Things are starting to really hum smoothly for the Utah Jazz. While they dropped a few heart-breakers of late, they have emerged victorious in nine of their past 12 outings. They look every bit the part of a Playoff team in the Western Conference, although there is a lot of basketball to be played. The landscape on the second half of the postseason picture changes by the night, which Utah being a very important factor. It will be interesting to see how these next two months play out.
During this span, there have naturally been a number of story lines. They include Gordon Hayward’s often elite and dominant play1 ; Rodney Hood’s incredible emergence2; having Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors fully healthy and causing opponents headaches; and now, the welcome play of newest Jazzman Shelvin Mack3. Feelings are positive for the Jazz, thanks to each of these subplots.
That said, there is one more story line which is seemingly forgotten, which is apropos, because it involves a seemingly forgotten player named Jeff Withey.
You all remember him, right? The center who was picked up late in the summer and has proven to not only be a viable NBA player, but even a rotation piece. He who has been one of the absolute bright parts of the 2015-16 Utah Jazz campaign. Well, Withey has not played much recently. And yes, it is a bit sad. At the same time, it is understandable. Let’s take a look at the Withey situation.
When he was inked to a pact late in the summer, few thought much of it. Tibor Pleiss was the guy most prognosticated would be Gobert’s back-up in the middle. Withey was viewed as an adequate third center; that is, if he made the team. Well, in training camp and the pre-season, Withey not only solidified his roster spot, but passed up Pleiss in the center pecking order. Even so, Gobert was understandably to receive the bulk of the playing time. Withey was called upon to play spot minutes and as he did so, he was solid, but unspectacular.
Then came the injuries. First Gobert went down, followed soon after by his partner-in-crime, Favors. The devastating losses, compounded by the loss of guard Alec Burks and the absence of prized sophomore Dante Exum, left head coach Quin Snyder with a decimated roster. Everyone needed to step up, with the brunt of responsibility placed on Hayward’s broad shoulders.
Many were up to the challenge, with Withey being one of the biggest beneficiaries of the opportunity. He was pressed into duty and he responded well.
In his nine games as a starter, Withey was very good. In many ways, he was excellent. Outside of Gordon Hayward, it could be argued that no one was more consistent or important to the Jazz than Withey. He brought 9.1 PPG, 7.3 RPG and 2.33 BPG to the table — very respectable numbers. Withey was a viable difference maker on both ends of the court. He was surprisingly good offensively, showing a great ability to finish when his teammates set him up. He also cleaned the glass and managed to get some points off offensive rebounds. During those nine games, Withey managed double-figure scoring five times, while adding a pair of double-doubles. Defensively, while not having the full effect Gobert would have, Withey was imposing and impactful. He also recorded a blocked shot in every single game and had seven performances of two or more (and two games with four swats).
For the season, Withey has been an advanced statistics darling. His 18.0 PER is fourth on the squad and his .163 win shares/48 minutes is third. He boasts a total rebound percentage of 15.54 If he qualified, Withey’s 7.3 block percentage would be the second best in the NBA behind Hassan Whiteside — and ahead of Gobert’s 6.4. You cannot ask much more from your back-up center. For a veteran’s minimum, Withey was a downright heist. Having a team option for him next season only enhances that.
When Gobert finally made his triumphal and much-anticipated return, Snyder eased him into things and the center pair shared time. The duo was quite good, giving the Jazz 48 minutes of dominant defense. Then Favors rejoined the on-court fun and gradually, Withey’s playing time started to decrease.
As things currently stand, Withey has quickly become the forgotten man in the Jazz front court rotation. In the past 10 games, the big man has recorded eight DNP-CDs. Since January 25th, Withey has played a grand total of 26 minutes in the five games he has seen action. Most of this can certainly be attributed to having their young pair of big men healthy. There were also a number of times where match-ups have helped dictate rotations. When facing teams that employ small ball, Trevor Booker and Trey Lyles have gotten the nod.
Withey has been on the outside looking in, which has to be a bit frustrating for him, given how well he played. There are reasons why each of the back-up bigs could or should play. While his offense has been inconsistent (but is improving of late), Booker’s rebounding has been stellar. He always is hustling. Lyles clearly is a player the team loves. His potential is immense and he has already made great contributions on the court as a 20-year old rookie. Last, but not least, Withey might be the most productive of the three right now.
But the reality is this: Gobert and Favors are the team’s headliners. It is a no-brainer for them to receive the lion’s share. They are the ones pushing the team to the Playoffs. And right now, Booker is the reserve big Snyder trusts the most. Hard to fault him, even though Lyles’ playing time has lessened and Withey’s has become non-existent. Such is life in the NBA.
Even so, Withey must stay ready. He most certainly will, too, as he has been a consummate professional for the Jazz. Snyder and the Jazz like him a lot and will certainly need him. One never knows when foul trouble will arise or an untimely injury might rear its ugly head. Withey gives the team another option in a somewhat deep front court. He may be needed more next year, as it remains to be seen if Booker will return in free agency.
While his story is less prominent, it has certainly been a good one. Jeff Withey has been a great find for Utah and if he stays patient, he will be needed sometime during this stretch run.