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Jazz Use Preseason to Crystallize Roster Spots

Chris Nicoll/USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, I gave a shot at predicting which end-of-roster players would survive the preseason and stick with the Utah Jazz for opening night and beyond. With the preseason now behind us, it’s clear that the Jazz were efficient in the month of October, using their seven preseason games to cement roles for the many competitive players who sat at the end of Utah’s extra-long preseason bench. Let’s go through those players individually and identify how head coach Quin Snyder views each player, based on how often they were used in games this preseason.

Treveon Graham and J.J. O’Brien: NBDL Auditioners 

Both Graham and O’Brien were used ultra-sparingly in the preseason, serving as confirmation that the undrafted rookies were long shots to make the team. Perhaps these players will end up on the Idaho Stampede in the D-League.

Grant Jerrett: Contractual Deadweight

This seems like it can’t be true, but it is: in 2015-16, Utah will pay Jerrett ($947K) virtually the same amount they’ll pay Raul Neto ($1 million), who not only appeared in every Jazz preseason game but also started two of them. Jerrett was the 40th pick of the 2013 NBA Draft — just one spot after Jeff Withey, who’s discussed below — but evidently this was a misfire. The Oklahoma City Thunder felt comfortable trading him away in the Enes Kanter trade after Jerrett appeared in just five regular-season games, and with Utah, Jerrett could manage only three appearances while undrafted players like Ian Clark, Jack Cooley and Bryce Cotton regularly received minutes around him. After Jerrett registered zero appearances this preseason, it’s clear that the Jazz weren’t targeting him in the trade that netted the franchise Tibor Pleiss and a future first-round pick. Considering that return, nearly $1 million in dead money is a small price to pay for the tremendous value Utah reaped in return.

Jack Cooley and Bryce Cotton: In Need of Development

Cooley and Cotton are in that tough group of players: skilled enough to play in the NBA, not quite skilled enough to stick around for long in any one place. Both players received minutes in last year’s regular season with the Jazz, but it’s clear that they came up on the short end of training camp competitions with international rookies Neto and Pleiss. Despite his tremendous energy, Cotton’s lack of defensive prowess was a clear disadvantage in his battle against Neto. Cooley just might have been the victim of bad timing: the undersized and raw prospect hardly had a chance to get minutes seeing as the Jazz brought in Pleiss, Withey and Trey Lyles over the offseason. (Cooley has already been signed, and then cut again, by the Cleveland Cavaliers.) There’s no way it’s over for these players, though — look for them to play for or against the Idaho Stampede this season.

Chris Johnson: 15th Man 

Johnson had a bizarre regular season in 2014-15: he bounced around between three NBA teams — the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and then the Jazz — managing just 29 appearances. However: Johnson played 18.1 minutes per game in those appearances, a significant amount of time that extends well beyond garbage time. Given his more limited role in Utah’s preseason this month — 10.9 MPG over five appearances — it seems like the Jazz still see Johnson as under development. I’d expect Johnson to stick with the Jazz this season (he’s battling with the recently signed Eric Atkins and recently claimed Phil Pressey for the final roster spot), but splitting time between Salt Lake City and Idaho.

Jeff Withey: Viable Backup Center

Even though international rookie Pleiss is owed much more guaranteed money — $6 million over the life of his contract, compared to $200k for Withey — the two players seemed to end the month in a virtual tie as to who’s the primary backup for starter Rudy Gobert. Withey averaged 11.3 minutes over seven preseason games, and Pleiss averaged 10.2 over six. So far, it looks like Withey’s two years of NBA experience with the New Orleans Pelicans were a tremendous help to him this month: he shot an ultra-efficient 81.8 percent from the field, plus 85.7 percent from the line. Pleiss, meanwhile, seemed to be working through culture shock in October, committing a lot of fouls and shooting just 33.3 percent from the field. While it may have been an underwhelming performance, that’s what the preseason is for, and Pleiss’s defensive attentiveness will definitely earn him minutes. I expect Withey and Pleiss to be dueling for minutes all season.

Elijah Millsap: Nightly Rotational Player

Even though Millsap is on virtually the same minimally guaranteed contract as Graham and O’Brien were on, Millsap’s massive defensive energy saw him play nearly identical preseason minutes compared to the likes of Trevor Booker, Joe Ingles and Neto. Millsap’s offensive contributions will remain minimal at best, but he gives the Jazz a unique weapon: a player who eagerly defends the opponent’s best player for something like the minimum salary. Barring injury, expect Millsap to play all 82.

Preseason statistics via RealGM

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