The Triple Team: Shorthanded Jazz stay competitive to Nuggets before losing late in 4th quarter

(David Zalubowski | AP) Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler, second from front right, blocks a shot by Denver Nuggets guard Christian Braun, front right, in the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022, in Denver.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 115-110 loss to the Denver Nuggets from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Shorthanded Jazz stay competitive

Coming into tonight, you wouldn’t have expected the Jazz to be competitive. As the injury report grew, the Vegas line grew from favoring the Nuggets by 5.5 points to 11.5 points.

That makes sense. Lauri Markkanen (illness), Mike Conley (hyperextended knee injury maintenance, and Simone Fontecchio (ankle sprain) didn’t even travel with the team. Jordan Clarkson (a right hip contusion) and Collin Sexton (a right hamstring strain) did travel, but weren’t well enough to play. That meant that the Jazz were missing 72 points of offense, so I was curious: how efficiently would they score?

Turns out I didn’t really need to worry: the Jazz’s offense worked really well. They scored 110 points, and put up a 115 offensive rating. How?

Even without their best offensive players, the Jazz moved the ball on offense, and probed the defense just enough to entice a bad Nuggets defense to rotate. Then they found the open man over and over again.

This is a pretty standard pick and roll, with a pretend screen from Rudy Gay at the beginning. But Talen Horton-Tucker comes off the Walker Kessler screen, DeAndre Jordan rotates without bothering the pass, and he has the dumpoff pass to a rolling Kessler. Heck, THT could have also passed to Ochai Agbaji — he’s open too.

Or here: the Jazz run just an off-ball screen for Olynyk, which is attractive enough for Jamal Murray to just leave Nickeil Alexander-Walker open.

This is pretty beautiful by the Jazz — the quick ball movement gets the ball to Horton-Tucker in the corner. Then his baseline drive beats the Nuggets help, which gives an “Olé!” and-one foul to boot.

Hopefully you see the connecting theme here: the Nuggets were a cornucopia of defensive mistakes, and the Jazz took advantage really well. I think that has been part of the Jazz’s success this year, that teams are underestimating them and not playing their best games — while the Jazz just stay steady in their system. We certainly saw that tonight.

2. Thinking about Nickeil Alexander-Walker

The Jazz will have to make a decision on Nickeil Alexander-Walker this summer. He’ll be a restricted free agent after finishing his rookie contract. Is he going to be one of the 3-5 players that the Jazz keep on the next championship-competitive team?

I think he’s developed this season in significant ways.

First, and I can’t emphasize this enough, he takes way fewer bad shots than he used to. Remember, he had the worst effective field goal percentage in the NBA last season, thanks to taking a lot of bad contested shots, from inside and outside the arc. His usage has gone from 24% to 18%, and those 6% of possessions were killing his overall efficiency.

Secondly, I think he’s reading the game better. He was always a willing passer, but this season he’s figured out how to get his assist-to-turnover ratio to about 2:1, rather than about 1.5:1. I loved this pass, for example: he reads how the defense shifts even just one step off of the pick and roll, and fires it to Ochai Agbaji for the open three.

That being said, he was probably asked to do too much tonight, with six turnovers compared to just four assists.

Third, the open shooting is working at a much higher level. When defenders were at least six feet away last season — so pretty wide-open shots — he only made 35% of threes. This year, he’s shooting 57% in those same situations. I don’t expect him to be that good; that’s pretty clearly a sample-size thing.

But I truthfully don’t see anyone working harder on their shot day in and day out harder than NAW. He is always getting extra shots up, at the end of essentially every shootaround, practice, and pregame warmup I get to witness. I think he really cares, and knows that he needs to improve as a shooter. So far, the results have been there.

Fourth, the defensive effort has just been more consistently there. Maybe those saved offensive possessions are giving him more energy on the defensive end.

Tonight was one of the best games of his career, and when the Jazz needed it most.

And despite all of those improvements... it’s difficult to see a path for him to become a full-time starter in the NBA. He’s a pest defensively, but he’s not exceptionally strong or big. His efficiency has improved, but he’s still not super efficient. His basketball IQ has improved even more, but he’s not elite by NBA standards.

But he has turned himself into a very useful role player, and those are great to have. He’s just 24. In the end, I think it depends what kind of money he demands on the open market — someone who you’d like the Jazz to bring back, but probably not give up mid-level money for. Of course, the good news is that the Jazz don’t need to make this decision in December.

3. Ochai Agbaji struggles

Speaking of 6-5 guys... Ochai Agbaji is really struggling in his introduction to professional basketball.

Here are his G-League game-by-game stats so far.

Ochai Agbaji G-League stats.

This is discouraging in a lot of ways. He’s fouling a ton for a perimeter player, while rarely getting to the free-throw line himself. He has more turnovers than assists. He isn’t hugely helping on the glass. And the shot percentages are just pretty ugly: it’s not a good night when you score as many points as you take shots.

Agbaji is 22 years old — he was actually the oldest player taken in the first round this year. He should be outperforming this, but he’s really struggling.

At the NBA level, it actually looks a lot better, because he’s just asked to do less as a peripheral guy. I’ll take 2-5 3-point shooting any day. Inside the arc is the disappointment — I’m not sure he has an NBA-level handle right now.

Still, given these G-League performances, I understand why Hardy isn’t playing him: he’s not ready. Obviously, at 22, in the first few months of his rookie season, he’s not a finished product — there’s so much time to improve. There’s also just a whole lot to improve, too.

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