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2018 Utah Jazz Preseason: What exactly did we learn?

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Sure, it’s preseason, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get carried away with what we saw. Let the extrapolation begin!

NBA: Preseason-Utah Jazz at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that was fun.

This month, the Utah Jazz torched their way through a 5-0 preseason that saw them win each game by an average of 30.6 points, good for a Net Rating of 27.6 (first in the NBA). They shot 50.9 percent from the field (first) and 42.1 percent from three (first). They averaged nearly 30 assists per game (first) and just over 15 threes (third) and 50 rebounds (fifth).

According to just about any objective standard, Utah’s preseason was a rousing success. But, ah yes, it was indeed the preseason. And two of the five opponents weren’t even NBA teams. Take out the Australian NBL squads the Jazz demolished and that point differential drops to 21.7, and even that has a lot to do with the dreadful Sacramento Kings.

So, as we analyze an enjoyable preseason, just bear those massive caveats in mind.

Inflated numbers aside, though, there still may be some worthwhile observations.

PLAYER OBSERVATIONS

  • Dante Exum only appeared in three games (knee soreness kept him out of the other two), but the bulk of his minutes came against NBA competition. His handle on the ball still looks a bit loose at times, but his playmaking was generally better than we’ve ever seen. Exum has long been able to get to the paint whenever he wants. And in the past, that often meant getting there with seemingly no purpose in mind. This preseason, he did a good job of slowing down in the lane, reading the defense and making the right play. The bigs are going to enjoy stalking the baseline or trailing Exum when he drives this season.
  • Ekpe Udoh scored on a post move! Granted, it was against the Kings, but it seemed to be a pretty good indication of some increased aggression from Udoh on the offensive end. Barring injury, he isn’t likely to play a ton of minutes, but there’s a strong case to be made for Udoh being the NBA’s best third-string center.
  • Grayson Allen sold me on Grayson Allen. In the Summer League, it was his patience and playmaking. In the preseason, his shooting has me thinking he could be in the rotation as early as opening night. The jumper is reminiscent of Gordon Hayward’s, in the sense that (1) it seems relaxed; (2) there isn’t a lot of wasted motion; and (3) it looks about the same whether off the dribble or the catch. Shooting and playmaking are critically important these days, and Allen can do both.
  • Jae Crowder is still struggling to make shots. And yet, the magic of those Crowder-at-the-4 lineups remains largely in place. Most people point to the added switchability and the mere threat of a three for the dominance of those groups, and rightfully so. But I maintain that just that little extra bit of playmaking helps too. No, Crowder isn’t Magic Johnson out there, but he can give you the occasional drive, draw and dish.
  • Joe Ingles continues to set a high standard for the American Joe Ingles, Stephen Curry. In Utah’s second preseason game, against the Toronto Raptors, Ingles put up 24 points on 15 shots in 24 minutes. Now that he has a full season as a starting small forward in the NBA under his belt, I wonder if he’ll be more comfortable taking over the scoring load from time to time.
  • Derrick Favors is making threes. OK, he’s only 2-of-3, but still. If he’s going to force defenses to cover him all the way out to the corners, Utah should be able to get away with longer stretches of Wasatch Front-ball. And as anyone who’s paid attention to this team over the last couple years knows, the Jazz are ridiculously tough to score on with both Favors and Rudy Gobert are on the floor.
  • Donovan Mitchell is still figuring out this whole efficiency thing. And that’s fine. Utah’s Net Rating was better with him on the floor last season, despite his below-league-average True Shooting Percentage. The attention he commands on offense just makes life so much easier for everyone else. But once he does get that number up around .560 to .570, oooh boy.
  • Rudy Gobert is a monster. And I’m still not sure many NBA fans realize just how much of a monster he is. The first dunk in this highlight reel (around the 40-second mark) from Utah’s demolition of the Kings is impressive. There just aren’t many players who can turn a high-low entry pass from that angle into an alley-oop dunk. Hopefully, he gets two or three more lobs a game sent his way this season.
  • Alec Burks is not ready to go “gentle into that good night.” In the last 12 months, we’ve now seen three stretches of really encouraging basketball from him. (1) This 10-game stretch from November-December; (2) the 2018 postseason; and (3) this preseason. If he could ever combine runs like that into something more consistent, he’d be a heck of a bench scorer. And for a team that sometimes lacked straight-up bucket-getting last season, Burks could take some pressure off Mitchell.
  • Ricky Rubio will have some competition for minutes this season, especially if his preseason shooting is a harbinger of another slow start. As you can see, he was the only Jazz player this preseason to log at least 50 minutes and fail to post a True Shooting Percentage above 50. And while he does a ton beyond scoring, he almost looked unplayable when the shot wasn’t falling for nearly three months last season. Exum offers more versatility as a defender, and Allen appears to be a more reliable shooter. If Rubio can’t find his post-All Star-break self, both may encroach on his role.
  • Georges Niang may force his way onto the floor this season. The guy can shoot, create for others a little bit and position himself well as a defender and rebounder. And oh, hey, sneaky athleticism alert! He may not be as good as Crowder or Thabo Sefolosha defensively, but he might be good enough on the other end to make up for that. The super-slow, super-savvy forward combo of Ingles and Niang is gonna catch a couple teams by surprise this season.
  • Royce O’Neale is a Swiss Army knife. As you can see in the table above, he didn’t do much shooting this preseason, but he showed off all the other skills that make him so solid. He provides value in a bunch of counting stats (rebounds, assists, steals, and generally, threes), but he may shine brightest in the area of the game that’s still most difficult to measure. O’Neale’s on-ball defense is going to be crucial in a bunch of games this season.
  • Thabo Sefolosha, like Rubio, may be in danger of losing some minutes to younger guys. Prior to his injury in January, Sefolosha was one of Utah’s only rotation players who was a clear plus-minus positive. But the stunning Jazz ascent toward the end of the season happened without him. And with the depth all over the roster pushing Crowder and Sefolosha exclusively to the 4, playing time will be scarce. For Sefolosha (and maybe Crowder too), just being solid this preseason may not be enough to secure 2017-18’s role.

TEAM OBSERVATIONS

  • Three-pointers are going to be a huge part of this team’s offense. Among the 338 players who logged at least 50 preseason minutes, Utah has five of the top 50 (and six of the top 52) in three-point attempts per 36 minutes. Ingles is eighth on that list. As a team, the Jazz are fifth in three-point attempts per game. They were 13th last season.
  • The pace of play should be faster in 2018-19. In this preseason, Utah finished sixth in average possessions per game, at just under 109. In 2017-18, their 96.7 possessions ranked 25th. This one comes with a little caution, though, as the 2017 preseason saw the Jazz play at an above-average pace as well.
  • Assists are way up. As I mentioned up top, the 29.8 assists Utah’s averaging leads all teams this preseason. Over Quin Snyder’s first four seasons with the Jazz, the team has ranked 21st, 28th, 28th and 29th, respectively, in assists per game. So far in 2018, there seems to be a lot more freedom for guys like Exum, Ingles and Rubio to drive and dish than there was in the past.
  • The starting lineup may need some time to get going again. Last season, it took till the end of January for the Rubio/Mitchell/Ingles/Favors/Gobert group to figure it out. The hope is that a whole year together should help them avoid another slow start. But Gobert, Mitchell and Rubio all had negative plus-minuses in the first half against the Toronto Raptors on October 2. Toronto didn’t play its main guys in the second half, which did a lot to rehab those plus-minuses. Then, on October 7, Mitchell was minus-10, Gobert was minus-20 and Rubio was minus-21. The Jazz won both of those games, but they provided a little cause for concern.

FINE PRINT
Again, take all of the above with the necessary allotment of salt. It’s the preseason. But this is when we can all indulge the eye test a little bit. And the Jazz gave plenty of reason for optimism.

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or ESPN.
Andy Bailey covers the NBA for SLC Dunk and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@AndrewDBailey) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R’s Dan Favale.