Jazz’s Bench Guards Can Lift Team With Improved Play

October 26th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

Alec Burks attacks with the ball against Golden State (Gene Sweeney Jr. via espn.com)

According to lore spread by his old Manchester United teammates, soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo used to train with weights strapped to his ankles. In his quest to become one of his sport’s best players, Ronaldo’s idea was to perfect moves like the step-over with the weights on, and then when he did them in real games with his ankles unencumbered, he was that much more explosive. Similarly, legendary sprinter Usain Bolt is known to have trained with a weighted vest that he’d then shed for several medal-winning, world record-breaking performances.

It’s neither by design nor the exact same logic, but the Utah Jazz are doing something that is spiritually equivalent to starting the season with ankle weights. Quin Snyder’s team is 2-2 despite inconsistent outputs from their reserve guards. Four bench guards have seen time for Utah so far, and each one has struggled in one way or another, especially in the three most recent games. Aside from the season opener where the bench saved the Jazz’s bacon, every reserve but Jae Crowder1 has a negative net rating, and most into the double digits.

By now, plenty of attention has been paid to Donovan Mitchell’s early slump and his breakout performance on Wednesday. Likewise, you know all about Rubio’s 22-percent shooting through four games.

But behind those two are bench guards who also need to stabilize their performance if Utah is to realize its best-case projections. Turn even a couple of these guys into steady contributors, and the Jazz as a unit could suddenly look like Ronaldo ripping through scissor moves in the box or Bolt disappearing into a blur of motion.

Dante Exum

It’s clear that Snyder envisioned a big role for Exum this season. After the starters and Crowder, Exum is seeing more minutes by far than anybody else, and he’s central to both the offense and defense when he is on the court. Nearly a quarter (23.4%) of Utah’s possessions during Exum’s minutes end with an Exum shot or turnover, one of the highest figures on the team. And as the primary on-ball defender in pick-and-roll action, he’s massively important on the other end, too. He’s undoubtedly part of Utah’s top seven in terms of rotation roles.

Two games in, Exum was rewarding that confidence with superb play. He had 13 points in each of the Jazz first two outings, on an uncommonly efficient 8-for-14 from the floor. He got to the line 11 times, broke down defenses with or without a screen, and orchestrated extended runs.

But Exum’s offensive strengths are neutralized to some degree by defensive schemes that focus on walling off driving lanes. Memphis’ drop big defense and Houston’s switch-happy P&R scheme both fall into that category, and as a result, Exum’s decision-making in both games became a bit too binary. He either challenges the waiting defender anyway with a (sometimes wild) shot, or he retreats to the perimeter with a U-turn or a pass-out, either of which tends to put the Jazz offense back at square one. He made it to the line just twice against those two opponents, and delivered just two assists combined in those games.

The reality is that Exum has the tools to consistently break the paint, even without a pick. This kind of change of direction and speed is exactly how Exum can help the Jazz beat switching defenses and containing bigs. 

He simply needs to be more willing to put pressure on the defense like that. And when he gets there, he needs to be able to work his way down the full list of possible reads. 

Of course, Exum’s other high-value skill is his on-ball defense. He did well against reigning MVP James Harden on Wednesday2, staying in front of the Beard and forcing tough shots, turnovers and pass-offs. 

But even on that end, Exum can clean some things up. His default tendency is to try to stay with his man on through ball screens. That’s certainly not a bad inclination, and I like that Exum takes so much pride in the 1-on-1 defensive matchup, but it’s not always in line with the scheme that his four teammates are executing. The Jazz generally switch most wing-to-wing ball screens, so when the on-ball defender does something different without letting the screener’s man no, it’s likely that someone will wind up unguarded.

It’s not really clear exactly what the Jazz’s plan called for here, but you can tell that Crowder thinks they’re switching. This has happened fairly often, and at the very least Exum needs to communicate better if he wants to do something other than stick with the default screen defense scheme. 

But overall, Exum has had the strongest start of this group. His two elite NBA skills — paint-busting drives and pesky defense at the point of attack — have both been on display, at least intermittently.

He’s also the guy who, if current minute trends continue, will keep getting the chance to impacts. He’s Utah’s clear seventh man right now, and when he has it going, the plan appears to be to supply the lightning-quick guard with 18 to 24 minutes worth of nightly opportunities. This is exactly the laboratory the now-healthy Exum needs to continue improving.

Alec Burks

Burks started the season looking like he’d finally be a fully healthy rotation regular. He averaged 13 points in 19 minutes throughout the preseason, and then scored 13 in 18 minutes to rescue the Jazz from their weak start in Sacramento. Since then, though, he’s shooting 2-for-10, doesn’t have a single assist, and is logging a minus-6.5 per 100 possessions.

He turned passive enough against the Grizzlies and Rockets that Snyder looked elsewhere instead of going back to Burks for his second-half stints. In fact, he was borderline invisible against Memphis. His only box score stat in six minutes of play was a single missed shot: 0 points, 0 rebounds, 0 assists, etc.

Not asserting yourself on the game is problematic enough, but the real liability are moments like this when Burks’ indecision with the ball costs the Jazz several seconds of their offensive possession.

Like Exum, Burks primarily adds value to the offense by putting pressure on defenses with the ball in his hands, so when he passively parks in a corner and doesn’t assert himself, his value takes a hit. But this kind of indecision has an even worse effect. On that play in particular, the clock goes from :17 to :07 while Burks explores fruitlessly and then returns the ball to Ingles at nearly 30 feet from the hoop. He needs to move much quicker through his mental checklist: attack, shoot, pass.

Burks can do a lot of damage as a decisive, assertive driver. The good news is that he is back to using those forays into the paint as a ticket to the free-throw line. The NBA’s tracking cameras have logged 10 Burks drives so far this season, and three of them have resulted in free throw trips3. But he also drives with blinders on too often: according to tracking stats, he hasn’t passed out of any of his 10 drives, although the tracking stats define “drive” narrowly enough that it might have missed some4

He also can alleviate pressure with good outside shot selection. In the preseason, he looked really good pulling up behind screens for 3-point shots. He has taken only one such shot in the four games so far (and made it)5, but that was a 35-percent shot for him last year — which means on a point per shot basis, it’s just a tick less efficient than Utah’s overall offense. But the real key for Burks to be a threat both on and off the ball is that he has to be shot-ready and convert more consistently on his catch-and-shoot opportunities.

Without that threat, it will be increasingly difficult for a bench unit made up of non-shooters to to score. He is 2-for-5 on C&S threes so far this season, and that figure has to stay closer to that percentage range than to last year’s 31 percent.

More than ever, it feels like Snyder is giving AB permission to be AB. He has a green light to take shots and challenge defenders, and if he does so smartly, he’ll remain a valuable role player off the bench. If not, there are others waiting to vie for his minutes.

Royce O’Neale

O’Neale crashed the rotation last year after signing as an undrafted free agent, and right away he estbalished himself as an NBA player with elite defensive contributions. He made an instant name for himself based on his ability to bottle up the opposing team’s best perimeter threat, sometimes winning games for Utah with a key stop. He also made enough threes (.353) to keep the floor spaced on the other end, and occasionally got nasty on a breakaway dunk or blind cut.

In four games, he has yet to find the same offensive rhythm, and fouls are sapping some of his defensive value. The second-year wing is averaging just over 11 minutes, but he hasn’t had the same impact on winning. In fact, at minus-24.5, he has the worst Net Rating among regulars by far.

Simply put, Royce is being too shy right now. He has taken just two 3-pointers in his 45 minutes of play, and defenders have picked up on that reticence. They’re backing way off of him even when he’s one pass away from the ball. That’s impacting O’Neale’s output, sure, but it’s also gumming up the middle and making it harder for Utah’s other scorers to have room. Look at how far this Memphis defender comes off to wall off the Mitchell drive, even though O’Neale is one pass away on the strong side of the floor.

Defenders have been leaving O’Neale (game still).

For this to cease being an issue, O’Neale has to make himself a threat again. He has the lowest usage on the team6, and the lowest 3-point rate of all the wings and guards.

Of course, he still impacts the game defensively. So far, he is functioning as a deterrent as much as anything else. For example, in the 10 possessions he was primarily guarding James Harden on Wednesday night, Harden took just three shots and had one assist. Against Memphis on Monday night, players defended primarily by O’Neale took just two shots on 24 possessions. The Grizzlies got 19 total team points out of those same 24 possessions, but that efficiency (79.2 points per 100) is still pretty damn good.

In other words, if Royce can make himself a threat on the other end to really any degree, he’ll play.

Grayson Allen

When Snyder went searching for some scheme-busting scoring options in the last two games, rookie Grayson Allen got the call. The results have been mixed: he scored seven quick points and helped the Jazz make a late push against Memphis, but against Houston he went 0-for-3 and didn’t log a single positive box score stat.

The reality is that it would be irresponsible to evaluate Allen after just 14 minutes and change of NBA action. But if you’re looking for signs that the former Blue Devil can help his team, they’re there. On one play, he challenged a rebound from the backside which enabled a teammate to secure the board — he didn’t get credit on the stat sheet, but he impacted that play. On another play, he showed good defensive instincts by showing on a drive, then slid back to his man in time. He’s got a good feel in instances like those.

But the reality is that for now, he’s mostly going to hear his number called when Snyder needs a little bit of shooting to help soften the interior defense. The key for Allen is going to be how ready he is in those moments. That will determine whether a quick 4-minute stint gets stretched to 10+ minutes (as it did on Monday) or not (like on Wednesday).

With these four struggling at different moments in the first four games, the Jazz have yet to show the depth that was supposed to be a competitive advantage. Thabo Sefolosha’s return (as early as Sunday) will help, but getting one or more of these guards consistently producing would fortify Utah’s rotation in a serious way.


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, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

One Comment

  1. Larry K, Anderson says:

    Like the story on the soccer star but our own Karl Malone used to drag a small parachute behind him when running up hill at times. He is the champion of conditioning. There are a lot of surprises so far. Rockets, Thunder, and look at the Kings..

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