Ochai Agbaji has had a whirlwind of a first season. Drafted in the lottery to Cleveland, shipped off to Utah just before the season, and seeing irregular time at the NBA and G-League levels have certainly kept him off balance in trying to find his way.
However, the past four games have brought some unexpected stability in which he’s played 7 or more minutes in every game and 17 or more in the latter three. That’s only happened one other time in late October, which featured a blowout loss in Denver and a blowout win vs Memphis.
Agbaji has made the most of his time, especially in the weekend matchup with the Chicago Bulls where he set a career high in points with 19 on perfect 7/7 shooting.
Just four games in, we’re left wondering how to make sense of this stretch. Is it real? Is Ochai everything we thought he was? Is he a rotation lock now? Or, is it just a good stretch that will ultimately return to rookie struggles?
Let’s take a look at various areas of this four game stretch and what if anything) we can take away from his performance.
The shooting gets people excited because the three ball is a dominant feature of today’s game. Ochai attempted 12 threes, making 7 over the past four games. That’s a dramatic uptick from his 5-21 in sporadic intervals earlier this season.
You may remember a piece soon after the trade for Agbaji here on SLC Dunk that dug into his high school and collegiate career as a shooter. Outside of a stellar senior season, Ochai wasn’t anything to write home about as a shooter in college. In high school, he saw decent percentages from both the 3P and foul line.
Honestly, a 7-12 stretch demonstrates almost nothing. He could have gone 12-12 or 0-12 and frankly our opinion shouldn’t have been swayed either way. You look at players who have dome something similar in a 4 game stretch of their first year, you’ll find players ranging from Jerami Grant to Justin Jackson, Chase Budinger to Jayson Tatum, John Jenkins to Denzel Valentine.
In short, anyone could go hot or cold; our evaluation of Ochai’s 4 game stretch should not include any takeaways relating to his 3P shooting.
Other Box Stats
If we look at performance in some of the other box score stats, we may get a sense for if Ochai has developed or focused in other areas since his stretches early this year.
- Rebounds per possession are down 43%
- He’s gotten four assists all year, one in the last four games
- He’s gotten one steal the whole year, zero in the last four games
- He’s logged zero blocks all season
- His usage is down 26%
These results also point to just how small a sample this four game stretch and his entire rookie year is. The numbers don’t necessarily demonstrate good or bad but just how little there is across the board.
A lot of the above is a function of playing with better players and in a more structured hierarchy. This means he’s less featured and demanded of on both ends. This fact applies to our next section, as well.
The advanced metrics we generally like to use (RAPTOR or EPM) won’t help us in this situation given Ochai has played so little and the benefits of these metrics to normalize performance for external variables won’t work.
We’re left to look at raw plus-minus.
In Ochai’s time prior to the Jan. 3rd game vs Sacramento, the Jazz were a -10.4 per 100 poss with Agbaji on the floor. Not all that unsurprising; a lot of late games, playing with poor lineups, and little structure or expectations.
In Ochai’s time since and including Jan. 3rd, the Jazz have been a -0.8 per 100 poss with Agbaji on the floor. Again, not too surprising; time earlier in the game, high leverage moments, better lineups, a lot of structure and expectations.
Again, not much to take from these numbers other than Agbaji wasn’t a disaster.
The Eye Test
When samples are too small to shed any light whatsoever, the eye test is our only recourse. But don’t kid yourself into thinking it’s foolproof; many an NBA scout has been burned by buying into flashes without accounting for the other 95% the player does.
Let’s dig into some film from the week that was so perfectly put together by Jazz superfan McCade Pearson:
He made them pay, and that is a good thing, but there is nothing worthwhile there moving forward.— ❌cCade Pearson (@McCadeP8) January 8, 2023
We have however, seen Ochai do stuff we haven't seen yet this season. This is by faaaaaaar the best assist of his career. Great positioning and timing to hit Vando for the layup. pic.twitter.com/kDsgl2ZAbp
Here in the Bulls game, Ochai has already hit a couple 3’s. Certainly the temptation is to force the issue a little (aka a “heat check”). Instead he makes a good decision given the defensive coverage to pump fake and circle around. He kept his eyes out and found a cutting Jarred Vanderbilt.
That’s a play that demonstrates in an NBA game with real minutes that he could blossom into that 3D&D guy.
Ochai has also shown some value as a cutter over the last few games. This is what got his offense started on Thursday night, again he takes a great angle to go get the ball and then finishes strong at the rim. pic.twitter.com/cNAj2iTITm— ❌cCade Pearson (@McCadeP8) January 8, 2023
Ochai has also cut more frequently in this stretch than previous. Not only does it seem he knows more where to be to compliment the other players but is showing that intentional movement at the right time contributes to gravity.
Cutting is a tell-tale sign of IQ. Ochai shows potential there.
Now let's talk defense. He was drafted with a 3&D floor and the defense--as is for most undersized rookies--hasn't been great. He has played pretty small thus far. Here he just gets bullied in the fast break. pic.twitter.com/BAvFMI2get— ❌cCade Pearson (@McCadeP8) January 8, 2023
Ochai does a good job staying in front of Tate on this play, but once Tate gets back under control, he gets off the jumper without any issue. Ochai has to play bigger and can't let this happen against players his same height. pic.twitter.com/m5AjixVzoh— ❌cCade Pearson (@McCadeP8) January 8, 2023
In general, the defense is rough. He gets caught on NBA counters, dies on screens, and seems to underestimates the size, speed, and athleticism of the league. He is active and engaged, but lacks the habits to be impactful here. He does have the right tools which affords him the benefit of the doubt with development.
Ochai has certainly had a good four game stretch. and it’s refreshing to see some good signs after months of limited playing time and mixed results. His development as a late lottery pick and peripheral piece to the trade of Donovan Mitchell is an underrated wrinkled to Utah’s hope of quickly returning to championship contention.
However, when digging into all of the major elements to the four game stretch indicates there’s little substance to be truly excited about from a development standpoint.
Sure, he could stick in the rotation or continue to be another piece in the revolving door like Talen Horton-Tucker, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Simone Fontecchio.
Fter all, Horton-Tucker has scored 19 points this year, Alexander-Walker has dropped beautiful dimes, and Fontecchio has rained from deep a handful of games. All of them have seen multi-game stretches on the bench and on the floor.
Let’s keep evaluating, especially with the eye test and without factoring in the wild 3P swings. Hopefully he sticks long enough to rack up the minutes so the data can begin to validate or challenge our observations.
For now, let’s enjoy the good Ochai accomplishes without worrying to much about whether he sticks in the rotation. He’s just really entertaining right now alongside the amazing accomplishments on Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler.