During the Utah Jazz’s recent summer league performance, most eyes were focused on Trey Lyles, Bryce Cotton and the other returning players. Forward J.J. O’Brien felt like an afterthought — a warm body to fill out the ranks. This was due, in part, to the realities of a crowded Jazz roster, and in part to his less assuming demeanor on the court. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that Utah likes the all-around player, reportedly giving him a partially guaranteed deal that secures his spot in one the training camp roster.
Of course, the odds of O’Brien cracking the Jazz’s regular season roster are not extremely high. But if we have learned anything from the Dennis Lindsey/Quin Snyder regime, we know that the Jazz are very calculated and deliberate in any moves they make, including filling out a summer league lineup. Anyone they invite to a free agent mini camp or ink to a 10-day contract is someone they have had their eye on. O’Brien is not an exception. And if he wants to keep his hopes up high, he need not look further than teammate Jack Cooley.
Last summer, Utah doled out some partially guaranteed deals to a trio of players in former Jazzman Kevin Murphy, point guard Dee Bost and the bruising Cooley. In a sense, it brought the threesome into the Jazz fold. The first two did not last long in training camp, but Cooley was one of the final cuts1. All three then spent the season with the Idaho Stampede, Utah’s D-League affiliate. After some impressive performances, Cooley managed to secure a pair of 10-day deals and eventually was signed for the whole season with a multi-year contract. This has enabled him to work on his game with the Jazz’s coaching and training staff this whole summer, and thanks to a spirited summer league showing, he has a fighting chance of sticking this next season, too. Cooley can be O’Brien’s inspiration.
Chances are, O’Brien’s deal is a similar one– some guaranteed money2 and a chance at a future roster spot. That spot may not come immediately, but he is now firmly on the Jazz’s radar.
So what does Utah see in him? Having played a year the University of Utah, he is a familiar face. The 6’7 forward was solid for the Utes, averaging 6.3 PPG and 5.5 RPG. That did not prevent him for moving on to San Diego State, where he spent the past three seasons. Through it all, O’Brien was quite consistent. While his statistics do not scream out, he was an impactful player. O’Brien averaged 10.3 PPG and 5.2 RPG and thanks to his ability to play both forward positions, he assumed a much more prominent playmaking role. Much of the offense ran through him, and he developed into a nice facilitating big. He showed he could pass the ball, something that Snyder most likely enjoys. The same could be said about O’Brien’s versatility. He can do a little bit of everything on the court, a cerebral player with a high basketball IQ.
His calling card is his defense. O’Brien plays with a nice energy on that end, and seems to have good instincts. He moves well and is not afraid to body up on his opponent. O’Brien fits the mold of the 3-and-D players that are so valuable to teams, and ones the Jazz clearly crave — see Elijah Millsap and Chris Johnson. He was anything but a good 3-point shooter in college, connecting on just 19 total treys. But he seems to be working on that aspect of his game, showing a smooth jumper in the summer league. He most definitely will need to refine his offensive game, including some shaky free throw shooting.
By signing this deal, he too will be able to spend time the next few months in Salt Lake City, developing a better understanding of the system and spending time on and off the court with his Jazz teammates. This will undoubtedly make him a better player. While he most likely will not be on the bench come the regular season opener, J.J. O’Brien is someone to watch.
In closing, it would appear the Utah Jazz training camp roster is pretty much set, although any transactions would naturally affect this. NBA teams are able to bring up to 20 players to camp for several weeks prior to paring things down to 13-15 individuals. With two months to go, the Jazz are already near that maximum number. Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, Dante Exum, Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, Trey Burke, Trevor Booker, Trey Lyles, Joe Ingles, Tibor Pleiss, Raul Neto and Grant Jerrett are the 13 players with guaranteed deals. Millsap, Bryce Cotton, Cooley, Johnson and O’Brien are those who are under non-guaranteed pacts. After that, one would have to think two of the following would fill out the last two spot: second-round pick Olivier Hanlan, Brock Motum and JaJuan Johnson. While it is a tad bit surprising to know now who will be there, there is a lot to say about continuity between now and then. The team can work, learn and play together, and that could be a boon to the upcoming season.