Why Trevor Booker Could Be Utah’s Small-Ball Alternative

September 9th, 2015 | by Ben Dowsett
Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Draymond Green was one of the breakout stars of the NBA last season, and deservedly so. His elite and versatile defensive skills allowed the Warriors to build the league’s best and most adaptable defense despite his undersized nature. Better yet, a similarly well-tooled offensive repertoire made for a great fit with Golden State’s sharpshooting backcourt, allowing Green to stay on the floor for big minutes without forcing the Dubs to sacrifice quality on either end. In many ways, Green embodied the “stretch-4” prototype that’s quickly becoming all the rage1.

What if I told you the Jazz had a guy who plays the same position, has a very similar build2 and moderately comparable lateral agility, and actually shot a better percentage from 3 than Draymond? Step on up, Trevor Booker, that’s your cue.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, an obvious disclaimer: Trevor Booker is not Draymond Green. Booker plays with the same kind of fire, but isn’t in Green’s class as an overall defender and can’t match his versatility on either end.

There’s been plenty of talk surrounding Utah’s ability to go to units which space the floor more effectively, though. And while much of that has focused on outside roster additions or Trey Lyles’ potential in such a role down the line, their best option might be sitting right in front of them.

The 2014-15 season was Booker’s first with a license to shoot from deep, and he mostly justified Quin Snyder’s move. After attempting just 10 triples in four seasons in Washington, Book hoisted 84 last year at a respectable 34.5 percent clip.

Diving a little more deeply into his underlying numbers here, we see a reasonable template for a floor-stretcher. Of 183 guys who attempted at least 50 wide open 3s last year3, Booker’s 45.3 percent accuracy placed him 23rd, one spot behind Steph Curry and well ahead of Green’s 38.9 percent mark.

Sample size is obviously at play here — Curry attempted 215 of these wide open 3s and Green 180, a far cry from Booker’s 53 tries. There’s much more evidence that a guy like Green can sustain his (admittedly lower) figure over larger volume.

But this touches at another theme, one less often raised when discussing “stretch” bigs: Actual shooting ability remains vital, but how opponents perceive a guy’s shooting ability has real weight as well. This perception can often be born of much less robust data, and at times doesn’t line up at all with reality.

Consider a guy like Boston’s Marcus Smart. Most viewed shooting as a weakness for the Oklahoma State product in his rookie year; his 33.5 percent figure for the season was better than expected, but still isn’t all that good for a high-volume guard. But Smart seemed to develop a perception as a better-than-advertised shooter early on, aided in large part by a hot first few months4.

Further SportVU data, this time based on defender distance, showcases this: Of over 200 guys who took at least 75 3s on the year, Smart had the 16thlowest average defender distance — defenders were tighter to his average 3-point attempt than sharpshooters like Kyle Korver or Klay Thompson. There are bits of noise here involving team context and other factors, but on such a large sample (nearly 300 attempts) there’s no question Smart’s early artificial reputation made a real difference in the way he was guarded beyond the arc.

Volume from deep plays a role as well, and this is where Booker’s case as a floor-stretcher might hinge. This is the entire reason a guy like Draymond is considered a stretch big while Booker wasn’t last year — their actual percentages were close together, but Green attempting over three times the number of long balls gives him the perception of a guy who needs to be guarded out there.

There’s absolutely no guarantee Booker’s solid numbers on open 3s would continue if he doubled or tripled his volume. Thing is, though, his accuracy could take a significant dip while his perception as a shooter improves if he simply makes opponents think about him out there more often. Floor spacing is important because of where it forces defenders to stand and what that opens up elsewhere on the court, and even a foot or two in Booker’s direction from his average defender means all that much more room for the rest of the offense to operate.

As Grantland’s Zach Lowe recently noted, though, versatile bigs reach that status through more than just their shooting. The term “playmaking 4” has quickly become part of the NBA vernacular; Draymond’s ability to make things happen with the ball and capitalize on odd-man opportunities when defenses blitz Steph or Klay is a huge part of his offensive value.

Booker has a case from this perspective as well. He has a solid handle and great lateral mobility, often showcasing an ability to punish guys for closing out to his jumper too quickly or underestimating his foot speed.

He isn’t quite in Draymond’s league as a passer5, but Booker feels a bit underrated here from a Jazz perspective. It’s more common to see gushing about the passing ability of Favors and Gobert, and not without good reason, but Booker may actually be the most incisive playmaker the Jazz have among their bigs. Consider the following table showing per-36-minute assist chances for Jazz bigs last season, alongside points created via assist per-36:

Jazz Bigs Asssist Chances and Points Created Via Assist 14-15

Jazz Bigs Asssist Chances and Points Created Via Assist 14-15

It’s not a huge gap, but Booker was certainly the best of Utah’s bigs last season at setting up teammates for potential buckets6. A continued emphasis on this, along with more of an effort to establish himself as someone defenses feel they have to guard on the perimeter, could do wonders for Jazz spacing while Booker plays.

If this theme becomes reality, the Jazz are in a great place, and one I’ve discussed conceptually with Lyles as well: The ability to play “small” without actually putting small guys on the floor.

Booker is undersized for a 4 in height alone, but he rebounds almost as effectively as Favors and, due to excellent strength and center of gravity, really isn’t at risk of being frequently abused by the few post threats he’ll see against mostly bench units. His on/off court splits from last season, particularly post-All-Star break, indicate the Jazz aren’t sacrificing much of anything defensively while he plays, whether with or without Rudy Gobert. Meanwhile, he’s quick enough to check nearly any stretch 4 he’ll come up against on the perimeter, and can bully many of these same guys down low on the offensive end.

If he emphasizes those offensive tweaks with success, he could very well be Utah’s in-house answer to the small-ball conundrum. He’d give the Jazz the flexibility to play four-out when needed, could defend opposing floor-stretchers effectively, and still has the strength and definitely the fire to do the grimy work down low.

It’ll be intriguing to see how much Snyder chooses to prioritize these themes. Versatility is the name of the game, and the Jazz may have more of a utility man in their bag than most had previously realized.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and current in-depth analyst based in Salt Lake City. He also writes for Basketball Insiders and BBallBreakdown, and can be heard on SCH Radio on ESPN 700 weekly. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.
Ben Dowsett
Ben Dowsett

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10 Comments

  1. Barry Baubowa says:

    The Jazz need to keep Booker around. Besides what he brings onto the basketball floor, you can tell that he provides the “brotherhood” factor for the team, ALWAYS having his teammates backs.

    • Truth. He’s the guy on the team that’s going to do what needs to be done, and say what needs to be said, no matter the consequences, when it comes to backing up his teammates. If he wasn’t already a fan favorite before the Former Player game, the post-game quote cemented him as a permanent favorite in my book. (Speaking of which, any article or podcast that piles on Kancer’s deficiencies is well worth reading in my book, even if it is just a sidebar footnote).

  2. Spencer says:

    Thank you Ben for stating the not so obvious that should be obvious. Booker was a great pickup and his elite athleticism is a fun bonus that gets everyone going. If I had the option of keeping everyone of the rotation guys for the next decade, barring injury, I would do it. I think they have the talent and depth at every position to be championship contenders. Booker is a great case-in-point.

  3. Rick Saldaña says:

    Booker’s speed, agility, and hops have made him one of my favorite players. He may be under-sized for a power forward, but he gives the Jazz the perfect player they need when playing “small-ball.”

    Imagine this lineup: Favors (center), Booker (power forward), Hayward (small forward), Burks (two-guard), and Cotton at point. That would be a pretty lethal and athletic combination to have to play against.

    Trevor is the high-energy guy every team needs. The fact that he is also a team-player and a stand-up guy, makes me want to see the Jazz keep him for a long, long time. Unfortunately, his expiring contract paints a target on his back for a potential trade later this season. I would sure hate to see that happen.

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      I actually don’t think expiring contracts, especially small-ish ones like Booker’s, are THAT attractive anymore except in the perfect circumstances. With the cap exploding next year, 25+ teams have room, and the ones who don’t are so far over the tax line that it doesn’t even matter. The only time a small expiring like Booker might really be valuable is for a team right on the edge of being able to make a certain move work – and you’d bet that if Utah was their only potential partner, the Jazz would squeeze every last bit of value out of whoever it was. I see a trade of Booker as very unlikely, and think he’s a strong candidate to stay in Salt Lake moving forward. The Jazz can afford to give him a modest raise next offseason and not come close to breaking the bank, and I believe they will.

      • Rick Saldaña says:

        The Jazz can certainly afford to keep Booker, but Jazz management’s past history makes me a bit nervous i.e., letting DeMarre Carroll walk away when he wanted to stay and would have signed a modest contract.

        With so many bigs already on the team, I’m concerned Trevor won’t get much playing time and the Jazz will come to the conclusion that they don’t need him, especially if Trey Lyles turns out to be better than expected this season.

        I’ll feel a whole lot better if the Jazz can come to terms with Booker’s agent and re-sign him by the October early-signing deadline. The Jazz need Trevor on this team. I believe he’s going to become one of the “glue-guys” that will make the Jazz a dangerous team to have to play, come playoff time.

  4. Ben Dowsett says:

    Booker is still unquestionably the team’s third big, and would be the starter should either Gobert or Favors miss any time. Lyles is still only 19 and it will be at least a year or two before he’d enter that range, and none of the other bigs in Utah’s rotation are threatening much of Booker’s playing time.

    I don’t tend to like these sorts of hindsight 20-20 comparisons. Sure, the Jazz haven’t been absolutely perfect in every decision they’ve made. But the Carroll point is a particularly overused one from those trying to find fault in management. Carroll wasn’t simply the same player in 2012 that he is now – he’s shot 38% from 3 in two years in Atlanta, but know what he shot during his entire stint in Utah? 30%. He was a great defender and hard worker, and one can quibble with letting him walk if they wish, but acting like the Jazz let go of a perennial two-way All-Star for nothing is just off. Think people’s efforts are better placed noting how many low-probability picks the Jazz have nailed in the last couple years, or how they’ve turned a middling stockpile of veterans into one of the league’s most exciting young cores in about two years flat.

    As far as Booker’s contract situation goes, there’s no such thing as an October signing deadline. He isn’t an impending restricted free agent next summer, like Alec Burks and Enes Kanter were a year ago. He’s already on his second contract, meaning at the end of the year he’ll become an unrestricted free agent. But with a ballooning salary cap and almost too much money for the Jazz to spend, plus Booker’s own likely desire to stick around, I’d wager confidently that he’s back beyond this season.

  5. Rick Saldaña says:

    Ben you’re right about Booker’s situation, I had forgotten that he is on his second contract and will be an unrestricted free-agent at the end of the season. So, I stand corrected on that point.

    As for Carroll, I never felt he was going to become a perennial All-Star. But I did believe he was going to become a very good player, one who would have re-signed for a pittance.

    I actually agree with almost all the moves the Jazz have made since they hired Dennis Lindsey and Quin Snyder. The path the Jazz are on now I believe is the correct one. And, as you noted, the Jazz have “nailed” a lot of their decisions over the past two years. I just wish I was as confident as you are, that Booker is going to remain a part of that future.

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      If he doesn’t, it’s because Lyles or another addition is already significantly better in much of the same role. Or I suppose if someone else wants to hugely overpay him, which I doubt.

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