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The Triple Team: Jazz open preseason firing from 3-point range; Miye Oni impresses

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Miye Oni (81) takes the ball inside, as Phoenix Suns center Damian Jones (30) defends, in preseason NBA action between Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns at Vivint SmartHome Area, on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 119-105 win over the Phoenix Suns from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz took a bundle of threes

Of course it’s folly to take huge conclusions from one preseason game, and that applies this season as much as any other. It’s one game — really, the starters only played one half — and within one half, anything can happen.

But it can be revealing in terms of how the team chooses to approach the contest after a couple of weeks of practice. In particular, after players have listened to Quin Snyder lead three hour practices for a while, they’re going to be sure to hit those points of emphasis if they want to keep him happy.

In particular, the Jazz took 31 threes in the first half of tonight’s game, compared to only 18 twos. They made 12 of those 31 threes for a roughly-average 38.7% tally, or 1.16 points per possession on those shots. The Jazz will take that!

The Jazz used a variety of strategies to get these threes. One was simple: push the ball up the floor. Once, after a missed Phoenix free throw, Donovan Mitchell caught the ball and sprinted in transition immediately, drawing in the defense. Joe Ingles pointed for Jordan Clarkson to get to the corner, and he did, knocking down the wide open three with only a handful of seconds off the shot clock.

You can see the leadership in that play to turn Snyder’s direction into action on the floor: fourth-year guard Mitchell applying the immediate pressure and veteran Ingles directing traffic off the ball.

Bojan Bogdanovic explained the strategy:

“We had a couple of players who finished above 40% in catch-and-shoot and in transition threes. I think Joe was leading the league in the first five seconds of the offensive possession,” Bogdanovic said. “That’s good for our team, and we have to trust ourselves and take those early shots. Sometimes it’s not going to be a ‘good’ shot, but that’s a big part of what we’re trying to do this season.”

Another way to get more threes is simply to suggest your best shooters should take more of them. Snyder’s been clear about wanting to see Bogdanovic take any reasonable look he has from three, and he did that tonight, making two of the six. Clarkson outdid him, taking 10 of his 15 shots beyond the arc. Clarkson made five of them, and was the game’s leading scorer.

That’s a step forward for a guy who has already made big strides in the number of threes he takes. As a rookie, Clarkson only shot one of every five looks from beyond the arc. That’s steadily improved, now it’s about 47% of his looks. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Clarkson get over 50% of his shots from behind the arc this year. And that’s a good thing: it opens up space for others, keeps Clarkson efficient, and reduces some of the folly of his other midrange attempts.

2. Miye Oni’s defense

Without a summer league, there’s been precious little opportunity to evaluate some of the players at the end of the roster. In particular, it’s been a shame not to be able to give time and coaching opportunity to guys like Udoka Azuibuike, Elijah Hughes, Miye Oni, Jarrell Brantley, Juwan Morgan, Trent Forrest, and Nigel Williams-Goss a chance to show what they can do.

Miye Oni got his chance to move into the first-half rotation tonight, thanks to Royce O’Neale sitting out the game. And Snyder threw him into the fire, guarding Devin Booker, to see what he could do.

At first, it went poorly. Oni was beaten by Booker on a couple of nice moves, like this one — Oni was a little too focused on hands tricks down low, got blown by, and then got lucky Booker didn’t make the layup.

But then in the second quarter and beyond, it really improved. This is a nice possession, in my opinion: maintaining contact with Booker but keeping his hands well out of the cookie jar, giving the referees no reason to call a foul, and forcing a tough look.

Snyder praised Oni for his defensive efforts after the game.

”I thought he did a really good job. Sometimes when you’re as athletic as Miye is, you can be too aggressive. Booker’s someone that’s hard to guard because he’s so good at drawing fouls. I thought Miye was disciplined in how he guarded him, and that’s something we’ve asked of him and he’s been trying to do,” Snyder said. “There’s games like this where he has that opportunity, and he took advantage of it, and we want him to keep doing it.”

Oni looked poised to gain a back-of-rotation spot going into the regular season, but the signing of Shaq Harrison makes that less likely — Harrison has the longer NBA track record of NBA defensive success. But there will be plenty of nights like this one in this NBA season too, where a wing can’t play in the rotation for whatever reason. Joe Ingles, Mike Conley, and Bojan Bogdanovic are all over 30, at some point someone will get COVID-19, and so on. Oni will likely be asked to contribute, and he didn’t look out of place in that scenario.

3. Other fringe players

While we’re here, let’s talk about how a few other fringe players looked in their first public action in a while.

• Udoka Azubuike was what you’d expect. He’s super big, very excited to block everything, and succeeded at that in spectacular fashion a couple of times. I mean, this is a Jeremy Evans block.

But there were also times when the excitement put him out of position, leading to easy rebounds or layups for Phoenix. He also struggled defensively on the perimeter a little bit. He’s got a decent shot to lead the league in blocks per minute, but will take some time to be a true impact player defensively — similar to Mitchell Robinson in New York.

• Elijah Hughes looked smooth offensively and pretty rough defensively. You never want to say you’ve been put through the ringer by Langston Galloway, but when Galloway earned an and-one on a 3-pointer, that’s exactly what happened. But I liked Hughes offense, and in particular, his willingness to take threes immediately off the catch and a couple of feet behind the line.

• I continue to love Juwan Morgan, because the guy just makes good decisions all the time. He’s not a very good athlete, but plays within himself, rebounds, and passes the ball extremely well. Tonight, the 3-ball went down — he scored 11 points on 3-4 3-point shooting. If that’s a weapon, he’ll stay in the league.

• The intel out of camp on Nigel Williams-Goss could not have been worse — I’ve heard disappointing things about his initial contributions this year. In the first few minutes of his stint tonight, it was rough: missed rotations, bad offensive fouls, and general ugh.

And then he turned it around, made his threes, got to the free-throw line repeatedly, and ended up with 15 points in 15 minutes. It was a quiet 15 points, but 15 points is 15 points! I still believe he’s facing an uphill battle to make the regular season roster, but we’ll see.

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