Hey, remember Elijah Hughes? Here’s what the Utah Jazz’s second-round pick is bringing to the table
Syracuse's Elijah Hughes, right, drives to the basket against Ohio State's Keyshawn Woods during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Donovan Mitchell’s contract extension … the triumphant return of Derrick Favors … retaining Jordan Clarkson … draft-day maneuvering to select Udoka Azubuike in the first round … trading away big men Tony Bradley and Ed Davis … new uniforms and court design …
Oh, and in case you forgot, buying back into the second round to select Syracuse wing Elijah Hughes.
If the high-scoring Orangeman somehow became a bit of an afterthought in your mental checklist of all the Utah Jazz’s recent roster machinations, you could probably be forgiven.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, however, is pretty confident that Hughes will make an instant impression once he’s given a chance.
“He’s got an offensive game that’s, I think, pretty close to being able to help somebody [immediately],” Boeheim told The Salt Lake Tribune.
How soon that opportunity comes for Hughes remains to be seen, considering the Jazz have Mitchell, Clarkson, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neale, even last year’s rookie second-rounder, Miye Oni, capable of playing the wing positions that the redshirt junior projects at.
Then, again, who’s to say what happens if Hughes shows himself capable in the Jazz’s upcoming training camp and preseason? In any case, it’s worth a deeper dive into what exactly Utah is getting from the No. 39 overall selection.
Let’s just begin with the elephant in the room, shall we? Utah’s perimeter defense issues were exploited in the playoffs vs. Denver last postseason. And naturally, the biggest question about Hughes — as is the case with most Syracuse players — is his capacity for guarding opponents one-on-one in the NBA given Boeheim’s longtime predilection for the Orangemen to play zone pretty exclusively.
The coach, for one, is aggravated by the narrative.
“Only stupid people have that view — people who don’t understand basketball, who don’t see what we do. We work on our man-to-man defense every day,” Boeheim said. “… Everybody brings up this [expletive].”
While he allowed that defense is indeed what Hughes can most stand to improve upon, he added that’s only the case because, in his estimation, it’s a near-universal truth of pretty much every college player.
“Like any rookie, it’s a big jump,” Boeheim said. “Defense is always something rookies have to work on — offensive players are just much better in the NBA.”
Playing the back line of Syracuse’s famed 2-3 zone, Hughes’ primary responsibilities were closing out on spot-up shooters and securing the defensive boards (he grabbed 4.5 per game as a junior). Per Synergy Sports, almost 90% of the possessions he guarded as a junior were spot-ups. He did manage to add 1.2 steals and 0.8 blocks per game his final season. Though his defensive win shares and defensive box plus-minus were both down from the year prior, his coach attributed that more to Hughes being the veteran voice on an otherwise young and experienced team.
At 6-foot-4.75 without shoes (6-6.5 with them) and 229 pounds, Hughes has decent size and good strength for his position.
“He’s got good athletic ability, he moves his feet well, he can guard the 2 or the 3, he’s a physical, tough kid,” Boeheim said.
And he won’t be lacking for effort.
“I want to show that I can defend, and I want to prove that from Day 1,” Hughes told the media on a draft-night Zoom call.
Shooting, shooting, shooting …
While the defense will be a work in progress, Boeheim believes that Hughes is already an NBA talent on the other end of the court.
“There aren’t that many guys who can get their own shot, and he can get his own shot,” the coach said. “… The one thing that translates is the ability to score and shoot — and that’s what Elijah can do.”
No one can deny the scoring, as he put up 19.0 points per game last year for the Orange. The raw shooting percentages — 42.7% from the field; 34.2% from 3; 56.1 TS%; 51.1 eFG% as a junior — leave something to be desired, however, though they could be attributed to at-times forced shot selection as a result of carrying an exceptionally heavy load on account of playing with such inexperienced teammates.
Synergy described him as an “aggressive scorer with deep range as a set shooter and an advanced midrange game” who excelled at “creating his own shot extensively out of isolation … [and] hunting shots in transition.”
Indeed, Hughes ranked in the 85th percentile nationally in both transition scoring (1.25 points per possession) and spot-up scoring (1.08 ppp). He scored 0.88 points per dribble jump shot (72nd percentile), and 1.10 points per catch-and-shoot jump shot in the halfcourt (71st percentile). He was particularly deadly from the right 3-point corner (47%), the right block in the midrange (52%), and at rim (57%).
Which is not to say he’s an altogether complete scorer. While Hughes ranked third in the ACC in transition scoring, he totaled just 1.09 points per shot around the rim in the halfcourt (45th percentile). Perhaps his biggest area of improvement — especially given Utah’s offense — will need to come in pick-and-roll scoring, where he managed just 0.56 points per possession (21st percentile).
Still, there’s plenty more to his game to like.
Boeheim was particularly proud of the work that Hughes put in to become more well-rounded by improving his handles and his court vision.
“He came here [from East Carolina] as a spot-up shooter and he really worked hard in the time he was here to get his ball-handling better,” Boeheim said. “He really, really improved his ball-handling. He got a lot better with the ball, he became a guy that can not just shoot the ball, but he can put the ball on the floor, he can pull up, he can get to the basket, and he can make plays for other guys.”
True enough: As Hughes’ usage rate jumped from 22.0 as a sophomore to 26.6 as a senior, his turnovers per 40 minutes did slightly increase (from 2.3 to 2.5), but his turnover percentage declined from 13.2 to 11.9.
Meanwhile, his newfound handles and his experience in the system resulted in sizable spikes in both his assists per 40 minutes (1.8 to 3.7) and his assist percentage (9.9 to 20.1).
Asked what he could bring to the table from the outset, Hughes replied, “Hitting those little one-dribble pull-ups, knock down open shots — I’m just kind of a full offensive threat.”