The multiple futures of the Utah Jazz’s Joe Ingles

Is his slow start to the season a sign of things to come, or just another time Ingles will prove doubters wrong?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Joe Ingles (2) chats with Quin Snyder, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Indiana Pacers at Vivint Arena, on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021.

Editor’s note: Zarin Ficklin is a writer for Salt City Hoops. This story is part of a collaboration between SCH and The Tribune that seeks to create more dialogue and community for Utah Jazz fans.

In “The Empire Strikes Back,” Luke Skywalker asks Yoda about the future. Yoda closes his eyes for a moment, and responds, “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.” Ask Yoda about Joe Ingles’ future, and you might get the same response.

By the end of this season could he be traded? Retired? At the end of the rotation? The Sixth Man of Year? An NBA Champion?

On Thursday night, Ingles flirted with a triple-double (10 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds) and helped carve up the Toronto Raptors. But there is no denying that Ingles has looked a little slow to start this season — even for a player with the nickname “Slow-Mo Joe.”

And yet, he’s had similar less-athletic-looking stretches before. (Doubting Ingles only to be proven wrong is seemingly an annual tradition.)

For example, Ingles looked slow in the playoff matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers. When the Jazz needed perimeter defense more than ever, Ingles was a turnstile. But his raw stats didn’t look bad on the surface, with decent production and efficiency.

That’s part of the mystery of Ingles. Sometimes the eye test and numbers don’t match. Usually it’s in Ingles’ favor — he does not look like a typical basketball athlete, and yet he’s had an incredibly impactful career. He’s an excellent offensive player, despite a career average of 8.7 points per game. His basketball IQ, breadth of skill, and gravity lead to winning.

You could chalk the playoff struggles up to Ingles’ outsized offensive burden. Ingles covered for the injured Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell for weeks before the playoffs. Fans often give Mitchell a pass on defense because of his offensive usage, and you can make a case that the same courtesy should apply when we evaluate his workload on both ends as the Jazz fought through multiple guard injuries all spring. Perhaps Ingles couldn’t stay in front of speedy guards because he ran out of gas, not because he was washed.

After all, Ingles’ last regular season was the best of his career. He had my vote for Sixth Man of the Year, despite being runner-up to teammate Jordan Clarkson (and while we’re here, let’s remember when the Jazz PR team gifted fans with this moment).

So what’s going on this season?

Ingles is shooting well, with an effective field goal percentage of 58.9%. That’s right in line with his career average.

His shot profile is interesting. Through 15 games, he has taken only nine shots at the rim. Nine! Now, this could be small sample size noise. But Ingles has looked passive as the pick and roll ball handler. We haven’t seen much of the patented ball-fake layup. Ingles has always leveraged craftiness over burst, but his first step hasn’t been enough to get him by initial defenders, so we’ve seen less and less of stuff like this:

His minutes and usage are both down. This seems by design. The Jazz want Ingles fresh for the playoffs. Mitchell is ready to soak up even more possessions (his usage is up two percentage points despite being the fifth-highest usage player last season). The Jazz don’t need Ingles to play-make as much as they used to.

But Ingles’ assist rate is way down, from 24% to 19.6%. (Before his 8-assist performance on Thursday night, it was 17%.) The team’s overall shooting slump could be a factor.

Also in sharp decline is Ingles’ steal rate, down from 1.2% to 0.6%. This could also be a sample size issue, but his steal rate has been shrinking for the last half-decade. It’s part of the aging process. And the Jazz don’t need Ingles to rack up steals, they just need him to stay in front of his man.

And that’s the luxury of having Ingles as a sixth (or seventh, or eighth) man on the roster. They don’t need him to do as much. A little scoring, a little playmaking, a little perimeter defense. Ingles’ value has always been in his ability to excel at so many skills. He’s a true Swiss Army knife player.

This season he’s provided shooting, and not a ton else (locker room and community presence aside, which is immeasurable).

What happens to Ingles if this holds for the rest of the season?

There’s still value in a player that shoots as well as Ingles, even if that’s the main contribution. Niang excelled as Utah’s ninth man last season, primarily as a floor spacer.

But there were trade rumors this summer that involved Ingles’ name. Fans always clamor for trades when players struggle, show their age or otherwise don’t perform relative to their contract number.

But it almost feels unthinkable to trade Joe Ingles. Has there been a more beloved Jazz player that wasn’t a Hall of Fame member or candidate? Heck, Ingles’ popularity competes even with the all-time greats. Yes, the NBA is a business, but Ingles’ identity in the organization borders on Udonis Haslem territory.

The Jazz are in a contention category where every possible advantage matters. His $13 million expiring salary is a prime trade ingredient. If the front office can make a move that bolsters Utah’s athleticism and perimeter defense, how hard will they think if Ingles is involved?

Following other potential future threads, what if this is Ingles’ last season in the NBA? He is 34 and has spoken openly about the difficulties of being far from family during the pandemic and wanting to return to Australia when his career is over.

With any luck, it won’t come to that. The Jazz are only a dozen games in, and Ingles isn’t the only Jazz player off to a slow start.

It’s also worth noting that Ingles has only played 604 NBA games (regular season plus playoffs) in his career. Compare that to same-age Mike Conley’s 929.

Ingles’ freshness and contributions during a bronze medal run with the Australian basketball team at the Tokyo Olympics seems to refute the idea that he’s on an irreversible decline. But maybe there’s residual fatigue from his summer basketball following so close on the heels of Utah’s compressed season and subsequent playoff run.

The Jazz need Ingles to unlock the best version of themselves. He’s a key piece of the bench-killing lineup that matches Gobert and Conley against opposing backups. His pick-and-roll chemistry with Gobert is fantastic. When he’s not passing up wide-open 3s, even just the threat of his shooting opens up the court so much:

Of course, the best possible future for Ingles (and likely the Jazz) is the one where he’s fresh and able to play in his usual role, even deep into the postseason. That Joe Ingles could be critical to championship aspirations. And who doesn’t want to see Ingles recreate his emotional celebration with Patty Mills, but with his long-time Jazz teammates instead?

And even if we’re witnessing a decline, Jazz fans should savor the time Joe Ingles is part of the community and team.