The Utah Jazz were a revelation this season, particularly after the All-Star break when they went 29-19 to close out the year. Much of their success over that stretch was due to a suffocating defense that held opponents to an incredible 94.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. (For reference’s sake, Golden State led the league in defensive rating at just over 98 points per 100 possessions.) This defensive improvement, as well as the growth of their core pieces, has the Jazz well-positioned to be in playoff contention for the foreseeable future.
Gordon Hayward proved that he’s worth every penny of the maximum salary he signed last offseason, showing a diverse skill set and refined offensive game by being both the Jazz’s primary scoring option as well as the team’s best facilitator. Hayward was one of only eight players to average over 19 points, four rebounds, and four assists, and the only one to not play in the All-Star Game. Derrick Favors also made great strides this season, showing an improved mid-range game to go along with his usual stout post defense. At age 23, he has shown borderline All-Star potential and is a key building block for the Jazz moving forward.
The most pleasant surprise to the Utah Jazz, of course, was the incredible play of Rudy Gobert. Enes Kanter’s unceremonious departure in Utah cleared the way for more playing time for the lanky Frenchman, and Gobert responded by posting a dominant second half on the defensive end. Per Seth Partnow’s metrics, the “Stifle Tower” was the best rim protector in the NBA this past season, and at age 22 and under team protection through the 2017-2018 season, Gobert may be the best bargain in the league.
With Dante Exum, Alec Burks, Hayward, Favors and Gobert, the Jazz have one of the more exciting young starting lineups in the league. Their depth, however, is less exciting, particularly their ability to score from the perimeter and their lack of a viable third big man to spell Favors or Gobert.
Trey Burke has largely been a disappointment thus far in his young career. Coming out of Michigan as the consensus National Player of the Year, Burke was highly regarded for his offensive abilities, particularly in the half-court. After two seasons in the NBA, however, Burke has struggled to capitalize on that offensive promise as he hasn’t been able to find his shot or get his teammates consistently involved. After losing his starting spot to Exum halfway through the year, and without the ability to either consistently hit shots from the outside or attack the paint at an above-average level, Burke’s role as a piece of the Jazz’s future is now in question.
Exum, though he hasn’t yet lived up to his pre-draft comparisons, showed that, with more strength and experience, he has the length and quickness to be a defensive terror on opposing point guards. Burks and Rodney Hood both also project to be key rotation pieces for the Jazz, with Burks receiving a four-year, $42 million extension before his season was cut short due to injury and Hood showing the skill set to be a rotation 3-and-D player from either wing position.
However, with Burks’s best skill being his ability to attack the rim and draw fouls, and Exum still developing an outside shot, the Jazz could very well look to add shooting to their wing rotation with the 12th overall pick. Devin Booker is a target who has often been mocked to each of the teams picking 9-14, including to Utah. Booker’s shooting would open up driving lanes for both Hayward and Burks as well as give Favors and Gobert breathing room in the paint. Whether Booker or Kelly Oubre are still on the board, the Jazz may be better suited to address their lack of depth in the frontcourt with their first-round pick.
Up front, the Jazz have done an excellent job of finding veteran free agents on the cheap to man the forward positions in recent years with DeMarre Carroll, Marvin Williams, Richard Jefferson and, this past season, Trevor Booker. Booker, undersized at just 6’7, filled in admirably as Utah’s de facto third big man (while also sinking one of the greatest shots in basketball history). Booker also added a somewhat threatening three-point shot to his game that was nonexistent earlier in his career.
Despite his development and status as a fan favorite, though, Booker remains a marginal rotation player who was asked to play significant minutes on a team that hopes to soon be fighting for playoff contention. He also has a non-guaranteed contract that would make it easy for the Jazz to move on from him, should they choose to do so, either to pursue veteran help in the frontcourt, to add shooting along the perimeter or to simply solidify the back end of their rotation, where the team has several marginal prospects on non-guaranteed deals.
Source: Basketball Insiders
Several mock drafts have the Jazz selecting Myles Turner, who’s a long, raw player with the potential to end up being one of the top players in the draft. And though they project as dissimilar players, the Jazz have shown that they’re not afraid to draft raw prospects with high upside, as evidenced by the Gobert selection. Pairing Turner and Gobert together may work offensively, with Turner spending time on the perimeter, and I’m not sure how anyone would get a shot off in the paint with over 15 feet of combined wingspan.
But with Favors and Gobert both more comfortable defending in the paint rather than chasing stretch 4’s around the perimeter, it may be better for the Jazz to select a prospect capable of defending the more athletic forwards in the league, which would allow Favors to kick inside to center when he and Gobert aren’t sharing the floor. Fortunately for the Jazz, several such players figure to be available when they’re on the clock.
Amongst the four big men listed above, Frank Kaminsky likely represents the best fit for Utah, as he has both the size and versatility to defend the power forward and center positions, and the shooting touch to stretch defenses out beyond the three-point arc. He also, unfortunately for the Jazz, is the prospect most likely to be off the board at pick No. 12.
(It’s important to note the significant age difference between Kaminsky and the other prospects shown, as Kaminsky put up his Player of the Year numbers against players often three years younger than him, whereas Kevon Looney and Trey Lyles are just now 13 months removed from their high school proms. Moreover, it’s somewhat dangerous to label older players such as Kaminsky as “safe” picks when their “safety” may be directly tied to the fact that they’ve had three or more years of Division I-level player development and strength and conditioning programs whereas freshmen and sophomores have had significantly less time to develop. Recent draft lotteries are littered with “safe” and “NBA-ready” players such as Wesley Johnson, Thomas Robinson, Doug McDermott and others who excelled in college against younger players but have had trouble finding consistent playing time in the NBA when their age advantage has been taken away.)
As floor spacers, Kaminsky clearly leads the way in both his shot frequency and shot making ability. Bobby Portis and Trey Lyles, though not nearly as prolific from the outside as Kaminsky, both showed nice shooting touches, with respectable percentages on a high volume of mid-range shots to go along with their decent free throw percentages. All four players will likely need to continue the development of their three-point shots to maximize their potential. And though it’s an admittedly small sample for each, the shooting percentages indicate that Lyles may have a more difficult time extending his shot out to the NBA three-point line than either Portis or Looney, who shot the ball well from deep despite his poor free throw shooting and low percentage on two-point jumpers.
Beyond his shooting ability, Portis also found other ways to contribute both offensively and defensively. On offense, Portis maintained a low turnover rate despite his high usage and was a monster on the offensive glass. On defense, Portis’s length and instincts allowed him to protect the rim while also rebounding the ball well and collecting steals at a high rate. Portis’s size and activity on both ends make him an intriguing prospect who’s probably being underrated on a national level.
When comparing these numbers, of course, it’s important to remember not only the players’ ages but also the context in which these players were asked to play. Lyles spent the majority of his minutes playing out of position at the small-forward spot in Kentucky’s ultra-big lineup, watching Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein dominate the interior. This context may account for his lower rebound and block rates relative to his size, though his low steal rate despite playing more on the perimeter is somewhat concerning. More than maybe any other prospect in this draft, Lyles’s team context presents more questions than answers as to his NBA potential.
Similar to Lyles, it’s important to view Looney’s production at UCLA within his team context. Looney’s combination of length and skills helped him average almost a quadruple-double in becoming a highly-ranked as a high school senior. At UCLA, Looney played alongside ball-dominant guards, which helps explain his low usage and assist rates despite his reputation as a playmaking 4. He also spent time at the top of UCLA’s 3-2 zone, which may have inflated his steal rate.
Despite his size and skill set, however, Looney has seen his draft stock plummet throughout the pre-draft process. For much of the season Looney was projected as a top 10 pick; many mock drafts now routinely have him lasting into the 20s. Issues surrounding his work ethic, motor and concerns about his asthma are reportedly what have teams questioning whether he should be considered in the lottery. Analytic models, meanwhile, show Looney as worthy of the top 10 hype. For Utah, Looney could be another high upside player whose perimeter skillset and playmaking ability would be a nice complement to both Gobert and Favors.
With Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors entrenched as a top-tier forward tandem and Rudy Gobert shattering dreams at the rim on a nightly basis, the Jazz have one of the more promising young cores in the NBA. With continued development from Dante Exum and the addition of another rotation piece from this year’s draft, whether that be a shooter on the perimeter or a third big capable of playing alongside Utah’s frontcourt pieces, the Jazz may be knocking on the door of the Western Conference playoffs as early as next season.