Near the start of the Utah Jazz preseason schedule, I wondered if Brazilian rookie Raul Neto would actually be a better fit in the starting lineup than third-year player Trey Burke:
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.
Although my commentary then was purely speculative, especially since Neto started only two of Utah’s seven preseason games, Neto actually has been the starting point guard for each of the team’s first three regular-season games. And so far, the experiment has been going wonderfully. Head coach Quin Snyder has also made another unforeseen change to the starting lineup: instead of playing alongside Alec Burks in the backcourt, Neto has been joined at the opening tip by Rodney Hood.
What’s important to remember here is that a team doesn’t always — and perhaps shouldn’t always — start their best five players. It’s not that Neto has suddenly become a greater all-around player than Burks or Burke. Given the NBA experience and individual scoring prowess that both Burks and Burke possess, they remain more versatile players than Neto. But Neto’s specific skill set not only works more cohesively with the rest of the starting lineup — the ball-dominant Burks/Burke duo also works more cohesively with the rest of Utah’s bench unit. By starting Neto and bringing Burks/Burke off the bench, Utah’s prime scoring talents are spread evenly across the game’s 48 minutes, meaning the team is less prone to fall into a dry spell — plus the team’s top scorers are now less likely to take shots away from one another.
A huge concern about Neto’s game over the offseason was his apparent lack of range. In four seasons of European play, Neto had just 29.6 percent accuracy on three-pointers. What may actually be the case about Neto’s scoring prowess is that he has a very low accuracy on contested shots that he must create on his own. Thanks to video box scores from NBA.com, we can watch all five of Neto’s three-point attempts through the team’s first three games in a row. I think there are two very encouraging things about Neto’s shots, one more obvious than the other. The obvious positive is that Neto has drained four of those shots, for an outrageous (and, alas, unsustainable) 80 percent accuracy. The less obvious positive is that Neto doesn’t dribble on any of the plays: he’s simply catching and shooting wide-open shots off of tremendous passes from driving teammates.
Because Neto is playing alongside established, team-leading scorers in Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, he can afford to be selective. Because he can afford to be selective, Neto has the best chance of posting a positive shooting percentage.
What’s certainly discouraging is Neto’s 1-for-11 start on two-point shots. That’s right, Neto is shooting 9.1 percent on two-point shots and 80 percent on three-point shots! But as we can see from video of his 0 percent effort against the Indiana Pacers, Neto’s two-pointers look completely different than his three-pointers: Neto is taking the ball himself off of broken possessions, frantically getting a shot away against the expiring shot clock.
A more talented individual offensive player — perhaps like Burks/Burke — would almost certainly have drained a few more of those shots. But given Neto’s tenacious defense, given his three-point shooting, given his two assists per every turnover so far, I feel comfortable measuring that minus against the many pluses that Neto is bringing to the Jazz in what is so far a fantastic rookie season.