no major shakeups this offseason – if any big changes are made to the wing rotation, most outcomes here see it becoming more crowded, not less. The Jazz could draft a wing like Devin Booker or Kelly Oubre, or could even determine the time is right to take a big swing in free agency or on the trade market to upgrade shooting. None of these necessarily eliminate Ingles and Millsap from consideration, but their paths could be a grade steeper.
It would be sad to see either go. Ingles is easily the funniest presence in the locker room, and has been praised by teammates as a leader on several occasions. Millsap, true to his family’s pedigree, is soft-spoken and workmanlike. Both made real strides as NBA players and are clearly deserving of roster spots, and maybe even rotation spots, somewhere in the league.
Whether that place remains Salt Lake City will be interesting to see. Both seem like safe bets for the 12-man roster right now, but a lot could change in the next couple months.