Memphis, Tenn. • The Jazz needed Royce O’Neale to shoot.
In order to have a chance against the Milwaukee Bucks and their collapsing paint defense on Monday, the Jazz knew they’d have to have a good night from 3-point range. They’d need everyone to take and make the open looks their offense generated, and they were most worried about O’Neale, who put up only one shot in 35 minutes in Utah’s previous game.
So Quin Snyder drew up a play for Royce O’Neale to be screened for in the corner, with some misdirection that Mike Conley played out perfectly. At the right moment, Conley swung the ball to O’Neale, who had an open corner look, and the three was money.
Snyder confirmed that O’Neale was the play’s first option. “The guys are incredibly confident in him. This was a statement to that effect.”
But Monday’s episode was just one example in a seasons-long trend of Snyder’s play calls in the first offensive play of the game, where he tries to establish something on the very first opportunity. What message he’s trying to send varies, of course, on the situation of the game.
The Jazz’s Wednesday matchup against the Pacers was swingman Bojan Bogdanovic’s first game back in Indiana, where he played for two seasons. So Snyder drew up a play for an open wing three from the left side for Bogdanovic, where he received a baseline screen from Donovan Mitchell and then a second from Rudy Gobert just a few seconds later.
That shot, too, was good.
Sometimes, the play works, but the player misses the shot. After Gobert’s Nov. 4 comments to media about his desire to receive more passes down low, the Jazz’s first play against the Philadelphia 76ers in their next game was a Gobert layup attempt, from a pick and roll pass delivered from Mike Conley. Gobert, though, couldn’t get it to go.
Make or miss, there are benefits to letting a player feel more involved from the beginning. The Jazz have long believed — even before the Nov. 4 comments — that Gobert’s impact on the defensive end can be helped by making him feel more involved in the offense. In six of the 18 games so far, they’ve gotten the ball to Gobert on the game’s first play. In the Sixers game referenced above, Gobert went on to have a monster impact, having 14 screen assists and multiple excellent defensive plays.
Last season, the two players the Jazz wanted to raise confidence in most were Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles. Rubio was much more aggressive and impactful if he felt that his shot was going early, so the Jazz drew up plenty of plays for him to get a good look. Joe Ingles has a little bit of O’Neale’s reluctance to shoot as well, so Snyder set him up to get a comfortable 3-point shot or get him going to the basket. Last season, there was a 10-game stretch in which seven of the first plays ended with Ingles getting a shot.
That first play can also be used to signal to teams that they should respect one of the Jazz’s weapons, even if they shouldn’t. Derrick Favors took five 3-point shots in the 70 Jazz’s first plays last year with him as the starter as they tried to improve their spacing with both Gobert and Favors on the floor at the same time. Maybe, the thinking went, if Favors shot the three early, it would be something the defenses had to think about before collapsing on Gobert in the paint. Favors missed all five attempts, though, so it’s hard to say opposing defenses were moved.
If there’s a rookie moved into the starting lineup, it’s a good bet Snyder will use that play to look at getting him involved immediately. When Mitchell was moved into the starting group permanently 12 games into his rookie season, he got layups on the first play of both of his first two games.
Last year, the first play of the Jazz’s final game went to Grayson Allen, who kickstarted his 40-point performance with a layup. Even as far back as the 2015-16 season, Trey Lyles once took the first shot in five consecutive games, as he filled in the starting lineup during Rudy Gobert’s injury. He scored all five times.
The Jazz’s first plays are usually successful. This season, they’re scoring 1.33 points per play on those first looks, which is far above their usual half-court success rate of 0.93 points per possession. They weren’t quite as good last year — maybe due to all of those Favors and Rubio attempts — but still converted at exactly 1 point per possession, higher than last season’s 0.95 points per possession in half-court offense.
With that comes a logical question: if they’re so good on the first play, why don’t they run all of the plays like that? This is the basketball version of “If airplane 'black boxes’ are indestructible, why can’t the whole plane be made from the same material?”
Airplanes can’t be made out of black box stuff — quarter-inch thick steel — because they’d be too heavy to fly. Likewise, every basketball play can’t be as well-formulated as the first ones, because there’s no way to have players practice and execute 100 unique plays per game. The Jazz usually practice the first play in that game’s morning shootaround, knowing who the first option is and what the team wants to establish early. Frequently, it’s a new or adapted play, it’s not one they’ve run before. And if you just repeat the first play, the defense will figure it out soon enough.
Yes, the Jazz’s offense hasn’t always played well this season. But thanks to Snyder’s play-calling, you can’t blame that on getting out to a poor start.