Ochai Agbaji is the youngest lottery pick on the Utah Jazz. That comes with some expectations of high potential. Despite that, the 22-year-old rookie couldn't find minutes in his first few months in the league. Agbaji is naturally a wing, and Utah's wing minutes are dominated by Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, and Malik Beasley. The remaining minutes at that position have been unpredictable. Talen Horton-Tucker and Nickeil Alexander-Walker have had times being Coach Will Hardy's first choice for those minutes. Both have done well in their opportunities. For a time, it looked like Agbaji may not get a real chance this season to show what he could do.
On January 3rd, Will Hardy told the media that it was time to give Ochai Agbaji some playing time. On that day, Agbaji got his first taste of NBA rotation minutes against the Sacramento Kings, and they went about as well as you might expect. He played 7 minutes, shot 0-2 from the field, and recorded one turnover. He looked passive and maybe even a bit scared.
Will Hardy said it’s time for Ochai Agbaji to find some minutes. He said the roster needs his physicality and athleticism— Tony Jones (@Tjonesonthenba) January 4, 2023
With those first-game jitters out of the way, Agbaji immediately began performing the way many thought he could. He recorded career-highs in points in each of his next two games, with 11 followed by 19. Since that January 3rd Kings/Jazz game, Agbaji has played at least 17 minutes in each game, shot 11-19 from three, and even began closing some clutch games.
As promising as the stats have been, we've begun to see something even more important. Ochai Agbaji looks like he belongs out there.
Instead of being a passive viewer of the offense, he's actively cutting, screening, spacing, and shooting. He sprints in transition. He understands spacing. He is even beginning to show some signs of self-creation in space.
Agbaji's offense begins with his three-point shooting. A role in the NBA is ready and waiting for him to fill it. Every team wants athletic "3 & D" wings. For Agbaji to be that guy, he needs to be a knockdown three-point shooter. So far, he's showing promising signs. Although most of his three-point makes have been open threes from the corner, he has shown that he can hit over good contests and that he can hit threes off movement. If he can be a real threat to knock shots down off screens, that increases his value significantly.
Defenders will over-extend to close out on you when you're a threat from outside. So you need to be able to take advantage of that. Ochai Agbaji has already excelled at attacking closeouts this year, making the simple but smart reads to get himself layups or make the extra pass to the open man.
Rather than just waiting in the corner for a pass to come his way, Agbaji has been actively cutting off-ball, which opens up passing lanes all over the court. At times, he's caught his defender sleeping and been able to get easy buckets at the rim. One thing I've loved to see is him countering when his cut gets shut down by good defense. He takes it in stride, relocates, communicates with his team, and still creates space on the court.
Another fun part of Ochai Agbaji's game is his play in the open court. Agbaji's athleticism has been highly touted, and this is where he's gotten to show it off. Agbaji is ready to sprint ahead of the defense when a shot goes up. He can outrun just about anybody and can fly high for above-the-rim finishes. Unfortunately for fans, he hasn't had much opportunity to build up a dunk reel yet this season, but it will come. When he can't get ahead of the defense, Agbaji spaces to the wings and corners and isn't afraid to pull the trigger on a corner three.
All in all, Ochai Agbaji has shown us that he does indeed have the potential that got him drafted in the lottery last June. He's still a rookie and a fairly raw talent, but he is getting real minutes and producing positive results. The more we see of him, the more the excitement for his future grows.