The Most Interesting Jazz Training Camp Duels

September 24th, 2015 | by Dan Clayton
Photos from ESPN/Getty

Face-off at shooting guard. (Photos from ESPN/Getty)

Stability is the antithesis of suspense, so Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert will have to forgive us if we skip past them in search of some autumn drama.

Those three are Utah’s best players and surefire starters going into fall camp. But there is plenty of ambiguity left to analyze beyond the big three. SCH’s David Smith did a great job breaking down the end-of-roster battles that will heat up next Tuesday. There are also some pretty big question marks within the rotation itself — including the rest of the starting lineup.

Here are the four most compelling depth chart duels going into Jazz training camp, in no particular order.

Starting SG: Alec Burks & Rodney Hood

First of all, let’s stop assuming that this job defaults back to Burks by rule. Previous regimes have operated under that tenet for post-injury reintegrations, but there’s a new sheriff in town. And even if Quin Snyder holds that line for in-season injury returns, he and his boss both come from a discipline that says that training camp exists precisely so that players can re-earn their place in the pecking order by showcasing where and by how much they have improved. So even if we think we’re sure how Snyder would respond to a returning player in, say, February, this is new terrain.

That said, there are reasons to assume Alec might still be penciled in with the first unit to start camp, but not because of some arcane rule. The pro-Hood crowd doesn’t like to hear it, but he’s still relatively unproven.

Look, I’m a big believer in Hood, and have been since long before the bandwagon got crowded in the spring. Here’s what I wrote about him 15 months ago in response to bearish projections based on predictive math: “[The] analytics component is just one element of player evaluation. Watch his tape. This guy is a legitimate outside threat on nearly every play — the type of guy defenses have to pay attention to even off the ball. And beyond that, he just gets how to play. He’s smart, court-aware, and generally looks to make the right play. I think he will likely outperform the spreadsheets.”

That was true then and is true now, so don’t take any of what follows as an indictment. It’s just that, if you really look at it, you can still probably count the number of really great games he’s had on a hand or two. If he learns how to play that way for 82 games at a time (instead of three or four), he’s going to be special. But let’s not pretend we know enough yet to be sure that his April peak — 17-3-3 on 57% True Shooting — is his new norm.

Of course, it’s not hard to make the case for Hood. With Gobert and whoever Utah starts at point, 40% of the starting lineup is nonthreatening out in space, so having a shooter like Hood might complement that group, while Burks can be more of his slasher self with a second unit. Plus, if both guys hit their ceilings, I think ceiling Hood is a more complete player than ceiling Burks.

For now, Snyder could go either way and not be wrong. This will be an interesting and ongoing storyline to keep an eye on.

4th wing: Joe Ingles, Elijah Millsap, Chris Johnson

Hayward, Burks and Hood make up a pretty solid wing trifecta. They’ll also gobble up 80-90 minutes as a trio, which means regular minutes remain for probably just one other guy.

This largely comes down to Ingles and Millsap, two very different players stylistically. Ingles is a natural facilitator with superb vision and an on-again-off-again shot. Millsap is a game-changing defender who blows up pick & rolls and offers very little on offense, especially in terms of creation1.

Hmmm...

Hmmm…

My feeling as of today is that Ingles is 4th and Millsap is 5th, but Eli could shift the calculus with even a modest bump in shooting efficiency. The Jazz have a lot of wings who perform the same basic function as Joe; Millsap’s value is scarcer, so if he can justify the minutes with just a little more offense, this becomes a really interesting battle.

I like Johnson and he’s almost certainly a better shooter than we saw last season2, but he’s on the bubble right now as far as even making the roster. I’d be surprised if he found a way to outplay both Jingles and Eli for rotation minutes.

The PG Situation: Trey Burke, Raul Neto, Bryce Cotton

The number of column inches and pixels dedicated to this conundrum since tragedy befell Dante Exum is staggering. But, when the scrimmage ball rolls out next week, this will undoubtedly be one of the biggest questions.

At this point, the fan view of Burke is a bit of a caricature: grounded in reality, but overstates his less attractive characteristics3. But there are some real concerns that obviously start with shooting — both the decision to do so and the result.

The alibi that his percentages suffer from a lot of late shot-clock hot potatoes doesn’t hold up when you consider that Burke actually took a very normal amount of late shots4. It flies even less when you watch Burke himself contribute to a clock running down.

But hey, stuff like that can certainly be coached. “That’s fixable” is often too convenient a go-to line for fans, but stuff like this is very much about talking through options and decisions. You can’t necessarily talk a guy to a better shooting percentage or to improved lateral movement on defense (two other major Trey watchouts), but I suspect that Burke will improve this year at some of the more thinky aspects of how Snyder wants him running things.

SCH’s fearless leader, Andy Larsen, is insistent that Neto may earn the starting nod because of his natural playmaking tendencies and passable defense, both of which make him a better complement (in theory) to the other starters. At this point Neto is a little bit like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; we’ve all heard stories, but (so far) haven’t actually seen the way the gold gleams. Still, I won’t be totally surprised if Andy is right. If he starts the opener at Detroit, it will mean he has played well throughout October and not just fallen there by default.

We’ve talked a lot about Cotton’s ceiling lately. But let’s not forget: until the Exum mishap, his floor was realistically “might never play another Jazz game.” I’m sure the Jazz are thrilled that they have a 4th PG that they’re comfortable promoting to 3rd PG, but until he has played more than a few good games — literally — we may all need to cool our jets a tad. It’s possible that he earns rotation minutes at some point.

Bench Bigs: Trevor Booker, Tibor Pleiss, Trey Lyles, Jeff Withey

By just about any measure, two of the Jazz’s best three players are bigs. These four guys behind them could all be considered rotation quality, at least in theory.

But here’s the problem: precisely because Gobert and Favors are so good, it’s entirely likely that this quartet only has about 30 to 35 minutes to divvy up between them. It’s almost impossible to give regular minutes to five bigs anyway, so two of the above will likely play while two bide their time.

Expect Booker to play. At his best, he has Draymond Green Lite functionality on offense5, particularly if he starts letting fly a few more threes even at his current 35% rate. He’ll never sniff the defensive value that Green displayed en route to a ring, but he is a ball of energy who sets the tone for the bench unit, and he’s been important in helping the Jazz find their collective personality.

The best evidence that the Jazz plan to use him came on July 9. If he were on the fringes of their thinking, they simply wouldn’t have guaranteed his $4.77M salary when they only owed him $250,000. They did, almost a week before they had to and even with Pleiss talks progressing and with Lyles signed. That tells you that they think he brings something to the table.

Count me among those who think Pleiss will play a role for the Jazz this season. It’s not just because of persistent whispers that his shooting touch looks legit; his FIBA action this summer convinced me that he’s a capable rotation big with a good basketball IQ. I know the watchouts, but I think they’re overblown. He moves quite well defensively and makes good reads on both ends. Snyder will have to rewire some of the instantaneous decision-making to integrate him into Jazz ball, but that’s doable.

And concerns about his rebounding are exaggerated. One thing I noticed in Germany’s games: even when he doesn’t have a good chance at the rebound, he is adherent to the textbook when it comes to finding his man and using his body to shield him from the ball, giving his team a chance for the board. Individual rebounding numbers be damned, Utah will probably board better as a team when he’s keeping opposing centers sealed off like that.

Pleiss doesn't get every rebound, but he boxes out religiously and effectively. (EuroBasket still)

Pleiss doesn’t get every rebound, but he boxes out religiously and effectively. (EuroBasket still)

If Booker and Pleiss are both healthy and play as hoped, Lyles may be on deck for a while. Again, it’s a testament to Utah’s depth that their lottery pick might not be able to regularly get on the floor, but it’s a unique situation. When they do use him, he’ll probably give them some different playmaking options right off the bat. Snyder already showed a willingness to have him run big-on-big pick-and-rolls, and his decision making in that and other settings should make him a valuable contributor over time.

Withey is pretty clearly 6th on the depth chart among bigs, but I still think he hangs onto a roster spot. Even as an insurance policy for injury or in case Pleiss isn’t as ready as we think, it’s just hard to replace his mix of efficient offense and decent rim protection, especially at under $1M. I think the Jazz will hang on for now.

So there it is: three guys know their roles. Beyond that, a lot will be pieced together and battled over in the next five weeks.

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 and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

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14 Comments

  1. Spencer says:

    I think there will be a pretty significant amount of time without one of the point guards on the floor, so I think Jungles and Millsap will have enough minutes to be rotation guys.

  2. JuMu says:

    Great article Dan, I’m curious how these will play out as well.

    Gobert likes Burks off the bench more.

    I’m pulling for Millsap as 4th wing but I think the majority of people see Ingles as higher in the pecking order than him.

    Burke likely starts with Cotton and Neto dueling for the lion’s share of backup minutes.

    Booker and Withey probably backup at first, Lyles and Pleiss eventually become 2nd string bigs but probably not til All star break or possibly next season

  3. LKA says:

    Because Exum is part of the fifteen man squad only one will have to be on the inactive list at one time. It might be a differnt player of three in each game.There still may be a trade also. Lets get to it.

  4. IDJazzman says:

    What a mess. We all know how difficult it is to give anyone meaningful minutes past a 10 man rotation, yet Snyder has to figure it all out. Some hard choices will have to be made. I think Lyles might get more playing time than a lot of us expect, just because of the potential there. Physically, he is almost Favors twin, maybe not as strong, but with more agility and a smoother shot. A combo of Pleiss with Lyles could prove quite an off the bench duo, especially with Burks and giving him a wide open floor to drive in, on the offensive end.
    Nice Article Dan, with a lot of in dept analysis. I did appreciate the heads up on Pleiss’s blocking out on rebounding, I feel a little more positive with him

    • Brine_Shrimp says:

      Its a good mess to have. Three years from now, the Jazz have to pay through their nose to keep this mess around, this mess is the result of meticulous planning from Lindsey.

  5. Matt C says:

    What about moving Booker to SF and making Lyles the rotational PF?

  6. Tim B says:

    It might be in the best interest of both the Jazz and Lyles if he spends a good chunk of the early season in the D league getting some serious run. a few minutes a game and what little practice an NBA team gets during the season are not the same as playing games.

  7. Brine_Shrimp says:

    Until the Exum mishap, his floor was realistically “might never play another Jazz game.”.

    Then god likes to watch NBA and starting to like the Jazz again. Base on small amount of samples from the end of last season, Cotton has tremendous heart and dedication; a lot better shot selections and the ability to play within team concept than Burke, not to mention he can leap over the head of Burke and Neto. If I have to choose between Cotton and Burke, it’s 100% Cotton; I had seen enough samples from Burke to absolutely say so. Heart, dedication, intelligent can not be taught.

  8. Paul Johnson says:

    Although it appears that almost every player on the Jazz bench can actually play, the Jazz only have 6 really good players, and one of the six (Exum) is injured this year. Hopefully, players like Burke, Neto, Cotton, Ingles, Booker, Lyles, Pleiss and Withey can continue to improve to the point where there is a question about who the starter should be–such as the Jazz have at SG with both Burks and Hood appearing to be very capable–rather than who the backup will be, because there is such a large talent gap between the starter and the reserves. Really good teams usually have at least a player or two on the bench who could be starting for most other teams. The Jazz don’t yet seem to have that problem–other than with Burks and Hood.

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