Miye Oni stood out enough in last year’s Summer League that the Utah Jazz opted to give him the only full NBA contract among the team’s trio of second-round picks.
This year, despite no Summer League, Oni seemed poised to break into the team’s rotation after earning praise from throughout the organization for the growth he displayed in the Orlando bubble and during training camp.
The recent signing of fellow defensive-minded wing Shaquille Harrison may have changed the calculus on that. But with Royce O’Neale sitting out the Jazz’s first two preseason games, and Harrison sidelined for now by a hand injury, Oni has been getting more opportunities to make a case for himself.
On Monday night, he again was one of the first players off the Jazz bench, and again was tasked with trying to make life difficult for Suns All-Star guard Devin Booker, who averaged 26.6 points per game last year.
Asked afterward about his second-year teammate, Donovan Mitchell said he wasn’t really surprised Oni could make things hard for Booker, considering he’s pulled off as much against the Jazz’s own All-Star guard.
“He’s been doing it in practice — he’s been guarding me a bunch, making my life hell,” Mitchell said with a laugh. “So we’re really happy for him.”
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What has stood out through those two preseason wins, Mitchell added, is the mental maturation Oni displayed.
“The fact that he really [only] had one mistake tonight [in] the past two games, guarding a player like Devin Booker — that’s when he jumped on the shot fake. Miye last year might have jumped on three of those, four of those,” he said. “His being able to stay in front, stay locked in. He did that at Yale — [but] it wasn’t really going to happen quickly for him [here]; it’s tough to come in this league as a defender. Being able to do it at the level he has done so far in the preseason has been great.”
Then again, Mitchell added,
Oni, who responds to questions from the media with the same straightforward intensity and aggressiveness he brings to defending, was asked how, in his mind, he’d improved from Year 1 to 2, and had no shortage of answers.
“My body is just stronger, quicker, my head is better, I just react better — just knowing personnel more, not biting on fakes, things like that,” Oni said. “So just another year of playing and watching great defenders on our team and try to resemble what they do and help our team out any way. I just keep focusing on that, staying solid on defense, and I know I can help the team that way.”
Snyder has noticed, of course, praising Oni for being “disciplined in how he guarded [Booker]. That’s something we’ve asked of him and he’s been trying to do.”
Of course, while Oni can make a more instant impact on defense, there is hope he will ultimately to be able to contribute on the other end, too. Indeed, it was his occasional playmaking and court vision in his 2019 Summer League play that most surprised the team’s decision-makers.
For now, he remains a work in progress on that end, especially in the consistency of his shooting (he was just 1 for 6 overall on Saturday, including 1 of 5 from deep, while in Monday’s victory he scored 8 points, thanks to going 3 for 4 from the field).
However, Snyder did show a willingness to take the training wheels off — rather than simply relegating him to a corner, standing ready to receive a kick-out from one of his more dynamic, driving teammates, the coach has entrusted him with some ball-handling and decision-making situations on pick-and-roll actions, a role that Oni said he’s “definitely comfortable in.
“… Yeah, I can step up and do those things when I’m asked for it,” he added.
But will he be asked for it?
The two preseason games notwithstanding, Oni certainly is facing an uphill battle for consistent minutes going forward. The starting guard spots are locked up by Mitchell and Mike Conley. The bulk of the wing/forward minutes will be taken by Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and O’Neale. Shooting guard Jordan Clarkson is the team’s unquestioned sixth man. Harrison is likely to get a look for his defensive acumen once he’s cleared. Even rookie Elijah Hughes has impressed with his ready-made scoring prowess.
Then again, it’s a condensed season; injuries will happen; some guys may be sidelined by COVID-19; others will undoubtedly get some rest days. And if you’ve impressed Donovan Mitchell, you must be doing something right.
“He’s reading [the floor], he’s still finding ways to learn and get better, he’s hitting shots, getting out in transition,” Mitchell said. “He’s got more to work on, [but] he’s accepting that challenge, which is great.”