NBA PM: Scout’s Take on Utah Jazz
You don’t have to look at the NBA standings to know that this season hasn’t gone according to script.
In the Atlantic Division, the Philadelphia 76ers have a 4.5-game lead and a five game lead over the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks respectively; the Atlanta Hawks have continued winning without the presence of Al Horford; and Washington Wizards have completely failed to capitalize on any of their young talent.
If there’s one thing that we’ve learned from the first quarter of the NBA’s regular season is that depth is king when a 66-game marathon is condensed into four months. The 12-5 76ers know this, the 14-3 Oklahoma City Thunder know this, and apparently the Utah Jazz know this as well.
“Their depth is good,” one Western Conference scout told HOOPSWORLD of the Jazz. “They basically have four players for two post positions; and for me, that’s big in this schedule. If you don’t have any depth, you have no chance this year.”
Center Al Jefferson and power forward Paul Millsap were easily identifiable NBA players before this year, but the pair has been soaring to new heights under head coach Tyrone Corbin.
“Their strength is Jefferson inside,” the scout said. “He’s a hard guy to guard by yourself.”
Jefferson, who primarily stays on the left block, has pushed his Player Efficiency Rating around his career high (23.16 in 2008-2009 and 21.98 this year) by reducing his turnovers (he’s turning the ball over in just 5.8 percent of his possessions) and keeping his free throw percentage over 74 percent. His field goal percentage has slipped to 47.4 percent, but that hasn’t hurt the 10-5 Jazz too badly.
Millsap, on the other hand, has been flat-out lethal.
The 6-8 Louisiana native ranks fourth in the NBA in PER (26.74) largely because he’s improved his true shooting percentage (58.5 percent this year) and rebounding rate (16.6 percent this year), while cutting his turnover rate (percentage of possessions that end in a turnover) from 9.9 percent last season to just 6.9 percent this year.
And, because his usage rate (percentage of possession a player uses per 40 minutes) has steadily increased over the past few seasons, Millsap is now a threat to score 20 points on any given night (16.6 PPG this year).
“I like what they’re doing with Jefferson on the left block and Millsap on the right or playing further out,” the scout said. “I think Millsap is a good compliment for any player and any team. Every coach would want Paul Millsap.”
But the beauty of the Jazz’s depth has actually allowed Corbin to slightly reduce the pair’s minutes this season. Millsap is down to 30.1 MPG while Jefferson is only logging 33.2 MPG, which is about two minutes less per game this season for both players.
Second-year power forward Derrick Favors and rookie center Enes Kanter have been able to siphon 20.3 and 13.9 MPG respectively, and they’ve done so without costing the Jazz.
“They ended up trading (Mehmet) Okur because the amount of depth that they had,” the scout said. “They needed to give Favors more playing time. I think he’s very good, and I like Kanter off the bench—a big, wide-bodied guy.”
Favors still turns the ball over far too much (he’s coughing it up in 18.3 percent of his possessions—only 23 qualifying players have done a worse job with the basketball than he has) but he’s athletic enough to compensate for a lot of his shortcomings. And besides, he’s only 20, so he’ll be able to correct those deficiencies the more and more he plays.
In the meantime, his strength and jumping ability has helped him to grab 17 percent of all missed shots while he’s on the floor (tied for 30th in the NBA), and he’s blocking over a shot per night in just 20.3 MPG.
“In the post he uses his strength more than his skills,” the scout said. “He’s working on his skills, that’s still evolving.”
Kanter, meanwhile, isn’t playing as much, but he has made his minutes count. The Switzerland-born Turkish national ranks fourth in the NBA in rebounding rate (20.8 percent) and he’s shown an ability to shoot from beyond the paint, which helps to give more room to Favors or Jefferson.
Utah’s biggest offensive problems remains poor 3-point shooting (they make just 28.6 percent of their attempts and rank 28th in the league in makes per game from beyond the arc), but that could change if swingman Gordon Hayward regains his form from a season ago, when he made 35 of 74 attempts from 3-point range.
Utah’s other issue is the lack of a true point guard in the starting lineup. Yes, Devin Harris’ assist rate (percentage of possessions that end with an assist) is up to 30.3 percent (18th in the NBA), but some of that is the result of him playing fewer minutes (he’s down to 25.4 MPG from 31.2 a season ago) and making fewer shots (he’s shooting a career-low 37.1 percent from the field.
“Devin is the kind of guy that the ball has to be in his hands so much,” the scout said. “If he’s not scoring, he’s really not enough of a playmaker. He still has to be a playmaker. Their system is a passing-type of system.”
The good news is that Earl Watson is getting 21.1 MPG and he’s leading the league with an assist rate of 45.9 percent, which means nearly half of his possessions are ending with an assist.
The scout said the Jazz are still running many of the same screens and have similar ball movement that they had under former coach Jerry Sloan, which as we know from years past is a good way to get everyone involved in the offense.
Utah’s early schedule has been favorable (10 home games, five road games), so their solid start could be greeted with some skepticism. However, as the scout pointed out, “winning at home is a necessity this season,” and this is a team that has certainly mastered that, winning eight of 10.
Love Agrees to Extension:
Kevin Love has agreed to a four-year, $60 million extension with the Minnesota Timberwolves, ESPN.com’s Marc Stein and Chris Broussard reported. However, the final year of that deal is a player option, so Love could hit the market earlier than expected as an unrestricted free agent—something that would certainly entice many teams around the league.
Interestingly enough, Minnesota did not make Love their “designated player” which would have given him five years. That makes it seem like they’re saving that designation for rookie point guard Ricky Rubio.
Gallinari Agrees to Extension
Danilo Gallinari has agreed to a four-year, $42 million extension with the Denver Nuggets, Sports Illustrated’s Sam Amick reported.
Anyone who has seen Gallinari play this season is well aware of what he has meant to the Nuggets, whose 12-5 record is the second best in the Western Conference.
Gallinari ranks 22nd in the NBA with 17.4 PPG even though he’s hitting only 31.1 percent of his 3-point attempts. When his shot does return to form (he’s a career 37.1 percent shooter from beyond the arc) he’ll assuredly be scoring closer to 20 PPG.
Also, coach George Karl has been very complimentary about Gallinari’s passing and defensive skills, both of which were largely ignored by the New York media during his time with the Knicks.
(Writer’s note: We were supposed to have a scout’s take on the Knicks offense today, but due to a scheduling conflict, that has been delayed indefinitely. Thanks for understanding).
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