A few weeks ago, before the preseason started, I attempted to predict how much playing time Utah Jazz lottery pick Trey Lyles would receive in his rookie year. I thought that, for 2015-16 at least, Jazz coaches would focus on giving Lyles an NBA education without necessarily giving him a ton of in-game experience. If Lyles’s preseason minutes are any indication, my own speculations now appear too conservative: he played in six of Utah’s seven preseason games, averaging 16 minutes per. That’s a healthy rotation spot in an already-deep roster.
What I didn’t see coming — and the Jazz probably didn’t anticipate this themselves — is that Lyles would post some of the best defensive statistics on the team this preseason. According to stats from NBA.com, Lyles finished fourth on the team in preseason Defensive Rating at 91.8, trailing defense-first guards Raul Neto (89.0) and Elijah Millsap (87.9), with the Jazz being led by veteran post presence Derrick Favors (86.5).
While Neto is an NBA rookie and Millsap is entering just his second NBA season, those players are 23 and 28, with a combined decade-plus of professional basketball experience under their belts (Neto in Brazil and Spain and Millsap in Israel, the Philippines and the NBDL). Lyles is 19 years old, about to turn 20 in a few weeks, and he has just one year of experience past high school, as a rotational player at the University of Kentucky. How has he managed to come out of the gate playing excellent defense for an already-excellent defensive team?
The Utah front office appears to be due for another heap of credit in selecting Lyles, as he’s one of the very rare (but increasingly popular) players who transcends positions. As was frequently discussed during draft season, Lyles played as a small forward in Kentucky’s loaded rotation — even though he stands 6’10”. While that positional switch might have obscured Lyles’s true talents in the NCAA (and, ironically, allowed him to fall to Utah’s #12 pick), it’s already clear that he has both the speed and the size to play either in the key or on the perimeter. To put it another way: Lyles will probably never enter an NBA game holding the weaker hand in a positional matchup. The Jazz will never need to worry about helping the youngster cover his defender — as he’s already capable and able to provide timely help defense.
Here’s a look at how Lyles disrupted multiple possessions in last week’s preseason loss against the Portland Trail Blazers. In this first possession, Lyles was guarding veteran power forward Ed Davis on the top of the key. Note how Lyles monitored his man while also keeping eyes on the ball, where Millsap got out of position after nearly securing a steal:
Portland guard C.J. McCollum saw a wide-open lane to the hoop, but Lyles anticipated and slid over to defend the gap:
With his driving lane cut off, McCollum sent the ball back to Davis, no doubt hoping Lyles wouldn’t be able to keep up with the speed of the pass. But the rookie recovered and forced Davis into a low-percentage long jumper that missed:
Lyles’s lateral speed is a huge asset, as he (and his coaches) aren’t afraid to intentionally switch onto a guard in the pick-and-roll. A few minutes later, Lyles was guarding Noah Vonleh, who entered into a pick-and-roll with McCollum. Look at how Lyles anticipated a McCollum drive:
McCollum did drive, but it’s evident that, unlike most 6’10” players, Lyles wasn’t helplessly stuck on an island. Lyles not only stuck with McCollum but caused a deflection that resulted in a broken Portland possession:
My favorite play from Lyles in this game came against none other than Damian Lillard. It was the third quarter and Lillard entered into a pick-and-roll with Davis. Again, Lyles sagged back, anticipating the drive:
Instead of freaking out because he’s a rookie guarding a $125 million man, Lyles used the incredibly savvy strategy of using the out-of-bound lines as his help defenders. He funneled Lillard into the corner, where the All-Star became trapped against a defender he couldn’t shoot over:
Lillard’s panicked pass out of the trap led his teammate out of bounds — Lyles doesn’t get credit for a steal on the play, but he definitely created the turnover with his positional versatility and reflexive intelligence.
It’s not that Lyles is a finished player — a 42.4 percent accuracy from the field this preseason points to a lack of consistency so far on the offensive end. However, intelligent plays like these certainly make it feel like the Jazz won’t play Lyles to make sure he develops, but rather that they’ll play him because he helps them as a contending team.