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Utah Jazz PG Injury Crisis: Royce O’Neale, Naz Mitrou-Long to the rescue?

The Utah Jazz are facing a daunting and unique challenge with every one of their point guards out with an injury.

NBA: New York Knicks at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, and Naz Mitrou-Long.

That’s it.

Utah’s guards have been decimated by injuries in just a little over a week’s time. Dante Exum is out two with an ankle injury, Ricky Rubio is out with a hamstring injury, Grayson Allen is out with a right ankle sprain, and, according to the injury report, Raul Neto is out with a hamstring injury as well. If you take a look at Utah’s walking wounded injury list, it takes two tweets to list.

That leaves only three players to cover for 96 minutes. If split evenly, that’s 32 minutes which is exactly why Quin Snyder is going to have to get creative before he turns over 32 minutes to Royce O’Neale who has struggled for much of the season and a two-way player who has never logged an NBA minute that didn’t coincide with garbage time.

What are Utah’s options?

Currently, Utah cannot sign a G-League player until they are able to apply for an injury exception ... which cannot occur until Utah has at least 4 players who have missed time concurrently for 3 games. Thabo Sefolosha and Dante Exum have only missed two, Ricky Rubio with 1, and Raul Neto with zero. (h/t Dan Clayton of Salt City Hoops)

That leaves Utah with Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, and Naz Mitrou-Long. Let’s start with Donovan Mitchell.

Donovan Mitchell at the 1

Donovan Mitchell is going to start at PG tonight unless Grayson Allen’s ankle is magic sprayed back onto the active roster. That’s probably a no. That means Donovan is once again going to play heavy minutes. In his last two contest, Donovan has played 40 minutes and 37 minutes. Donovan will be asked to go the distance again tonight as Utah faces the Lakers which won’t be a lot of fun as he laces it up against a lanky defender in Lonzo Ball.

When Donovan Mitchell plays 38 minutes or more in a game these are his numbers:

25.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.4 apg, 1.4 spg 42% FG% (51.1% 2PT and 29.0% 3PT)

He’s going to get his looks, but his efficiency from beyond the line takes a hit. Utah will need Donovan to be more of a distributor and look for the open man. Teams playing Utah will know if they can stop Donovan while Utah is devoid of other playmakers at guard, they can essentially stop Utah in its tracks.

The struggling surprise from last season

Royce O’Neale’s last season was a fantastic surprise. While it feels like he has been struggling more this season despite shooting better from two (up 4.2%) and from three (up 3.0%), he’s been a turnover machine as Utah early in the season tested his playmaking abilities. That experiement appears to have been scrapped—at least for now—as Utah has put Royce back into his role last season as a spot up shooter, one cut slasher, and primary wing defender.

Unfortunately, Utah doesn’t have the luxury of depth to keep him in that capacity while they’re the walking wounded. That puts Royce O’Neale in a precarious spot. Royce O’Neale has only played 30 minutes or more in a game 7 times. The results were mixed. In three of those games he disappeared, taking only 3 FGs and not taking any offensive pressure off the rest of the offense. In two of those games, he took 8 and 9 FGs and was impressively efficient. His averages—small sample size, I know—aren’t bad:

12.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.6 spg, 60.8% FG (63.9% 2PT and 50% 3PT)

Those are really good numbers. But you have to keep in mind that those numbers are good because in 5 of those games he only took 5 shots or less. Like I said, small sample size doesn’t give us a good outlook. The other issue at hand is while Royce shoots a good percentage from three, teams are going to dare him to shoot. Their hope will be that the moment proves to big for him, he misses a couple early, loses confidence, and clams up.

Utah will benefit from O’Neale’s strong defense which has looked more like last year’s Royce the past couple weeks, but if O’Neale struggles, Utah has no other choice than to scrape the barrel of the roster for someone who isn’t afraid to shoot.

Naz is like

Let’s get this out of the way quickly. Naz Mitrou-Long is not a point guard. He’s a combo guard that leans toward the spectrum of scoring guard. In G-League last season he averaged 14.1 FG per game. This season that number has dipped slightly. He’s a gunner and that’s by design. At the beginning of the season, the Stars’ head coach, Martin Schiller, said his goal for Naz was to become the scorer that he knows he can be. He’s the type of player that needs a high usage to have a good game. Naz’s numbers in the G-League aren’t bad.

17.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 5.1 apg, 44.8% FG (54.7% 2PT and 33.0% 3PT)

In the G-League, he has the luxury of having the ball in his hands for the majority of the game and sharing that responsibility with Isaiah Cousins. If Isaiah Cousins is the Stars’ Ricky Rubio, Naz is their Donovan Mitchell. While that’s great in G-League, that’s not great for a player who might only get limited stints in the NBA. That is ... until now.

Naz Mitrou-Long is going to have the opportunity to play big minutes for the bench unit that is missing Grayson Allen, Dante Exum, Royce O’Neale (assuming he starts), and Raul Neto. Kyle Korver and Jae Crowder are the only threats to score on that unit but they’re off the ball scorers. The Jazz will need someone who can create and Naz is going to get to have his Sundiata Gaines moment. He’ll have the ball in his hands out of absolute requirement rather than design.

There’s one more wrinkle about Naz that we haven’t talked about yet. His size. He’s a 6’4 guard. He has size. While Utah sacrifices significant height at the PG position with Raul Neto as he’s generously listed at 6’1, they won’t do so with Mitrou-Long out there. If we’re being frank, Quin Snyder is not as interested in Naz’s offensive output as he will be his ability to get stops. If Mitrou-Long does his part on defense ... Quin will be a happy camper.

Next men up ... Joe Ingles and George Niang

With Utah down all of its playmakers at point guard, Joe Ingles will once again have to step up in a big way. Another way Utah can fill the gap at PG without letting too much inexperience dominate the floor is by literally going next man up. Quin Snyder could keep O’Neale on the bench to start games and allow him and Naz to be their ball handlers against second units. Then he could put Korver in to start the game with Ingles and Donovan as the primary ball handlers there. This can help them two fold. It gives them more size and shooting.

Utah is then able to space the floor better for Donovan as he’ll be killing for any space with the lack of talent around him when the depleted bench hits the floor. Jae Crowder can get moved up to SF in some situations and Georges Niang can come in and play minutes at the 4. Moving the bench up in this manner (getting bigger) could help Utah keep as much experienced talent on the floor.

George Niang can also provide some playmaking. He can be a Boris Diaw like player when he’s out there on the floor. In G-League last year, Niang averaged 4.2 assists per game. This might open up the opportunity for him to test his Slo-Mo Joe like playmaking in the pick and roll as a ball handler rather than the screener.

Cut a valuable development player

These are all the scenarios Utah has at the moment ... that is if Utah doesn’t want to cut their non-guard two way player Tyler Cavanaugh. Moving on from Cavanaugh who has been impressing with the Stars (15 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.4 apg on 41% 3P%) would be a blow to Utah’s development system, but the Jazz could be in a position to be without their entire guard corps for up to two weeks. Grayson Allen is getting healthier, but asking a rookie who has just recovered from injury to provide meaningful minutes against starter level competition is a tall ask.

If Utah does do that they could target a more true playmaker who is already in their system with the stars: Isaiah Cousins.

As I said, Isaiah Cousins is more the Rubio to Naz’s Mitchell. His numbers in G-League show that:

14.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.6 apg, 1.5 spg, 43.5% FG, 34.4% 3PT

Isaiah Cousins is also a tall guard at 6’4. Utah would not be sacrificing any size at the PG position like with Neto. Cousins is also familiar with being a playmaker on the floor with a big like Rudy Gobert as he has arguably the G-League’s best player in center Willie Reed.

[Sidenote: If Cousins gets a call-up, it’ll make it all the weirder that Reed continues to stay in G-League while less accomplished players get the call before him. Though it is rumored that he has turned down some offers.]

This option of bringing Cousins up has long odds. With Grayson Allen set to return to the lineup shortly and the day to day nature of Raul Neto’s injury, the Jazz will most likely stand pat and try to whether the storm with their forwards and two way players. If the situation gets any worse, however, Utah would be able to apply for the injury exception and not have to risk losing Tyler Cavanaugh as their two way player.