Joe Ingles called it “the toughest year of my career.”
It wasn’t the up and down end to the season, where after taking on a larger role than ever before during the regular season, he struggled mightily in the playoffs. But more than the Houston Rockets’ defense, it was instead his off-court life that turned Ingles’ year into a taxing one.
Ingles’ son Jacob was diagnosed with autism early in the season, though the family didn’t announce the situation until the All-Star break. The resulting whirlwind of doctor appointments, treatments, and emotions would take a professional toll on anyone, let alone a professional basketball player spending weeks away from home.
“Behind the scenes, you probably had no idea what was really going on,” Ingles said.
Jacob is responding well to treatments, Ingles noted. “Jacob’s unreal. He’s kind of come out of his shell even more, which has been pretty awesome to see. To hear his voice for the first time is something that you don’t really forget.”
As for his on-court career, as Joe Ingles went, so did the 2018-19 Utah Jazz.
In wins, Ingles scored 13.7 points, dished out 6.1 assists, and added 4.2 rebounds per game. In losses, those numbers went all the way down to 9.7 points, 5.1 assists, and 3.7 rebounds. And in the wins, Ingles shot wildly more efficiently, shooting 48.1% from the field and 41.9% from 3 compared to just 38.8% and 34.1% from deep. Even at the free-throw line, Ingles struggled in losses: he shot 15 percentage points in losses, on shots nobody defended. All in all, Ingles had the largest difference between his performance in wins and losses of anyone on the roster.
So it was a bad sign when Ingles struggled throughout the Jazz’s first round playoff series. You can debate whether Ingles’ struggles played an outsize role in the losses, or whether the Rockets’ strength overall caused the entire Jazz squad — Ingles included — to play below their potential. But whatever happened in those 11 days in April, it wasn’t pretty: Ingles only scored 6.4 points per game on just 32% shooting from the field and 27% from 3, including some pretty wide-open attempts.
“You try and work it out pretty quickly while the series is going on, but obviously I wasn’t really able to work it out quick enough and good enough,” Ingles said. “It still kind of kills me inside that I wasn’t able to help our team as much as I thought I should have.”
Ingles, from his point of view, credits the somewhat unique way the Rockets defended him.
“This series was the first time in my playing career I’d been played that way: heavily force right, they’re blowing up of every kind of handoff, pick and roll blitzing, or whatever it was,” Ingles said. “The first couple times it kind of hits you in the face.”
Of course, Ingles is a left-handed player, and just as the Jazz did everything they could to force James Harden to use his off-hand on the right, the Rockets placed a similar emphasis on forcing Ingles away from his strong side.
That’s because Ingles had become a legitimately dangerous player while driving left: over the course of the season, Ingles got to the rim more than ever before in his career by careening past and through traffic, using his body to get his preferred layups from the left side. Ingles had counters: the pass-fake to the diving big man to free himself up, as well as a relatively accurate lob pass. After the All-Star break, Ingles led the Jazz in assists with 7.5 per game, even eclipsing far more accomplished playmaker Ricky Rubio.
Ingles’ shooting percentages did dip this year, going from 44% to 39% in the regular season. That translates to about half a shot per 100 possessions, or one more miss every three games for Ingles. Where it really hurt, though, was in the playoffs where he wasn’t able to hit the shots Houston provided, open or not.
To counter, Ingles plans on taking his own steps forward this offseason. Usually, you wouldn’t expect that from a player Ingles’ age — he’ll be 32 come the beginning of the season next year. But Ingles has continued to improve in every season since entering into the NBA in 2014, even at ages when players aren’t supposed to do so.
And critically, he’ll have the motivation necessary.
The playoff performance "is going to stick with me for way too many months now. But I’ll go back and I’ll watch it and I’ll speak with Coach and then figure out the best way to attack it,” Ingles said. “And then I’m going to go right every time next year.”
TALE OF TWO INGLES
Joe Ingles regular season and playoff statistics:
12.1 points, 44.8% FG, 39.1% 3-PT, 5.7 assists, 4.0 rebounds
6.4 points, 32.4% FG, 27.6% 3-PT, 5.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds