During the forgettable skid following the All-Star break, the Jazz’s bench play was sporadic. There were nights where the lack of depth was astoundingly glaring. Poor shooting, a rash of turnovers and inconsistent efforts defensively lent to the bench woes.
How things can change over a few weeks.
During the recent 5-1 run that has Utah firmly in the race not only for the playoffs, but for even the sixth or seventh seed, the second unit has stepped up in a major way. Instead of adversely affecting things, it is contributing greatly to the Jazz’s righting of the ship. To a man, the reserves have made things happen. Collectively, they are providing a much-needed boost. While there are still some definite deficiencies, the improved performance is very encouraging.
Joe Ingles, who had been suffering from a hurt knuckle, seems to have healed. The timing could not be better. With Alec Burks still not ready to return, Ingles’ play at the wings has been very important. He has given head coach Quin Snyder very good minutes, while even filling in when Gordon Hayward sat out that pair of games. His 15-point, six-steal outing versus the Phoenix Suns was arguably his best of his NBA career. Then against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Australian swingman connected on four consecutive 3-pointers that helped seal the victory. Last but not least, while his stat sheet was rather pedestrian, Ingles took on the rather daunting assignment of guarding LeBron James in Hayward’s absence. While no one can stop James, Ingles was part of a committee that help keep things manageable. The past four games, Ingles is bringing 9.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG and 1.5 SPG to the table, while connecting on 10-19 from downtown — 52.6 percent. He has helped alleviate a bit of the immense load Hayward and Rodney Hood have been carrying. This is a huge development.
Each passing game, rookie Trey Lyles’ incredible potential can be seen more clearly. During Utah’s run, his play has been integral. Lyles has been instant offense off the bench and Snyder has wisely used him to the Jazz’s advantage with certain match-ups. In some games, he is being used ahead of Trevor Booker. Not only does this help the team right now, but it also will assist his long-term growth. Lyles’ fourth quarter spurt in the Cleveland game was one of the best of his embryonic career. He hit four straight perimeter shots — each of them quite clutch in a hard-fought battle — before tangling up with veteran Channing Frye. While he was ejected, Lyles’ energy was contagious. His unwillingness to back down to Frye was nice to see. Over the last four outings, he is posting 11.8 PPG (on 52.9 FG% and 8-16 3-pointers) in just 17.3 MPG. It is becoming more and more apparent: the Jazz may have another draft steal in Lyles.
Fellow rookie Raul Neto has exceeded everyone’s expectations. Thrust into a prominent role in the wake of Dante Exum’s devastating injury, Neto has shown continual growth. He plays with poise and has displayed an outside shooting touch no one thought he had. When the Jazz acquired Shelvin Mack, Neto moved to a reserve role without a complaint — a nice display of character. During this 5-1 spell, he is averaging 7.8 PPG and has drained seven of 13 treys (53.8 percent). He works hard on defense and is an excellent teammate. His shooting has been a boon. Simply put, Neto is further along than anyone could have hoped. He has the potential to be a fine role player for the Jazz for many years.
As alluded to, Booker’s playing time has decreased each of the past four games. Even so, he has been good in spurts for Snyder. He was particularly effective in the Phoenix blowout. Much maligned due to his poor shooting, even Chris Johnson has had his moments where his hustle and defensive effort have afforded the Jazz a needed spark.
Trey Burke has been the casualty of this all. He did not see the court the past two games and only played a total 31 minutes over the previous four games. Snyder tried playing all three point guards for a few games and it just caused more issues. Settling on two of them makes absolute sense, and unfortunately for Burke, Mack and Neto are ahead of him. Like he has done his entire tenure in Utah, however, Burke has handled himself with great professionalism.
Burks is the elephant in the room. Will the athletic guard make his return before season’s end? If so, how will it affect the team’s chemistry and will he have time to get re-acclimated into the swing of things. From all reports, he is working hard to make it back. If that is the case, Burks –and his 14, 3 and 3 — could be an X-factor down the stretch.
One note for the future: all of a sudden, the Jazz’s bench appears promising. A second unit of a healthy Alec Burks, Mack, Lyles, Neto and Jeff Withey is a solid group1. On top of that, the Jazz have a lot of money they could use to bolster depth, along with four draft picks. This will be a major story to watch in the off-season.
With just a few games separating four squads, each team will be looking for ways to get the Ws needed to secure a postseason berth. If the Jazz’s bench continues its upward trajectory, one would have to like Utah’s chances to return to the playoffs.