This month was the best month in Salt Lake City Stars history.
Not only have they now won 13 games in a row, but winning the final two also meant that they won the G League Winter Showcase in-season tournament in Las Vegas. That meant every Stars player — besides those who already have Jazz contracts — got their share of the $100,000 prize.
For each of those players, all of whom make the G League’s salary of $35,000, an extra $10K or so in their bank account is a big, big deal.
And yet, it could pale in comparison to NBA millions.
But before we get into these players’ potential NBA futures, let’s break down exactly what they’ve accomplished so far. The 13-game winning streak is by far the longest in the short history of the SLC Stars, as well as their predecessor, the Idaho Stampede. They’ve done it with a deep roster under coach Martin Schiller, who models his team’s play after that of the big-league Jazz.
So perhaps it’s not a surprise that the Stars are winning with defense. After finishing 10th last year, this year’s version of the Stars is, by far, the best team in the G League on the defensive end. But they don’t have an exceptionally long defensive player of the year down low, protecting the paint. Instead, center Juwan Morgan is just 6-foot-7.
And yet, he might be the best player in the G League. A rookie who graduated from Indiana, Morgan scores 17 points a game while shooting 70% from the field and 55% from 3-point range in his nine games with the team. He’s versatile down low, with a terrific feel for the game and an ability to pass from his position. His defense has been superb as well: He’s a positional defender who has averaged both two steals and two blocks per game with the Stars this year.
“He’s a smart player,” Schiller said. “He’s got a good feel for passing, for spacing, for being at the right point at the right time.”
Morgan wasn’t exactly an unknown. He spent a four-year career at Indiana, playing over 30 games in each. Scouts knew who he was, but thought he’d be too small to succeed — nor did Morgan have the outside shot to compensate.
That’s changed. After a solid performance in the Jazz 100 shooting drill in Morgan’s draft workout in Utah, Schiller and SLC Stars GM Bart Taylor thought they might have something to build on. Morgan’s 3-point shot has become a reliable weapon so far, though it’s early. It’s been enough to turn heads, including that of Jazz coach Quin Snyder. After a solid training camp and Morgan’s first five games, Snyder called Taylor and said, “Hey, if I’m watching what everybody else is watching, we could lose this guy.”
The Jazz made the move then, cutting Stanton Kidd from the 15th spot in the roster to sign Morgan. “That’s a total success story,” Schiller said. “That’s what the league is about.”
Elsewhere in the lineup are the two Jazz two-way players and second-round draft picks, Justin Wright-Foreman and Jarrell Brantley. Wright-Foreman is the Stars’ leading scorer, with 18.5 points per game.
“We really go to him down the stretch in games because he can really put the ball in the basket,” Schiller said. “That’s his gift, which is a very, very big gift.”
Wright-Foreman is still developing the point guard traits of his game, those that he’ll need at 6-0 in the NBA. He’s been a willing passer, but an inaccurate one at times: In the final possession of regulation in the Stars’ 91-88 win over Grand Rapids in the Showcase finale on Sunday, Wright-Foreman found Stars sharpshooter Trevon Bluiett in the corner wide open, but his pass was a foot or two off-target, meaning that Bluiett’s shot was too. Still, his scoring provides him a path to basketball’s top league.
Brantley is an oddball, but a talented one. He stands at just 6-foot-5, but at 250 pounds, is the heaviest player on the Jazz’s roster, weighing more than even Rudy Gobert. But despite his size, Brantley is a talented dribbler and distributor, with impressive athleticism to boot. His leaping ability makes him capable of highlight-reel dunks, blocks and rebounds.
Where Brantley needs to improve to make the NBA is in his tactical discipline. He fouls too frequently defensively, and doesn’t always have the know-how to operate in a structured offensive system. It’d also be nice if his 3-point shot went in at a higher clip. Still, he’s been an impact player in the G League, and could be in the NBA one day.
Miye Oni, drafted 58th, is a 3-and-D wing prospect with the athleticism to attack in transition and, one day, maybe in pick and roll. While Oni’s shown the ability to shoot in practice, he’s been abysmal at it in the G League so far, making just five of his 31 attempts. To make it to the NBA, that shot — especially from the corner — will need to be money.
Nigel Williams-Goss is a classic game-managing point guard on offense, typically making the right play despite a lack of off-the-dribble burst. But where Williams-Goss really shines is in his defense: Taylor says he can defend nearly anyone in the G League in switching situations, which really helps power the Stars’ efforts on that end.
Those five players are all on the Jazz’s roster, meaning that another NBA team can’t snatch them up. After the Jazz’s rotation was shaken up by the Dante Exum for Jordan Clarkson trade and Jeff Green’s waiver on Monday, any of them could be called upon to play a role.
Bluiett, BYU product Kyle Collinsworth and William Howard are available for other teams, though, and have played roles in the Stars’ success. Bluiett’s been a very good shooter, usually off the bench for the Stars; the 26-year-old stands at 6-foot-5. Collinsworth has brought his typical array of “everything but the shooting” — he’s a strong defender, rebounder and passer.
Howard’s size, at 6-foot-8, gives him NBA potential if he can contribute on both ends. A 27-year-old professional with nearly a decade of European experience, Howard has made 44% of his 3-point shots in the G League so far, and has shown the ability to get to the rim when teams pressure his shot. He’s a little bit thin defensively, but has helped the Stars on that end so far with his length as a four.
It’s rare that this many players on a G League team get talked about. While Morgan’s brilliance has definitely been noticed, the Stars’ remarkable run — again, 13 straight wins! — has been in large part due to a whole roster buying in to what Schiller and the Jazz organization preach. And for Schiller, Taylor, and the rest of the Stars’ staff, that’s been gratifying.
“Three years ago, at [the G League Winter Showcase], we were by far the worst team in the league,” Schiller said. “Last year, we reached the playoffs. The development of the program has evolved, and been really good. Now, we’re here. It’s super rewarding. We’re very happy."