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NBA Rookie Week: Tibor Pleiss of the Utah Jazz and Idaho Stampede -- The NBA's romantic comedy

Who says that Germans can't show their emotions?

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Have you ever watched a romantic comedy? I know this is a sports website, and sports is serious business -- so you may not want to admit to it unless you were brought to one by a spouse or on a date or something. But even though they are now overly formulaic and predictable they are instructive and aren't the worst way to spend 90 minutes. Yes, there are few real surprises with how it's going to end. But you watch anyway. One common theme is that the guy you love and the guy who is available may not be the same guy -- but through a series of inoffensive misunderstandings backed by a generic soundtrack, you may find out that the right guy for you has been right in front of you all this time. Or that, alternatively, never stop going for the person you obsess over and crash their wedding and make a bad first impression with your future in-laws. Either way, Patrick Dempsey and Hugh Grant are in it, and you hate yourself.

I present to you Mr. Romance himself, Tibor Pleiss. No, I didn't finally crack. I'm serious. In the romantic comedy of the Utah Jazz you have to better contextualize Tibor in this light, because no matter what, he's never going to break out of the shadow of Ante Tomic . . . or will he?


At a Glance:

Tibor Pleiss is the bizzaro world Rudy Gobert. Rudy is a 7'2 defensive force from France. Tibor is a 7'3 offensive savant from Germany. That's probably too simple a way to explain it, but Pleiss, or rather, Pleiß is a face-up Euro bigman who is both ridiculously big, and offensively aware. Like a lot of other Euro-Bigs (Arvydas Sabonis, Vlade Divac) he is adept and willing to pass the ball to cutters. He's also solid from the free throw line. And he can spot up from midrange (and beyond) and take a non-jump shot that stretches the defense. He's not prototypical on any of these metrics. He doesn't live at the line and shoot 90% like Dirk Nowitzki. He's not a long-range catapult like Mehmet Okur. And he's not going to lead the league in assists, like Wilt Chamberlain did that one year (1967-1968).

I would argue that a large part of his defensive abilities stem from being 7'3. He blocks shots and gets rebounds mainly because of his size. Similarly on offense he can finish close to the basket and get tip-ins because he's just gigantic. He's not very strong, mobile, athletic, or polished. And at 26 years old the German Octopus may not have many more evolutions to his game. But, and at the risk of repeating myself here, he's a 7'3 dude. And his arms work. He can do the basketballs.



Tibor turned pro in Germany at the ripe old age of 17. And he has now been playing professional for nine years, over three countries (Germany, Spain, United States). Over this time he has played for six different teams, one of which had a franchise re-brand and changed their names. So seven. As a German bigman who can shoot he was on a number of radars all over the world, but he wasn't a star like Dirk, but he also wasn't just hype like Peter Fehse.

He was drafted in 2010, back when he was in Germany with Brose Baskets. However, he wouldn't even get close to the NBA until 2014, when his first contract in Spain expired (then with Saski Baskonia). It wouldn't be until finishing his first year on his second ACB contract (with FC Barcelona) that he decided to Go West and test himself against the best.

No doubt a huge part of that decision was made because, at FC Barca he was coming off the bench behind All-Europe bigman Ante Tomic. Tomic, at 7'2 and infinitely more polished offensively, just signed another long-term deal with Barca this off-season. And Pleiss didn't want to wait another three seasons for a chance to play. This is all very ironic because the Utah Jazz drafted Tomic in 2008 and some fans still hold a candle for him, though he appears to only even mention the Jazz during the FOUR free agency periods he's had since being selected before his next contract has been negotiated. His draft rights are still Jazz property, kind of like that one sweatshirt your ex left at your apartment, four apartment moves ago.

Tomic is the guy we want. And Pleiss had a front-row seat to this one-way relationship for years.

For what it is worth, in his last season in Europe he averaged 5.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 0.6 bpg, while shooting 62.4 FG% in 13.3 mpg over 71 games. European journalists told me that his production wouldn't be hard to replace in free agency.


The NBA Draft and Historical Revisionism:

Our man Pleiss went 31st in the 2010 NBA Draft. He was drafted by the New Jersey Nets, and then traded on draft night to the Atlanta Hawks (along with Jordan Crawford) for Damion James. Then that same night he was sold to the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was on three teams in one day, his first day in the NBA. No wonder he didn't feel wanted and didn't show up until five years later. If we are extending the romantic comedy metaphor, this guy was set up on three bad blind dates and just decided to stop dating and be in the friendzone for five years after that, being the wingman to an attractive jerk who strings along a nice girl.

Picked right after (#21-30): Craig Brackins (OKC), Elliot Williams (POR), Trevor Booker (MIN), Damion James (ATL), Dominique Jones (MEM), Quincy Pondexter (OKC), Jordan Crawford (NJN), Greivis Vasquez (MEM), Daniel Orton (ORL), Lazar Hayward (WAS).

Picked before (#32-42): Dexter Pittman (MIA), Hassan Whiteside (SAC), Armon Johnson (POR), Nemanja Bjelica (WAS), Terrico White (DET), Darington Hobson (MIL), Andy Rautins (NYK), Landry Fields (NYK), Lancy Stephenson (IND), Jarvis Varnado (MIA), Da'Sean Butler (MIA).

Okay, so the 2010 draft was a loo-oong time ago. How long ago was it? It was the same draft that yielded Jazz players Derrick Favors (#3), Gordon Hayward (#9), and Trevor Booker (#23) . . . an then Tibor as the first pick of the 2nd round. Those other three Jazzmen are in their 6th season in the NBA. This is Tibor's 1st.

The top players by Win Shares in the class are Greg Monroe, Paul George, John Wall, Gordon Hayward, and Derrick Favors. (Yes, DeMarcus Cousins is 6th, Sacramento Kings fans.) Tibor is 56th with -0.1 Win Shares for his NBA career. I guess you can easily say he was a reach at #31, but people are always looking for the next Dirk. Whiteside, Fields, and Stephenson are all better players. But on the flipside, he was probably a better pick than some of those late 1st rounders that went ahead of him. I guess that evens out.


Coming to the Jazz:

Tibor, along with then rookie Grant Jerrett, and the husk of Kendrick Perkins (and his expiring contract) where the haul that the Jazz received last trade deadline when they moved Enes Kanter. Kanter, the #3 pick of the 2011 draft, is the best player of that group (unless we include Steve Novak -- then all bets are off). Kanter is a tough Euro bigman with face up range and a back-to-the-basket desire. He's better than Tibor, despite being 4 inches shorter and countless years young. That said, he didn't want to be on this team anymore. In the romantic comedy this is the girl you like breaking up with her ex, while still pining for this other, unobtainable guy. There's an opening . . . but not necessarily for you.

It wasn't until this off-season that the Jazz got a chance to finally meet Tibor. He didn't play for the Summer League team, or the free agent mini-camp. But he was hanging around the team (like Raul Neto) in the off-season getting familiar with the franchise and the new world.

He signed a contract paying him $3 million a year and was therefor on the team, and didn't have to fight for his spot in training camp. (He did have to fight against Jeff Withey, added through free agency, though.) In the pre-season Pleiss played in 6 games, and averaged 2.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, and 0.2 bpg while shooting infrequently and poorly. The American game was more athletic, faster, and more physical than the European one. He could ghost by with his size over there, not as much in the NBA. And despite being a professional since the age of 17, at the age of 26 he wasn't seasoned enough to be a regular rotation player.


The Rookie Year so far:

Tibor has played in 12 games this year, and only for 82 minutes rounded up. That's 6.8 mpg, and he really was only active a) when Rudy Gobert was out with injury, and b) Jeff Withey was on double-secret probation. In his time with the Jazz Pleiss has scored close to the basket, on spot-ups, and gotten defensive rebounds because of his size. His per game averages of 2.0 ppg, 1.3 rpg, and 0.2 bpg don't scare anyone. Worse, his 44.0 FG% as a 7'3 guy isn't too sharp at all, though part of that is because he has failed to hit a three yet this year at the NBA level.

But this season wasn't about his NBA contributions, but rather his NBADL contributions. Frequently assigned and called up only to be assigned again (this is totally a romantic comedy), Pleiss has taken it all in stride. In 20 games for the Idaho Stampede he has averaged a much more normal 31.6 mpg. And honestly, this is the first time -- effectively in his life -- where he's getting big minutes. (Even in his last year in Germany before moving to Spain's ACB he only averaged 19.7 mpg in 2011-2012!)

The results speak for themselves, as he's dropping 12.4 ppg (59.8 FG%, 31.3 3PT%, 87.2 FT%) on fools down there, while collecting a double double with 10.4 rpg. He's also showcasing his all-around game with 1.7 apg, 1.5 bpg, and 0.4 spg while taking about a three a game. Tibor is thriving. It's not as nice as a double double and change in the NBA. But this is really the first time in his life where he's not in someone's shadow. And it's working out.

I mean it.

And it's not just on offense either!

This season is about development. Again. And one guy is really developing this year. It's Tibor.


The Future:

So, on the Jazz at best Tibor is the 4th best center right now behind Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, and Jeff Withey. Can Tibor be the 3rd stringer? I guess the question is how does he compare against Kyrylo Fesenko and Kosta Koufos, right? Both of those guys were bangers, but didn't have the consistent offensive ability that Pleiss shows. Well...

  • The KOOF (age 19): 48 games, 11.8 mpg, 4.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 0.6 bpg, 0.4 apg
  • Fes (age 21): 21 games, 7.8 mpg, 1.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 0.3 bpg, 0.2 apg
  • Mr. Romance (age 26): 26 games, 6.8 mpg, 2.0 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 0.2 bpg, 0.2 apg

Minutes is a big factor here, so let's look at the abstraction of Per 36 minute values:

  • The KOOF: 14.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.0 bpg, 1.3 apg
  • Fes: 7.2 ppg, 12.9 rpg, 1.5 bpg, 1.0 apg
  • Mr. Romance: 10.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 0.9 bpg, 0.9 apg

Clearly when comparing Tibor to these galoots (in the Greg Ostertag archetype) he's going to look less dominant. He's big, but not strong. And he doesn't use his size the way more traditional, physical bigs do. But none of those other guys, those more traditional centers, could do the things that Tibor can do. Part of that is because Tibor was a full-time Euro and developed mostly there. He's also at five to seven years older than those two cats. But he can hit the three and is GREAT at the free throw line. He's also a better passer, even if his numbers with the Jazz don't show that.

I don't know what's in the future for Tibor. But he has skills that our current crop of centers do not have. If Dennis Lindsey and Quin Synder move away from generalists on the bench in favor of specialists then Tibor has a place for sure. I don't know if he has a stable rotation spot on a team that is increasingly going smaller and smaller to match-up with their opponents though.

But the real question is can Tibor make us forget about Ante? That is to be determined. (Do I hear sequel? Woo! Nothing is better than the sequels to romantic comedies! Like, uh, Father of the Bride 2, or Meet the Fockers? Man, very shallow depth in that genre.)