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Predicting Trey Lyles’s Rookie Year Workload

Here’s how good things are in the world of the Utah Jazz: it’s been easy to forget that the team is debuting a brand-new lottery pick this season. In this past June’s draft, the Indiana Pacers selected one slot ahead of the Jazz, and they selected the energetic center Myles Turner, who’s commanding significant preseason attention and who could easily overtake Ian Mahinmi as the team’s starting center before Opening Night. Meanwhile, over at SB Nation’s SLC Dunk, Lyles was ranked as the team’s 1oth-best player, trailing undrafted wings Elijah Millsap and Joe Ingles.

Projecting where and how Lyles will get his minutes is actually pretty hard. Will he siphon minutes away from Trevor Booker, who played 19.8 minutes per game last season backing up Derrick Favors at power forward? Maybe — but remember that Booker’s $4.77M contract for next season (fourth-highest on the team) was almost entirely non-guaranteed if Utah cut him before a certain July date.

Given the attractiveness of a non-guaranteed contract on the trade market — witness Luke Ridnour being traded four times this summer before he was cut — it seemed like the smart money would have been on Utah moving on from Booker. But instead the front office stood pat and allowed Booker’s deal to become entirely guaranteed, a non-move that speaks volumes about their positive appraisal of Booker’s play. Would the team pay Booker just so that he could sit behind Lyles?

Also: Lyles doesn’t really profile as a center, so he might not be in the team’s plans whatsoever when it comes to backing up Rudy Gobert. Camp invitee Jeff Withey and just-unearthed stash pick Tibor Pleiss have the size and games of proper centers behind The Stifle Tower.

The small-forward position, which the 6’10” Lyles played last season at Kentucky, is probably where Utah was already deepest. Ingles quickly established himself as a solid backup behind Gordon Hayward, and Basketball-Reference lists Millsap and Rodney Hood as having spent a lot of time at the 3 last season as well.

None of this is news to the Utah front office, which is on a pretty significant hot streak when it comes to acquiring meaningful depth. In the long term, Lyles will likely replace Booker’s minutes, whether Booker is still in Utah or not. I don’t think the team is very concerned about a potential short-term logjam, though, because the Jazz don’t tend to give rookies very many minutes.

There have been six rookies who’ve received regular playing time since Dennis Lindsey joined the team as general manager before the 2012-13 season. Only one of them — Trey Burke, at 32.3 MPG — received more than 25 minutes of playing time a night in their debut season. Last season’s four rookies — Exum, Hood, Millsap and Ingles — all had averages between 19-22 minutes a night, indicating a consistent plan to get their new players on-floor experience without getting overworked.

The Jazz are also not afraid to hardly play a rookie: recall that Gobert only played 9.6 minutes per game in just 45 games, also taking two week-long trips to the D-League. Just because a Jazz player isn’t producing in their rookie year doesn’t mean they’re not on track to have a successful career.

The pattern continues back to when Lindsey was the assistant GM for the San Antonio Spurs, under R.C. Buford, from 2007-12. Over that time span, the Spurs debuted eight rookies who earned consistent playing time, and Kawhi Leonard led the group in nightly minutes as a rookie, with just 24.0. Above-average NBA pros like George Hill (16.5 MPG as a rookie), Tiago Splitter (12.3) and Cory Joseph (9.2 in just 29 games) all started off in very limited roles.

Going back to SLC Dunk’s evaluation of Lyles, the author predicts that Lyles will play 16 minutes per game, and play in just 50 games over the season. I think our first reflex to seeing a lottery pick post those kind of numbers is to ask, “What the heck went wrong?” But even if those predictions overestimate the amount of time Lyles sees the floor — and they just might — I’d bet that coach Quin Snyder will still have Lyles developing right on track.

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