The off-season: an immensely dramatic, yet woefully boring stretch of the year where videos of NBA centers shooting tripples in empty high-school gyms circulate around Twitter and Instagram. This is the time where fans sit and watch players tear thorough local gyms and pro-ams, showing off parcel-fulls of untapped potential and “what-ifs.” Naturally, it can be exciting to watch clips of players make moves they’ve never dared to do on an NBA floor. Unfortunately, the reality is that only a handful of players (maybe one or two from each team) make a drastic enough improvement over the off-season to where they truly make a “leap” the following year.
For the Utah Jazz, this phenomenon has fortunately been one that has worked in their favor the past few seasons. Between Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles, Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, and Jordan Clarkson, the Jazz have had more than their fair trade of players come into a season and blow out all expectations. Although this upcoming season’s roster largely remains the same as last’s, there are still multiple players on the team that have the potential to “breakout.” Here are my picks:
Donovan Mitchell (again)
Didn’t I just that Mitchell had already experienced a breakout a few seasons ago? Yes. That doesn’t mean he can’t do it again. This year, I’m hoping that Mitchell becomes more of a complete player. Last season he put up amazing averages of 26.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 5.2 assists; a stat-line that looks pretty complete already. However, what’s missing here is the defensive side of the ball.
Prior to being drafted, Mitchell’s defensive potential was one of his biggest selling points. Since entering the league, Mitchell’s defensive win shares and steals per game have both gone down each year. This past season, Mitchell had a DRAPTOR of -1.9, a number worse than players like Jordan Clarkson, Kendrick Nunn, and C.J. McCollum. For a player so athletic, strong, and long, that is a little disappointing. Obviously, Mitchell carries an immense offensive load every game, but as we saw in the playoffs the past few years, his inability to stay in-front of his guy is really damaging to the Jazz’s defense. This isn’t an issue that is unique to Mitchell; almost every perimeter player on the Jazz can’t guard the ball. It’s just one that hurts to see since he has the tools to be such a great defender.
Nobody is expecting Mitchell to become a lockdown, primary defender every game. What would be nice to see is Mitchell putting in a little more effort and limiting the amount of ugly mistakes he makes on that side of the ball. Preventing backdoor cuts, properly switching on screens, and making smarter off-ball rotations would go a long way for him. It’s what would elevate him from an all-star to a true MVP candidate. If he brought this to his game next season, I would be pleasantly surprised.
Wait, the rookie?
Yes, I think that Butler has a real chance to breakout as a solid rotation player off the bench this season for Utah. It’s almost a guarantee that Butler will have opportunities to show off his skillset as the Jazz’s backup point guard, especially when Conley and Mitchell inevitably need some rest.
Butler has some clear NBA tools: he can score in isolation, create for others, shoot, and play impactful defense. Assuming that the complications with his heart don’t interfere with his ability to play, he could turn into one of the biggest steals of the draft. Still, expectations for a rookie, especially one that was taken with the 40th pick in the draft, should be relatively low. If he can come in and provide 10-15 minutes of solid backup guard play, I’d call his season a total success.
For Miye Oni, this season is his opportunity to show the organization that he can truly fit the “3 and D” mold. He’s a good, maybe great, on-ball defender who so far, can’t get on the floor because his offensive game is so limited. Currently, Oni is the “next guy up” on the roster, meaning that if anyone gets injured or misses a game, he comes in to fill those minutes.
While that can be useful, I’m hoping that Oni has worked at his perimeter jump-shot enough this off-season to where he can be an effective shooter. Last season, he shot about 34.1% from downtown, which isn’t the worst, but doesn’t necessarily inspire much confidence when he shoots the ball. Again, while he can defend well, he isn’t that good of a defender that you can ignore his shortcomings (à la Lu Dort in 2019). Since the Jazz are still in desperate need of players who can be plus defenders on the perimeter, Oni improving enough to edge-out a spot out in the rotation would be amazing.
But, with that said, remind yourself that expectations are the thief of joy. Don’t assume that any player, not even Donovan Mitchell or Rudy Gobert, are going to walk out of this off-season, one that was cut short and included an Olympics within it, and look like totally different players. Drastic improvement happens over the course of multiple off-seasons, no matter how many workout videos a player posts.
All data from basketball-reference.com