If you haven’t really watched the Utah Jazz this season, you’ve probably heard about them. You’ve probably heard about Donovan Mitchell, the electrifying Rookie of the Year candidate who has swooned NBA fans across the country with the dazzling dunks and flashy euro-step scoop shots. You’ve probably heard about Rudy Gobert, the Defensive Player of the Year candidate and how much he has impacted the Jazz since his return from injury. You’ve probably heard about Joe Ingles, who now hold the franchise record for most threes made in a season in Utah Jazz history.
These three players; Mitchell, Gobert, and Ingles, have been the headlines of the Utah Jazz season. They are who is being talked about by national NBA writers in insightful articles and savvy tweets. These three players have all had incredible seasons, and have the Jazz right smack-dab in the middle of the playoff hunt fighting for a spot and positional advantages.
But if you have really watched the Utah Jazz this season, you know that there have been plenty of other contributors to the team’s successes. You might already know that Raul Neto leads the team in on/off court net rating. You might already be familiar with the Jazz’s best lineups, and which ones cost them points in critical games.
Whether you have watched the Jazz or not this season, there is an interesting story lying in this Utah Jazz season. And even though the most important, and most talked about storylines include Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Joe Ingles, you are going to get a different one that doesn’t include any of them. This story stars some other Jazz players. The guys that might not get headlines written about them on ESPN, or won’t have any cool graphics made for them on Bleacher Report with something they have said or done. This story is about the Utah Jazz role players, or as I like to call them, the Utah Jazz Battle Squad.
The Battle Squad
You might ask why or how I came up with the nickname for the Utah Jazz role players. I chose this name because, A- it sounds very cool, and B- I think it fits nicely with the mindset of the players I’m about to discuss. These guys just battle. Night in and night out, they go to war for their team. They might not score 20 points a night, maybe not even all combined, but they scratch, and they claw, they sweat, and they hustle for their squad, doing whatever is asked of them to get a W. They fit into the system that has been built by Dennis Lindsey and Quin Snyder. A system that has brought the Jazz franchise back into the realms of NBA relevancy, and resurrected a sense of hope in a franchise that was bleeding heavily last summer. These guys are the heart and soul of this team, and I’m about to give them some recognition that they deserve.
Ricky Rubio has had a very intriguing year for the Jazz this season. After coming into the organization via trade this offseason, many had high hopes for Rubio in the Utah system. Some thought that Rubio would have career-high numbers in assists as a pass-first point guard that the Jazz hadn’t seen for several years. But the season has gone differently that many expected for Rubio.
Rubio got off to a blazing start to the season offensively, but it didn’t really translate to Jazz wins as the team got off to a slow start. As the season progressed, Rubio worked through some inconsistency issues, and is now having the best offensive season of his career, averaging nearly 13 points on 40 percent shooting and 46 percent effective FG percent. Even though Rubio’s assists numbers are at a career low, he commands the Jazz offense and has them playing well at the most important part of the season.
Rubio’s storyline with the Jazz is a crucial one, because his scoring has had an insane impact on whether or not the Jazz win games. In games this season when Ricky Rubio scores more than 20 points, the Jazz are 11-2. In games in which Rubio fails to score at least 10 points, the Jazz are 10-17. It seems that when Rubio is confident and his shot is falling, the entire Jazz team follows suite. Rubio is a critical part of the Jazz playoff hopes, and so much of their success depends on if he can hit that 15-foot jumper in the pick-and-roll.
But where Rubio makes quite possibly his biggest impact on this team is with his heart. By watching the Jazz, you might notice that rarely does anyone play with as much vigor as Ricky Rubio. Picking up guards in the backcourt, poking out loose balls, hustling for scrappy rebounds, and setting/getting through screens are just some things that Ricky does so well, so hard, and so much night in and night out.
His scrappy (or pesky if you’re playing against) manner of play has gotten in the heads of some players recently, which has ended up in some dirty plays and heated encounters.
Both of these incidents were a result of Rubio’s “hustle” if you will. Trying to push the pace up the floor after a great defensive possession in one, and trying to take advantage of an airball dunk in the other. If you don’t see why Ricky Rubio is a big part of the heart and soul of this team, watch out fast his teammates come to defend him after he’s knocked to the floor.
If you could summarize Ricky Rubio’s heart and impact into one play this season, it came on January 26 in Toronto. Just two days after getting his eye stitched up after taking an inadvertent elbow in Detroit, Rubio hit the game-winning three-pointer with seconds remaining to steal a clutch win on the road.
With his eye still a little swollen and bruised, he took a pass from Donovan Mitchell on the left wing and sank a three. So many things made this one of my favorite moments of this season. You can hear the “DEFENSE” chants sounding in the crowd as the clock ticks down. After Rubio’s shot goes up, he holds his arm in the air, wrist flicked down like a boss. The bench is pumped. But my favorite thing about this moment is Rubio’s face after he sinks the dagger.
As chaos sets in around him, Rubio is calm. He’s cool. He just destroyed your team with one flick of the wrist. Meanwhile, he just sports this little smirk looking around almost as if he’s saying “I’m here b***hes”. This play was a turning point for the Jazz season, and it encompasses Rubio’s ability, heart, and grind mindset in one moment.
Just by looking at Jae Crowder you should have known he was going to be in the Jazz Battle Squadron. Crowder is, in every way, built for battle. Since coming to the Jazz via trade, Jae Crowder has helped the Jazz to a 15-4 record. The Jazz are an undefeated 10-0 when Crowder scores more than 12 points. Crowder’s offense has come in handy off the bench, and his defense has been stout as expected.
Jae Crowder is part of the Jazz’s most effective lineup that they have put on the floor this season. When Crowder is on the floor with Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio, and Donovan Mitchell, they sport an offensive rating of 113.5, a defensive rating of 85.7 (!!!) for a net rating of 27.8 (!!!!!!!). This is the number one rated 5-man lineup for defensive and net rating for qualified lineups that have played more than 150 minutes together. That is insane. Think of the great lineups the NBA sees in today’s game. None of them are better than this lineup that sports Jae Crowder.
Crowder also seems to bring an ‘enforcer’ mentality with the Utah Jazz. In the video of Ricky Rubio mentioned above, Crowder literally comes flying into the picture at Jeff Teague after the cheap shot. I don’t know about most Jazz fans, but it was very refreshing to see someone run to the aid of a teammate backing him up. It wasn’t that Crowder wanted to fight Teague (maybe he did, I don’t know), but he was there. He wasn’t about to let someone knock his teammate down without him letting them know it wasn’t cool with him. Following this altercation, Jae Crowder tweeted a response to Jimmy Butler’s take on the situation, in what turned out to be a pretty monumental piece of internet in Crowder’s short tenure with the Jazz.
I DONT TWITTER BEEF ILL LEAVE THAT TO U.. BUT U GOT MY PHONE NUMBER AND KNOW MY HOME ADDRESS..!! THE REST CAN BE HISTORY https://t.co/FGDRYnYyg5— JAE CROWDER (@CJC9BOSS) March 3, 2018
Jae Crowder doesn’t back down. He hasn’t even been a Jazzman for two months yet, but with the way he has gelled with the team, fans and organization, it’s not crazy to think that he might be here for a long time.Plus, It’s always nice having a big buff dude with dreads on your squad too, that’s an added bonus.
Last, but certainly not least on the Jazz Battle Squad is Royce O’Neale. Unclaimed and undrafted, Royce has proven this season that he can hold his own in the NBA. After spending two seasons in professional basketball outside of the US, O’Neale was brought in by Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey after his wizard senses were most definitely tingling.
O’Neale’s impact on the Jazz this season has been quiet, yet very impactful. He doesn’t do anything that’s too flashy, but his solid ‘three and D’ role has given the Jazz some added depth and versatility at multiple positions. When O’Neale is on the court, the Jazz have a net rating differential of 8.4, which is second-most on the entire team behind Raul Neto. This basically translates into the Jazz being simply a better team when O’Neale is on the floor, vs when he is not. The Jazz are 9-1 in games in which O’Neale plays at least 21 minutes, and are 10-4 when he scores at least 8 points.
The undrafted rookie out of Baylor might earn himself a living off of deflections, strips, rebounds, and tough contested rebounds. This single clip represents what O’Neale is about. The crafty steal, the hustle, and the flush in his opponents eye.
O’Neale is a workhorse who has proven to be worthy of his opportunity in the NBA. Dennis Lindsey may have found his next diamond in the rough. Given an even bigger opportunity and some increased development and skill work, Royce O’Neale might be on his way to being the next Wes Matthews. Either way, he makes the Jazz a better team, and we definitely haven’t seen his best just yet.
As the Jazz go to battle for a playoff spot these next couple of weeks, the squadron will be on alert. These players have worked hard all season for this chance to get into the playoffs. Whether you notice or not, the Jazz Battle Squad will continue to be a large part of the Jazz successes. Hopefully not just right now as this season comes to a close, but for many years to come.
stats courtesy of NBA.com and basketball-reference.com