It was June 27, 2013, a day the Utah Jazz had looked forward to with great anticipation. The NBA Draft had finally arrived. They had just finished the 2012-13 season with a 43-29 record, just two games off of qualifying for the playoffs in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. But things were changing, as Utah embarked on a full-on rebuilding process. It was an exciting time, although a bit nerve-wracking. Most rebuilds are.
Departing that summer were four of the Jazz’s top scorers — Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams and Randy Foye. The keys were being turned over a young core that seemed poised to step into bigger roles. Fortunately, the Jazz found themselves in a solid place to start the new era, with four strong players at different positions: Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter. The major focus in the Draft was finding a young point guard who could grow with the team.
There was a sense of euphoria when Utah made a bold move, swapping their two first-round picks with the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for the 9th pick — point guard Trey Burke. This was the pick that understandably captured the attention of the Jazz faithful. After all, the Jazz had just experienced a season where the playmaking responsibilities rested on an injury-struck Mo Williams and 35-year old Jamaal Tinsley. Burke seemed to be a great fit. He has had his ups and downs in Utah thus far, but is enjoying perhaps his finest season. But that is not the focus of this post1.
Trading up for Burke did not complete the 2013 Draft for the Jazz. Two trades that seemed rather minor at the time were transacted. The first netted Rudy Gobert with the 27th pick. Little was said at the time, and while he showed flashes during his rookie campaign, the Frenchman looked like a long-term project. How things change in a year or two. Gobert is already proving to be the steal of the draft. But, alas, we will save this trade for another day, as well.
It was late that evening that the Jazz announced one final trade. They had acquired from the Atlanta Hawks another point guard, Raul Neto out of Brazil. It was a classic draft-and-stash move. Utah had made them before and while most trusted the Jazz’s international scouts in the move, he was clearly an afterthought.
The same could be said the following two seasons as Neto remained overseas. The Jazz toyed with the idea of bringing him over, with Neto showing some pure point guard skills in the summer league. Utah opted to delay that a year, as it desired to stagger its youthful point guards. Neto spent extensive time in Salt Lake City the next summer, but once again, his NBA debut was put off. At the time, Dante Exum had fallen into Utah’s lap in the 2014 Draft, giving the team two young, up-and-coming point guards. Neto would have to wait a little longer.
When Neto and the Jazz finally agreed on a three-year deal in July, he was again an afterthought. The Jazz’s focus was understandably on Exum, who showed enough potential during his rookie season to tantalize all around him. Neto was clearly being brought in as insurance, a third point guard to fill out the roster. It was clear Utah liked him, but not much was expected this year outside some long stints with the Idaho Stampede. After all, Neto was diminutive and was a poor perimeter shooter. He was a point guard project of sorts.
Again, how things can change quickly. When Exum suffered his devastating injury, most thought Burke would assume a bigger role, while perhaps a veteran would be inked. As training camp progressed, Neto began to impress. There began to be whispers of him potentially starting, thanks to Burke’s ability to be more of a focal point of the second unit’s offense. And when the season tipped off, sure enough, Neto was there.
He began the season on fire from the perimeter, showing the ability to hit the open jumper. Neto also lived up to his reputation as a defensive pest, sometimes picking up his man in the back court. But there were certainly struggles. Neto had some tough matchups in the never-ending gauntlet of the NBA’s top point guards. Other teams’ scouting was undoubtedly a factor. His 3-point touch had temporarily abandoned him and his inability to hit from mid-range was exposed. His playing time fluctuated, and as head coach Quin Snyder searched for some solutions to a few slow starts, Neto found himself not only coming off the bench for the first time, but actually not playing against the Dallas Mavericks two weeks ago.
Since then, for whatever reasons, things have clicked for Neto. He was re-inserted into the starting lineup the next game and now finds himself in the midst of the best run of his young NBA career. Over the past four games, Neto is averaging 9.3 PPG on 65.2 percent shooting from the floor and 6-9 3-pointers. Furthermore, he is doing this in just 16.5 MPG. His effort against the Phoenix Suns was one of his best performances this season, showing a blend of hustle, shooting and basketball IQ.
For the season, Neto is averaging 5.3 PPG, 2.2 APG, 1.5 RPG and 0.9 SPG. Those numbers will not wow anyone, especially when viewed among starting point guards. He is contributing to the team, however. His shooting has climbed to a respectable 41.3 percent. After scouting his game overseas and reviewing his statistics, few could have predicted Neto would be a 40 percent 3-point shooter during his career, let alone in his first season. He is effective as spot-up shooter, taking advantage of his role as the fifth option. 81 percent of his 3s are being assisted. This shooting has added immensely to Utah’s balance and surprising jump in the league’s offensive rankings.
Neto has also shown underrated skills finishing at the basket, connecting at 73 percent inside. It is between the restricted area and the 3-point line where he struggles. He is only shooting 15.8 percent 3-10 feet out and 29.4 percent on 10-16 feet2. Neto will certainly need to improve his overall offensive game, but is much further along than most prognosticated.
His calling card may ultimately be his defense. Neto is pesky and loves applying pressure on his opponents. His 2.8 steal percentage would be 11th in the NBA if he qualified. What he lacks in size, he makes up with good lateral speed and strong instincts. When he gets beat, he recovers quickly. Neto plays with a little attitude, which is nice to see.
There is a lot to work on. Beyond the midrange game, Neto turns the ball over too much — 19.2 TOV%. He sometimes gets caught in the air, and bad passes have constituted 68 percent of his miscues. You would also like to see an improvement on his current 1.77 assist-to-turnover ratio. Again, with rookie point guards, this is par for the course.
What was meant to be a developmental season has turned to to be vastly different. His growth is being accelerated as he learns on the job. The game appears to have slowed a bit for him. Neto is making good basketball decisions, showing poise and maturity, especially for a rookie point guard. The Jazz have to be pleased, especially given his status as a late second-round pick.
In short, Neto is turning out to be a good rotational player, one who could factor into the future of the Jazz’s back court. A player who has been an afterthought for a few years is showing he belongs.