How key Utah Jazz players handle the team’s signature play — the pick and roll

No team uses this attack as effectively as the Jazz.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) slings a pass out to the perimeter, as Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball (2) defends, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Charlotte Hornets at Vivint Arena, on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021.

Pick and roll is the bread and butter of the Utah Jazz’s offense, leading to corner 3s and Rudy Gobert dunks. In fact, the team is the best in the NBA at the play. But what types of pick and roll are most effective for the Jazz, and how does it change depending on who has the ball?

Let’s get a little nerdy and dig into the Synergy Sports stats. Essentially, Synergy pays people to watch every game and track what happened on each possession. Let me show you an example.

An example of Synergy Sports' play-by-play from Jazz/Warriors on Sunday.

You read the plays as they happened. So that play up at the top involves Mike Conley running pick and roll from the left side. He dribbled in the direction of the baseline, and then found Bojan Bogdanovic in the corner. Bogey dribbled left, then took a three, and missed it. However, on the Jazz’s next play — a Conley pick and roll from up top — Bogdanovic drove right after Conley kicked it out to him, and took a short jump shot that went in.

If you track every play all season long, like Synergy does, you can get some cool stats that begin to get at the effectiveness of players in different situations.

To be clear, the stats aren’t perfect. If Bogdanovic instead would have kicked the ball out to Donovan Mitchell, who attacked in isolation, Conley and Bogdanovic wouldn’t have received any credit for their pick and roll, even if it meant the key switch that allowed Mitchell to score. Synergy only tracks the plays that end possessions — once the defense is made “whole”, or everyone is in reasonably good defensive position, the whole thing resets. And of course, you’re relying on the input of a play-logger who will sometimes make mistakes.

So, in general, just apply some basic common sense to these stats. As always, we’re less certain about small differences between players than we are about big differences between players. Is Damian Lillard (29.7 points per game) a better scorer than Steph Curry (29.2 points per game)? It’s hard to say for sure, but we do definitely know that both are better scorers than Jrue Holiday (15.3 points per game).

First, let’s look at the Jazz’s five ballhandlers — Conley, Mitchell, Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles.

As you can see, the Jazz have five very good or excellent ballhandlers, all who rank among the league’s top third at running the play. This is the single biggest key to the Jazz’s offense being elite.

Mitchell uses the most pick and rolls on the team. He is also the least efficient of the five, while still being above average. Meanwhile, Conley runs second most, Ingles third, Clarkson fourth, and Bogdanovic rarely runs them.

Interestingly, their efficiency is in inverse order to how often they run pick and rolls. There are two ways of looking at this: either the Jazz need to retool their offense, or the Jazz go to Mitchell and Conley more often in tougher scenarios — at the end of shot clock, at the end of games, and against good defenses. The latter seems likely, but you can make a case the true answer is somewhere in between.

We can also use this data to get an idea of how players use their pick and rolls differently. Here’s how often each player passes vs. how often they shoot.

It’s pretty much what you’d expect! Jordan Clarkson shoots a majority of the time, so does Donovan Mitchell. Meanwhile, Joe Ingles rarely ends up shooting — he’s always looking pass-first.

In fact, we can dig down even further. How often does each Jazz ballhandler make which kind of pass in their pick-and-roll situations? Are they lobbing it to Rudy Gobert or kicking it out to Royce O’Neale?

Mitchell and Conley are primarily kicking it out, while you know Ingles is usually looking for the lob. Bogdanovic, when he does pass, nearly always passes outside, and Clarkson has a good mix on his passes, actually.

But just how good are the Jazz’s ballhandlers at making plays in each of these kinds of passes? What’s the best thing to do for each player? I’ll take passes to cutters out of the mix, because the sample size is so small. Roll over each bar for more information on the category.

Very interesting! First, I want to shout out Ingles’ terrific effectiveness in hitting the roll man, and Jordan Clarkson’s efficiency in just doing everything — very impressive. Mike Conley’s a very good passer, but maybe less effective as a scorer. Bogdanovic’s sample size is small, but good. (Honestly, it’s in isolation and attacking closeouts that gets him in trouble, but more on that in a future article.)

The numbers that really stick out to me are in Donovan Mitchell’s chart. When he kicks the ball out to a spot-up shooter after a pick and roll, it is terrific offense: the Jazz are scoring 1.3 points per 100 possessions there. We’ve seen Mitchell make these kinds of highlight-reel reads all season long, and they are stunning and effective.

But when he tries to go it alone, he’s not very efficient. While 0.88 points per possession isn’t catastrophic, it is wholly average among all of the league’s players in pick-and-roll situations. To zoom in, let’s take a look at what happens when Mitchell shoots or is fouled on these types of plays:

This, again, passes the eye test. When Mitchell is taking a calm, under control jump shot — one that is very likely to be worth 3 points — the math is much more in his favor. When he’s taking a mid-range runner, it’s less effective. When he gets all the way to the rim, it’s somewhere in between.

That’s some of the trade-off involved in the situation: if Mitchell always took the dribble jumper, teams probably wouldn’t rotate toward him on defense, and he wouldn’t have those kick out passes to spot-up shooters that are the source of such efficient offense. So it’s really kind of a tricky balance, though I do suspect you could just eliminate most of the runners — they don’t really scare anyone.

Overall, the Jazz are in a really good situation when it comes to their pick-and-roll attack. They have five players capable and efficient at running the play. Against teams with poor rim protection, Ingles might be the man to run the play most, getting left-hand layups and lobs to Gobert and Favors all day. Against teams that collapse and help? Mitchell and Conley are most effective at kicking it out and finding the 3-point shooter.

Elite pick-and-roll play and the Utah Jazz? Everything old is new again.