It was June 25, 2015, the night of the NBA Draft. As always, it was an evening of excitement for NBA fans, including the Utah Jazz faithful. After weeks of non-stop mock drafts, rumored trades, draft promise whispers and the endless gauntlet of player workouts, it was finally time to see who Utah would select with the 12th pick. While it did not have the high draft slot it did in 2014 — thanks to the spirited post-All-Star break run — the Jazz had a nice late lottery pick to bring on a player to add talent and depth to the young core. Adding a new Jazzman to the fold is always a big deal.
It seemed that every Jazz fan had different dream scenarios. Names like Mario Hezonja, Frank Kaminsky and Devin Booker were oft-mentioned. As the draft progressed, a few intriguing players started to fall a bit — Justise Winslow and Myles Turner. Hopes started to get high that one of them would continue to slip, but for some, those hopes were dashed as the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers plucked them up with the two picks directly before the Jazz.
Then, it was announced that the Utah Jazz went with forward Trey Lyles from Kentucky. The reaction at the then-EnergySolutions Arena and on Twitter was rather lukewarm. Throughout the draft process, Lyles was mentioned as a potential Jazz target. But, to some, he was a somewhat unknown and underwhelming prospect. Partly as a result of his limited playing time on the uber-talented Kentucky squad, Lyles did not get as much opportunity to display any elite, striking strengths. For most Utah fans, he was a “wait and see” player.
It took a few weeks for the Jazz to sign Lyles to his rookie scale contract, with some thinking the delay had to due with the rookie’s lack of desire to suit up in a Jazz uniform. That was not the case, as Dennis Lindsey later clarified. The team simply was exploring some moves and jointly agreed with Lyles to hold off briefly. Even so, that caused some Utah followers to pause. Lyles was solid in his summer league performance, but did not wow or dominate.
As the regular season started, it became clear that Lyles was to be a bit of project. After all, he was still 19 on opening night. With Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert understandably getting the bulk of the playing time, and with Trevor Booker in tow, Lyles would get bit minutes as the fourth big. He was to be brought along slowly.
Lyles was subsequently given sporadic playing time, just 8.0 MPG through the end of November. While it is hard to show much in such small spurts, the forward was certainly struggling. He was hesitant on offense and confused on defense. Opposing coaches would repeatedly run plays for whoever Lyles was guarding and the results were far from pretty. He also could not buy a basket. When December arrived, Lyles was averaging 1.9 PPG and 2.1 RPG. It was certainly a ho-hum start and one that had some questioning the pick1.
Then came the injuries. First, Gobert went down with the knee injury that would cause the Frenchman to miss 18 games. Then Favors and Alec Burks went down, as well. Within a few weeks, Jazz head coach Quin Snyder was forced to change up his rotation, giving bench players much more prominent roles. Lyles was naturally among this group. Utah absolutely needed him to occupy some substantial playing time, thrusting him into on-the-job-learning mode. He would be given developmental minutes. A lot of them. And slowly, but surely, Lyles stepped up.
In December, where he started 13 of the team’s 15 games, Lyles began to show signs of why the Jazz brain trust is so keen on him. He crashed the boards, made the occasional deft pass and started to show his perimeter range a bit. His stats for the month, though not over the charts, were respectable: 4.1 PPG, 4.9 RPG in 20.9 MPG. He shot just 37 percent from the floor, but managed to connect on five of 10 3-pointers.
Things have gotten much better in January. It was like someone turned on a switch for Lyles. His demeanor, confidence and comfort level seemed to improve dramatically. His playing time increased, as did his opportunities on offense. Through 10 games, Lyles is averaging 9.5 PPG on 52.8 percent shooting from the floor. He is 9 of 18 from downtown, as well. Add in 6.1 RPG and 1.6 APG. Over the last four outings, he is scoring 14.3 PPG, including three consecutive double-digits nights. All of the sudden, it is becoming even more evident why the Jazz were thrilled when he was available at #12.
On offense, Lyles has become much more aggressive. In November, when given an open look, he was often passing on the shot or pump faking, enabling his defender to cover him. Now when he gets the ball, he is showing heightened decisiveness. He is letting them fly from outside, while showing the ability to know when there is a chance to take it to the basket. Lyles has had some impressive finishes inside. He sometimes settles for a somewhat awkward floater instead of continuing his drive. Lyles also needs to improve his free throw shooting, especially as he is starting to get to the line a bit more.
The Jazz touted him as a potential stretch four and he is showing that promise. His 44.1 percent 3-point marksmanship is tops on the roster. He has particularly been potent from the corners, where nearly three of every four of his attempts is coming. Lyles has connected on 14 of 25 from there. That is a wonderful development for a Jazz offense that sometimes sputters. His shooting opens up the court and has alleviated some of Gordon Hayward’s offensive burden.
On defense, he is playing better position defense. He has solid agility, which has helped him. There still are times where he gets easily beat, but those are not nearly as frequent. By playing with Gobert and eventually with Favors, he has someone to help erase some of his mistakes.
One encouraging nuance to note: even when his shot is not falling, Lyles is finding ways to contribute. This was reflected in his performance against the Charlotte Hornets where he chipped in eight rebounds and four assists, even when he was struggling offensively. Throughout his short career, he has proven to be a much better rebounder than most anticipated2. He ably boxes out his opportunity and fights inside. The occasional deft pass has become more constant. He anticipates where his teammates are going. In the day and age of Draymond Green, a play-making big is not only en vogue — it is becoming something teams need.
If there is a silver lining to the rash of injuries, it is the development opportunities players like Lyles, Raul Neto and Jeff Withey have not only been given, but have taken advantage of. Lyles and Neto will merit consideration for the Rising Stars Challenge thanks to their improved play. More importantly, Lyles could be the team’s third big of the future, and probably the now. He has outplayed the ever-hustling Trevor Booker, but it will be interesting to see how things shake out when Favors returns.
While his pick was a bit underwhelming in June, Lyles is proving the doubters wrong. He is showing he could be a very viable and important piece of the Jazz’s overall picture.