Thabo Factor: Sefolosha’s Defense and Smarts Elevate Teammates’ Play

October 5th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

Sefolosha played winning hoops even when the Jazz struggled early. (Noah Graham via utahjazz.com)

Even before the 2017-18 Utah Jazz figured out how to play winning basketball on a consistent basis, one player stood out for impacting games in a positive way throughout the doldrums. And, perhaps ironically for a team that is widely associated with its rising stars and young supporting cast, that bastion of stability was the oldest guy on the squad, a 12-year veteran.

Through the 42 games the Jazz played before veteran Thabo Sefolosha injured his right knee, Utah’s opponents outscored them by 0.8 points per 100 possessions. But in the Swiss forward’s 806 minutes, it was the Jazz getting better of teams, with a plus-4.8 net rating. Through Thabo’s last game on January 12, that was the best mark among all rotation regulars1.

During Sefolosha’s court time, the team defended better (102.1 DRtg compared to 104.7 for the team at that point) and converted its offense at an impressive .568 true shooting clip — best on the team2.

And then, just before the team was to get All-NBA center Rudy Gobert back and surge into the playoff picture, Sefolosha’s medial collateral ligament (MCL) separated from the bone and rendered him a spectator for Utah’s dramatic dash into the playoffs.

“There’s never a good time for injuries. But that one, it was tough,” Sefolosha told the team’s flagship radio on media day. “Just seeing how the team got rolling, and then the playoffs and having to sit and watch, it’s tough.”

Now, Thabo gets the chance to be more than a bright spot on a losing team. He’s reintegrating himself into a team that clicked in during the last half of the season, earning a trip to the Conference Semifinals and taking absurd amounts of momentum into their offseason. And once again, Sefolosha hopes he can make the team a little better when he plays.

“I am super ready. The last month or so I’ve been playing 5-on-5 with the guys. It’s an exciting time for me.”

What makes his performance as a plus-minus outlier even more impressive is that he largely logged minutes with bench players who generally struggled to compete. For example, Rodney Hood sported a minus-3.7 NetRtg overall during those first 42 games, but when he and Sefolosha played together, the duo was plus-8.4. He also brought Ricky Rubio’s NetRtg up from minus-5.4 overall to plus-3.4 when in tandem, and Donovan Mitchell’s from minus-0.5 to plus-2.5.

In fact, literally every Jazz player who shared the court with Thabo for at least 100 minutes had a better outcome playing with him than without him.

Source: stats.nba.com

Essentially, Sefolosha made virtually every single teammate better than they were when he sat3.

Sefolosha clearly sensed the way he impacted his teammates, which is probably why he referred to the 2017-18 campaign as “a fun season” despite all the ups and downs.” I thought I finally found a role and felt comfortable how we were running plays and playing offensively,” he said.

And sure, offense was a big part of it. Sefolosha’s 38-percent shooting from deep contributed to better spacing in those clunky early days when defenses dared the Jazz to shoot over them. His blistering 46-percent mark from the corners meant that a possession ending in a Thabo corner three was worth 1.37 points on average.

Beyond the shooting, he simply made the right basketball play more often than not. He didn’t rack up a ton of assists, but watch him survey patiently as the reads become evident and then nail the open man with an on-time, on-target pass.

Most of his passing comes on plays of that variety: setting up shop on the 3-point line and then driving past a sloppy closeout to force help. He’s not going to be a guy who creates off the dribble on his own or initiates the pick-and-roll action as a ball handler, but he doesn’t need to be. This is likely what the veteran meant when he said that he had figured out how to contribute and that he “felt comfortable” in the offense.

But if you know anything about how Sefolosha has made a living in the NBA for a dozen years, it won’t surprise you to learn that he makes an even bigger impact on the defensive end.

Sefolosha is a solid positional defender. The 34-year-old has lost a bit of his lateral quickness, so he’ll no longer hound guys quite like he used to out on the perimeter. But he plays angles well and anticipates where an offensive player wants to go. He’s a studied professional who defends the scouting report well.

He also smartly uses his 7-foot-2 wingspan to disrupt passing lanes. He led the team in steal rate for the season — not just the first 42 games, but the whole year — and it’s not hard to see why. He’s constantly using his length, keeping those endless arms active instead of by his side.

Very few of his steals are gimmes where the offensive player makes an unforced miscue; they’re almost always the result of Sefolosha’s active arms, selective aggressiveness and nose for where the opponent’s playbook is going.

And this Jazz group is teeming with guys who are kindred spirits in terms of sharing Thabo’s defensive energy. Before his injury last season, Sefolosha shared the court with some, uh, less than totally committed defenders. Those guys are mostly gone now, and instead Sefolosha will be flanked by active, hungry dudes whether he’s playing with the second unit or the first.

In fact, we’ll get to see certain tandems for the first time.

For as much and the conversation around the Jazz has centered on continuity, the Jazz actually get to unlock some new (or at least newish) combinations now that Sefolosha is healthy. He still hasn’t played a single NBA second next to Dante Exum, a standout defender with whom he’ll likely run in several different reserve units. Jae Crowder arrived well after Sefolosha was shelved for the season, too. Furthermore, he played with Donovan Mitchell as the youngster was feeling his way through the early part of his rookie season, and he played with Gobert only before the center recovered fully from those two early injuries of his own.

Sefolosha could find himself playing alongside energetic defenders like Exum, O’Neale, Jae Crowder and Derrick Favors during the bench mob minutes. When rotations are staggered, he’ll have the chance to play with, for example, Rubio, O’Neale, Ingles and Gobert, four absolute pests. 

Now, the caveats. He’s 34 years old, and MCL injuries are no joke. While word out of SLC is that he looks healthy and spry, you can’t take anything for granted with a mid-30s athlete who has recently missed time with serious knee, ankle and groin issues. He has topped 65 games just once in his last five seasons. 

He also plays a similar role to Crowder, which raises some interesting rotational questions. Last year, the Jazz tried to shoehorn minutes for both Sefolosha and Jonas Jerebko (and later, Crowder and Jerebko) as reserve power forwards even though Favors typically plays at least 10-12 nightly minutes at the four. Splitting the remaining 36 minutes or so between two players could leave both guys feeling slightly under-utilized. It could literally come down to the two players taking turns.

He also won’t debut until at least October 28, the result of a drug-related suspension for which he apologized last spring.

But caveats aside, Sefolosha is very good at what he does. He is a smart and wily difference-maker who contributes to winning basketball and makes his teammates better. His strengths — defense, decision-making, attention to detail — mesh with the team’s identify, and as such Jazz coach Quin Snyder will be hard pressed to leave him pinned to the pine.

In other words, Sefolosha will play. And if last season is any indication, that’s very good news for his Jazz teammates.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

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