When it comes to player development, the Utah Jazz have one of the best reputations in the league. Current players on the roster like Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Royce O’Neale, and Joe Ingles are shining examples of just how successful players within Utah’s development program can become. It’s a large reason why, in recent years, players have been interested in signing with the Jazz. Even at an older age, many players within Utah’s program improve.
With that said, this process isn’t all rainbows and sunshine for players. Developing into a rotation NBA player is extremely difficult and it requires the perfect combination of hard work, good coaching, and luck. For most players, this doesn’t work out. That’s why the end of a rotation is usually a revolving door of late second round picks or undrafted players who teams take a flyer on. The NBA is cutthroat, so if one of these players aren’t improving, they’re falling behind.
Like we recently saw with Jarrell Brantley, teams are willing to cut their losses with a player sooner than later. He was a player with some gifted physical tools who couldn’t figure out a way to harness his wild play and turnovers. After a few seasons, they saw enough. For a couple of Jazz players, this season will likely be their last opportunity to prove if they have real NBA chops or not. Here’s a look into that:
After a relatively disappointing summer league, Elijah Hughes has a lot of work ahead of him this season.
I think it goes without saying that, due to a lot of factors out of his control, Hughes has hasn’t had a plethora of opportunity to grow as a player. This is obviously unfortunate and disappointing, especially since he has some very solid offensive tools that could translate well into a real NBA game. The issue is, Hughes is already 23 years old and hasn’t necessarily proved that his extra years of collegiate experience are doing him any significant favors in the NBA. He’s still a pretty subpar defender (albeit he did show some improvement in that department over the summer) and not the most efficient scorer with the ball in his hands.
I was really hoping to see him blossom during summer league. He had moments where he showed that his ability to create off the dribble, shoot from three, and playmake is real. He just didn’t show it very consistently. For players like Hughes, guys who need the ball in their hands to show off their effectiveness, carving out an end-of-rotation role is really difficult. Most teams don’t feel entirely comfortable allowing a second round pick to come into a game and dominate the ball. It’s a large reason why I worry for him. To lay some foundation for his future with the Jazz, I think Hughes really needs to focus on becoming an average defender and an above average three point shooter. I know that’s almost a universal “how to make it to the NBA” blueprint, but exists for a reason. Players who can come into a game, hit a few shots, and stay in front of their guy tend to stick in this league. Hughes’ ability to create out of a pick and roll will only elevate his game in the future, he just needs to find his way on the court right now. If he can’t find a way to do that this season, I’m not sure how much longer he’ll stay around.
It’s pretty clear that out of all of Utah’s younger players, the Jazz seem to believe that Oni has the most rotation-level potential. Due to his athleticism, long arms, and defensive prowess, Oni has some defined NBA-level skills. It’s a large reason why he was able to snag a few non-garbage time minutes throughout last season.
However, as mentioned in some previous SLC Dunk articles, that’s just about all Oni has going for him at the moment. Honestly, it is a little disappointing that in the two years Oni has been with the Jazz, his offensive game hasn’t grown. Similar to Hughes, a lot of this can be blamed on factors out of his control. Nonetheless, while watching him during summer league, it was clear that he just wasn’t very comfortable on that side of the ball. Even in some catch and shoot situations, Oni would be caught with his legs straight, feet not set, and generally not ready to shoot the ball. That just won't fly when he’s playing real NBA minutes.
While I might sound like a broken record, Oni’s golden ticket to becoming a rotation player is upping his three point percentage. He shot a very average 34% from downtown last season and really needs to get that up to around 38% if he wants to make an impact on that end of the court. He’s already 24 this year and if he doesn’t show any growth in this department, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jazz took a look at some other, younger options to develop into a similar role.
I think both Hughes and Oni have real NBA potential. They’ve both had moments where they’ve shown that they could make a serious impact on this roster. But to put it simply, if they don’t find a way to put things together this season, I’m not sure how safe their future with the Jazz is.