Elijah Hughes, the 39th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, faces a significant challenge for the upcoming season. That being he’s not in line for many minutes in the Utah Jazz rotation.
Whether Hughes plays shooting guard or small forward (his former college coach said he’s primarily a two-guard), the depth chart in Utah is filled nearly to the brim on the wing. Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson have a stranglehold on the shooting guard spot with Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale taking up most of the small forward minutes. On top of all that, second-year guard Miye Oni appears to be in line to inherit the remaining minutes Hughes might have been able to nab.
We’ve received a preview of what the 2020 rotation could look like in two preseason games. and Hughes is not among those playing meaningful minutes. He’s been dropped into both games late during the designated “play your fringe rotation guys and camp bodies” part of the game.
The lack of available minutes is a crying shame because of the potential Hughes has to be an immediate positive contributor on the wing.
To no one’s surprise (among those who at least glanced at Hughes’ college stat sheet) Hughes’ biggest potential area of impact is scoring and shooting. However, he’ll need to heavily adjust to a less ball-dominant role. Last year, Hughes ranked third in the NCAA in total isolation possessions per Synergy Sports. Those ISO’s made up 23.5 percent of his offensive diet.
Luckily for all parties involved, there’s statistical evidence to show Hughes is capable of making the adjustment to being an off-ball wing thanks to his proficiency as a 3-point shooter. His 34.2 overall percent isn’t highly encouraging, but his isolation 3-point attempts really drag that percentage down (Hughes shot 22 percent on ISO threes). On spot-ups last year Hughes made 38.1 percent of his downtown attempts. In transition, that mark is all the way up at 41.2 percent and he took those transition triples in decently high volume (51 attempts all year, 1.6 per game). His shooting chops on hand-off and off screens is a little harder to extrapolate due to low sample size (7 of 21 on both combined for the season). The likelihood is that Hughes is viable as a catch-and-shoot wing, but the on-the-move shots of more adept shooters is probably out of reach in his rookie season (which is perfectly OK).
Shooting may get him onto the court, but his potential as an on-ball scorer and playmaker could be something that keeps him there and pushes him up the rotation in the coming years. Hughes was the offensive engine at Syracuse for a reason. He’s a legit on-ball scorer with playmaking ability that can translate to the NBA level. He averaged 3.4 assists last year and kept his turnovers down at just 2.3 despite high usage. Hughes was one of 18 players in the NCAA to have an assist percentage above 20 and a turnover percentage below 12.
All of this isn’t to say Hughes is some hidden gem of a superstar that the Jazz lucked upon. He has some weaknesses, he had a poor record of finishing at the rim in college (he’s 5 of 6 so far in preseason so fingers crossed we’ll see more of that). That and his defense thus far in the preseason has been suspect. But if he improves in those areas then maybe he could push toward a fringe all-star level of play. The fact is that Hughes has some potential as a high-level off-ball scoring guard that could help the Jazz even in Year 1. It’s just a shame we probably won’t see what Hughes is really capable of until next year or beyond.