It seems strange to label any point guard on Utah’s roster a forgotten man given all the attention paid to the position this summer, but that’s just what Bryce Cotton has become to a degree. Despite a strong close to the ’14-15 season and a leadership role in summer play, Dante Exum’s injury seemed to push Cotton further toward the margins rather than closer to a defined role. He seems to be firmly behind both Trey Burke and Raul Neto on Utah’s depth chart according to most observers, and has some placing him low enough on the pecking order as to suggest fill-ins like Mario Chalmers — guys who would almost certainly cost Cotton his roster spot1 just for a below-average one-year stopgap.
Let’s pump the brakes a little. Yes, expecting Cotton’s positive showing near the end of last season to continue at the exact same rate against consistent starter-level competition is a fool’s errand. But there’s a lot of room between that and the value many have assigned the Providence product, and furthermore there’s a strong case to be made that the Jazz don’t require such a continuation to make Cotton a worthwhile keeper and perhaps even a high-minute player.
Much of the murkiness surrounding Bryce’s value as an NBA player is rooted in his minimal sample size at this level, which is understandable2. He’s played just 159 NBA minutes, hardly enough to assign any concrete assessment. As always, though, there are some signals if one can weed out the noise.
The obvious issues start on defense, where Cotton’s diminutive stature by NBA standards3 raises justifiable concerns. Bigger guys (so, basically everyone) can frequently shoot over him, and the worry is that with more volume and opponent scouting, teams will attack him with vigor in the post. These are valid concerns, but it’s easy to run too far with them.
For starters, Cotton’s got springs in his legs — when he times things correctly, which he does more often than not, he can easily challenge shots against guys with a significant height advantage. Teams taking him into the post more often isn’t optimal for the Jazz, particularly in select matchups, but it’s also a trade-off game. There are very few true post threats at the point guard position in the league; excepting these, is it really worth sapping possessions chasing what’s typically a marginal post mismatch4? Cotton has shown real skill fronting the post both in the D-League and the NBA, meaning teams might spend valuable time just looking for the right entry, and once they get it they’ll find a sneakily strong guy who happens to have two of the league’s best rim protectors backing him up. Teams could attack him here and might have some success, but it seems in many cases like more work than it’s worth.
Cotton is underrated elsewhere defensively, at times wildly so. His speed is often mentioned as an offensive plus, but is conspicuously absent when his defense is being discussed — this shouldn’t be the case. He has fantastic lateral mobility and good reaction time, skills that allow him to stay with virtually anyone. Here he is forcing Ty Lawson, perhaps the fastest player in the NBA with the ball in his hands, into a couple turnovers by beating Lawson to his spots and forcing him into the air:
JJ Barea, not quite Lawson’s ilk speed-wise but still a known jitterbug, puts up a couple awful shots here in part due to Cotton remaining right on his hip, with his hands smartly raised straight up:
Positioning and footwork are so vital for guard defense. In fact, in a league with very few true off-the-dribble threats, these elements are almost always more important than raw length — preventing a guy from getting to his spots5 often means more than an extra couple inches on a shot contest, especially if said positioning forces tougher shots in the first place.
Cotton is a positive navigating screens as well, with good anticipation and a willingness to hustle when the situation calls for it. He uses his smaller frame to his advantage here, slithering past guys and occasionally killing pick-and-roll action just as it begins:
Even more impressive6 is his recovery when he does get hung up on a pick. Watch him sneak back up on Raymond Felton and pick his pocket after falling behind:
Or here, Cotton stumbles on a Kosta Koufos pick but sprints back into the play in easily enough time to smack the ball cleanly out of Beno Udrih’s hands as he goes up:
Put it all together, and this doesn’t look much like a huge defensive liability. Sure, he’ll have issues from time to time. But guess what? Unless Neto is as advertised plus some on this end, so will everyone the Jazz play at point guard this year. And unlike Burke, Cotton’s issues are largely in less frequently utilized areas of NBA offense.
On the other end, it’s a bit easier to put a finger on exactly what Cotton is. His pace and speed are elements I’ve discussed at length, though mostly in a conceptual manner prior to Exum’s injury — they could be much more applicable for Cotton himself in short order. This element of his game is one the Jazz could use in much larger quantities.
I’ve heard concerns raised regarding Cotton’s role as a distributor, particularly if he saw more time with primary units — these, like his defensive warts, are likely exaggerated. Consider the following table, which uses SportVU data combined with a little math of my own to show the per-36-minute assist chances for each primary Jazz ball-handler last season, along with their per-36-minute points created from said assist chances:
A bit of a gap, but not exactly a chasm. There’s also context at play, in both directions. On one hand, Cotton’s average teammate quality was much lower than the others; on the other, he also played against lesser competition in a cumulative sense. Weighing these factors correctly is basically impossible, but I lean toward Cotton’s own team quality meaning a bit more — he did see plenty of time against starter-level players down the stretch while some of Utah’s other top talent rested.
And even if Cotton is a step or two behind Utah’s other primary handlers as a distributor, signs point to him covering that value and then some as a shooter. He was one of the D-League’s best spot-up shooters last year, and his combined D-League and NBA numbers yield an excellent 49 percent on no-dribble jumpers, per Synergy Sports — for comparison’s sake, Burke (37.5 percent), Exum (31.5 percent), Gordon Hayward (43 percent) and Rodney Hood (39.8 percent) were all markedly worse last year, by an amount that the D-League drop-off doesn’t fully account for. Cotton was also the best pull-up shooter on the roster last year among volume guys, per SportVU7.
How he’d translate to a full-time role as a big part of the point guard rotation is unclear, and will remain so until we get a chance to see him do it. It’s always very possible that some part of this transition would present big issues, a reality we see all the time with guys stepping into more responsibility.
But most of the signs point in the other direction. The fit with Utah’s core group has the potential to be snug — Cotton is much closer to a proven NBA shooter than either of his counterparts, and his pace is an element the Jazz were badly lacking last season. There are a number of outcomes where his warts are much easier to cover than Burke’s or Neto’s. The Jazz are very high on him, both publicly and per those I’ve spoken to with the team.
It’s unclear if Cotton will get a chance to prove himself, but don’t sleep on him if he does. He’s spent an entire basketball career overcoming obstacles, and there are only a few left to conquer.