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Passing talent should be a top priority in the upcoming NBA draft

Utah’s young core in Markkanen and Kessler benefit tremendously from talented passers and the Jazz would do well to make such a priority during the upcoming draft.

Scoot Henderson Private Workout
Scoot Henderson is often seen as the consolation prize in the 2023 draft for the team who misses on Victor Wembanyama, but he’s actually the poster child of several talented passers in the draft
Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

This season the Utah Jazz are conducting a grand experiment; phase 1 is complete and now we enter phase 2.

Phase 1 was about seeing what the team had in the roster overhaul that came about from the star trades this offseason. The Jazz even traded for Kelly Olynyk in controversial fashion, believing that balancing the roster would be the best way to conduct the study.

Utah discovered two core pieces in Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler that would be staples of the next championship team. The deadline trade that sent four rotation players to the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves was a signal that phase 1 was complete.

Phase 2 is about two initiatives: 1) can other pieces already on the roster prove themselves as complimentary pieces going forward, and 2) what are the idea pieces surrounding this new core?

Utah Jazz v Sacramento Kings
Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler are clearly the future, but what is the recipe therearound that would form a title team?
Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s difficult to say how quickly the team can get clarity on #1. However, it’s pretty apparent immediately that one of the requisite skills to maximize Lauri and Walker is passing.

It’s no secret the Jazz played their best with Mike Conley on the floor, their best passer. The team shot 59.4% true shooting and averaged 28 assists per 100 possessions when he was on the court. Those figured dropped to 58.6% and 24, respectively, without Mike.

Kelly Olynyk is a talented passer as well. When on the court (with Conley sat out) the team makes 62.5% true shooting and averages 27 assists per 100 possessions. When he sits, those figures drop to 57.5% and 22, respectively.

Passing is a basic skill required of every player at some point and needed by every team. But the Jazz are especially needful of talented passers.

Both Markkanen and Kessler require good passers around them to facilitate the high percentage looks they’re so adept at finishing. 75.7% of Lauri’s made shots came off assists and 66.3% for Walker (both figures would be higher if offensive rebounds were excluded).

Houston Rockets v Utah Jazz
Kelly Olynyk advances the ball for the Utah Jazz
Photo by Jeff Swinger/NBAE via Getty Images

Looking at the league, wins are associated with higher assist figures than losses and the same is true with the Jazz. Utah does appear to be more assist dependent than an average team when looking at the distributions.

Okay, so passing is critical for a team building on a foundation of Lauri and Walker. Do we have passing talent already on the team?

The truth is a bit grim, honestly. Outside of Olynyk and Horton-Tucker, the Jazz traded away their above average players in assists to usage (did they get assists for how often they handled the ball). The rest of the roster is made up of reluctant passers.

While Jordan Clarkson’s assist rate is above average on its own, when adjusted for how often he has the ball, he’s in the bottom quartile of the league.

This lack of passing talent is sure to be a crutch the rest of the season. The Jazz first opportunity to level up in this department is the draft, and fortunately for Utah there’s a healthy amount of talent therein.

At the top of the draft, Scoot Henderson of the G-League Ignite and Amen Thompson of Overtime Elite stick out in this department. Their mix of athleticism and speed puts them in situations of advantage regularly over the defense. Naturally, this means the defense helps and rotates, creating opportunities to feed others in high leverage situations.

They have an innate ability to push the rotation and find the open man. Take a look at some of the highlights, imagining Kessler and Markkanen cutting and diving through the lane on the receiving end of these passes.

The reality, however, is the Jazz likely cap out at ~37% for a top 4 pick (via their own selection) to be in the running for either of these two. The good news is talent exists in the mid-lottery as well.

Anthony Black of Arkansas is an exciting player. At 6’7” he sees the floor extremely well and is very quick to move the ball. He’s adept at driving in the lane and finding bigs in the paint. He would be a fantastic addition to a team with excellent cutters and skywalking bigs.

Cason Wallace of Kentucky and Jarace Walker of Houston have shown passing flashes to compliment their other skills. They don’t get to dominate the ball as much as the aforementioned players but have shown real promise to dissect opposing defenses.

Either of these players would slide immediately to a rotation spot and compliment existing personnel nicely. Black, Walker, and Wallace all project for the middle to end of the lottery.

Outside of the lottery, there’s a variety of prospects across positions that can help in the passing department. The Jazz will prospectively have two picks via MIN and via HOU/BKN/PHI. The Jazz also have player, draft, and cap space assets to use ahead of, during, or post draft night to get any of these players they want.

Eric Gaines of UAB, Jalen Hood-Schifino of Indiana, Colby Jones of Xavier, and Baba Miller of Florida State are all talented passers in the draft that fall in a big jumble of prospects moving up and down big boards regularly. Utah will have plenty of avenues to get passing on this team.

Passing isn’t the only need for this team or the #1 priority. Ultimately the Jazz are trying to unearth an eventually top 15-20 player to put alongside of Lauri and Walker. Getting the next Morant, Tatum, Banchero, etc., is what sends this team to the next level.

But with a team already committed in some part to Markkanen and Kessler, passing must be a priority in and around that franchise player they hope to land. It also aligns with the core values of the team and the stylistic preferences of coach Will Hardy.

Submit a comment below with who you think is a talented passer in the draft you’d like to draft this summer.