After being anointed as one of the teams expected to make a big leap this season, the Utah Jazz were dealt a devastating blow when Dante Exum tore his ACL in the summer. Exum was expected to be the team’s starting point guard, and Utah was perilously thin at that spot.
Raul Neto was about to enter his first year in the NBA, and Trey Burke had finally found a niche as the change-of-pace guard off the bench. The Jazz decided to start Neto, but knew he couldn’t be the primary playmaker for the starting unit.
So, how has Utah managed to have an offense that sneaks in the top half of the league in efficiency at 15th? It’s been all about the playmaking ability of the wings, and Quin Snyder’s trust that a trio of those playmakers can serve as the functional point guards.
Utah is equipped to handle a thin point-guard situation better than most of the league. With a host of wings who can run the pick-and-roll, the Jazz can afford to have point guards who aren’t great in the pick-and-roll like Neto.
Gordon Hayward came very close to leading the team in assists last year, as his 4.1 almost eclipsed Trey Burke’s 4.3. Hayward is an excellent passer, both out of the pick-and-roll and off drives in a motion offense. And yet, he’s got competition for best passer among the wings.
Rodney Hood took a huge step forward at the end of last season, and he looks even better this season. Hood is currently leading the team with 3.2 assists per game, and although in his second year, he’s shown an advanced understanding of reading the defense for a wing:
On this play, Hood realized that Burke’s man had crashed down to help contain Rudy Gobert and got the ball to the open man. It’s a complex read for a young wing, and the pass has to be early before the defense can recover. Hood passed the test and got his team a good look from deep.
Alec Burks is back from injury to provide another great playmaker on the wing, and after a bit of a tentative start, has started attacking the basket relentlessly. Burks is a great driver who gets especially aggressive when the defense is on its heels:
What makes Burks lethal is his willingness to dish close to the basket. A lot of players look to score almost every time at the rim, but Burks is adept at finding rolling big men when the help comes over.
It also helps that Utah has willing passers in the frontcourt. Gobert in particular is great in the high post, adding tons of value as a man who can find cutters going to the rim:
This play was a simple back cut, but Gobert got it instantly to Hayward on a perfect pass once he dove to the rim. Utah runs this play plenty with Hayward cutting behind Gobert for a handoff, so it’s understandable that the defense expects the same here. Instead, Hayward changed course and got to the rim for a slam.
Utah is still a work in progress on offense, though. After finishing last year 29th in the league in assists, the Jazz are last so far this year at 16.2 per game. This team doesn’t have to be Atlanta or Golden State in terms of assists to be successful, but it can’t expect to sustain a successful offense with that few assists. Utah has plenty of talented players, but isn’t a team built on isolation, and to continue to have success offensively, the team is going to need to squeeze even more assists out of the wing players.
The Jazz took a step forward against Denver on Thursday when they notched 23 assists as a team. The trio of playmaking wings tallied 15 of those, with Burks leading the way with eight. If Burks can continue to be aggressive, Hood continues to develop and Hayward rebounds from an early-season slump, the Jazz should be just fine offensively, even without a playmaking point guard in the starting lineup. Burke offers some bounce off the bench, and the wings and bigs can do most of the job in the pick-and-roll. Losing Exum was a blow, but thanks to the wings, it shouldn’t be a fatal one.