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Raul Neto Making Strong Case for Rotation Minutes

There wasn’t a ton of fanfare when the Utah Jazz signed 2013 second-round pick Raul Neto to a contract this summer. Neto, a native Brazilian, had been quietly stashed away in the Spanish ACB League before Utah signed the now-23-year-old Neto. The deal is a small one, and implies no guarantee of minutes: the contract is three years and $3 million total, and the final year isn’t even guaranteed. Neto hadn’t played with the team except for a few brief appearances in the 2013 Summer League, and fellow camp competitor Bryce Cotton already appeared with the NBA team last season, backing up 2013 lottery pick Trey Burke at the point.

Through three preseason games, it sure looks like Neto will be opening the season as a nightly member of the rotation: he’s played 20 minutes in each of Utah’s three games, while Cotton has only appeared in one contest. Neto’s per-game stat line so far goes a long way in illustrating his strengths — and limitations — as a player: in those 20 minutes a night, Neto is averaging 3.6 points, 3.6 assists, 1.6 steals and an offensive rebound. His high-energy performance in his first career NBA preseason game actually merited a highlight reel:

To put it bluntly, Neto will be entering the season with one of the worst individual offensive games in the league. So far, he’s shot just 23.5 percent from the field, including 1-for-7 from behind the arc. This isn’t necessarily out of character, either: in two of his four seasons in Spain, Neto finished the season with below-25 percent accuracy on three-point shots. Playing with familiar teammates may be more important to Neto than to other players: in his 14 career appearances with the Brazilian national team, Neto has shot 59.3 percent from the field and 41.7 percent on three-point shots, although those percentages may be subject to the small sample size caveat.

What makes Neto such a compelling player is his clear ability in nearly every other facet of the game. As is clear from the video above, Neto’s tenacious and bothersome defense causes problems for opponents who aren’t entirely focused. Neto’s active hands and focused energy were clearly positives for a Utah front office that monitored Neto from abroad.

Neto’s most defining strength as a player, though, is almost certainly his passing. A remarkable amount of Neto’s sterling assists in Spain came from a pretty static offense — Neto is usually providing the one and only pass that leads to an open and successful shot:

In some ways, it’s actually plausible to see Neto as a viable member of Utah’s starting lineup. With established playmakers Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors already in the lineup, it can sometimes feel like incumbent starter Burke’s frequent shots are taking away more efficient opportunities elsewhere. As a player who doesn’t require shots to be successful, it’s possible that Neto could actually be a really great complement to the starting unit.

The obvious downside to including Neto in the starting lineup is that Utah’s first five would be one of the least-skilled three-point-shooting units in the league. Favors and Rudy Gobert are at home in the key, and opponents will be tempted to leave Neto alone until when and if he establishes a higher-percentage stroke. However: smart passes move faster than the defense, so perhaps the Jazz could overcome those spacing issues with the kind of sharp, selfless basketball they’ve been playing so far this season.

Regardless of whether or not Neto is a starter, I do feel comfortable predicting that he’ll receive at least 15 minutes of playing time each night. I feel comfortable saying that because of how Utah coach Quin Snyder handled the play of Elijah Millsap last season. A midseason pick-up, Millsap finished 10th on the team in total minutes despite appearing in just 47 contests as a 27-year-old rookie. What’s more: Millsap’s elite wing defense was balanced out with a near-invisible offensive game. Among players who appeared in at least half of last season’s 82 games, Millsap finished with the fourth-worst offensive rating, per Basketball-Reference.com.

And yet, he got minutes! Even more surprising: the Jazz improved by five points per 100 possessions when Millsap was on the floor last season, compared to when he was off it. Although the Jazz scored less when Millsap played, their opponents went from averaging 107 points per 100 possessions all the way down to 99.1. Millsap’s defense was that good — he really helped this team.

Seeing as Snyder wasn’t afraid to consistently play one of the league’s weakest offensive players in Millsap, I think Neto’s defensive ability and superlative passing skills will comfortably earn him a spot in the team’s rotation. Whether a starter or a reserve, it’s already looking like Neto’s $1M contract for this season is a gigantic bargain.

Neto international stats via RealGM

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