There are some who expected an offseason with more additions for the Utah Jazz.
Yes, clearly upgrading at backup center was a real need. But what about perimeter defensive length? What about an upgrade at backup power forward, a spot that troubled the Jazz even before Bojan Bogdanovic went down with a wrist injury?
Jazz vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey was clear when asked about those issues: he thinks second-year players Miye Oni and Juwan Morgan can be part of the solution.
Oni, the 58th pick from Yale a year ago, earned compliments from management about his potential ability to step up into a complementary role. He has a “6-6 (height), 6-11 wingspan, a great movement profile, a major edge and toughness to him. He’s not going to come in here and be a high usage guy,” Lindsey said.
If a low-usage, defensive first player seems familiar, you’re not alone: “His value to us is a little bit like, I think, what Royce [O’Neale] did in his evolution,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said.
Oni’s not yet as good as O’Neale in some important areas. O’Neale’s best offensive attributes are his catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage and his quick decision making — he keeps the team’s offense moving. Oni shot 35% in G-League action from deep, near average but not as good as O’Neale’s 38% percent with harder NBA closeouts. Oni’s not a ball-stopper by any means, but he doesn’t have the feel yet of the more experienced O’Neale.
But Oni says those areas are where he’s developed most in the last few months. He says he’s improved his outside shooting form and perfected it. He says the game is slowing down from his point of view — that usually means quicker decisions from the outside perspective. And he’s been focused on learning some of the tricks of the trade defensively, from his teammates O’Neale and Joe Ingles, along with simply watching film of some of the best defenders in the league.
As Lindsey noted with Oni, “Frankly, he’s got to move past situational to rotational.” It’s a large hurdle, one many players can’t get over. But opportunities will come for Oni to prove himself, whether it be due to injuries or illnesses, in this unusual regular season.
Indeed, Morgan could tell Oni that. Morgan, undrafted from Indiana, got his big shot last year, when the Jazz found themselves without a natural defensive option for Denver’s starting forward Paul Millsap. Enter Morgan, who played 12 minutes on average in the playoffs per game, usually at the start of each half.
Did Morgan set the roof ablaze with his performances? No: he scored 10 points total in his 84 minutes on the court in the series. But his role was less about what he added to the court and more about that he didn’t take much off of it. He was solid in defense, both positionally and on his man. He rebounded well. He kept the ball moving on offense, and shot when open. He did, in other words, the things his coaches asked of him.
That means a lot to the Jazz’s talent evaluators. “The thing that we’re really excited about — and the data’s small — but Juwan Morgan was +8 with Rudy at the four,” Lindsey said, referring to the Jazz’s plus-minus while Morgan played next to Gobert. He also added another potential role: “And he gives us a switch five.”
As for his offseason development, the 6-8 big from Indiana tailored his development to his projected role. “I mainly just became a bit more efficient, especially in the corner three, just because I know that’s where I’ll be a lot within the offense,” Morgan said. “Also defensively, just becoming more versatile in that end. Instead of just guarding forwards, also guarding guards, so I can switch off with [the perimeter players].
“The more versatile you are on that end, the more trust you can have from the coaching staff,” Morgan said.
It’s clear that Oni and Morgan took heart of the words they got from their coach entering the offseason. Snyder wrapped up the life of an NBA role player simply:
“It’s [about] if they can continue to embrace the defensive end and be efficient offensively. It’s the same formula, but they’re doing it slightly different ways.”