Are Utah Jazz rookies Taylor Hendricks and Brice Sensabaugh meeting expectations in the G-League?

The first-round draft picks have both showed promise — and some problems — early on as pros.

One rookie is starting for the Utah Jazz — Keyonte George. The other two, Taylor Hendricks and Brice Sensabaugh, have only appeared in NBA action for two minutes.

Instead, they’re biding their time in the G-League.

You, understandably, probably have not watched very many Salt Lake City Stars games. But nevertheless, you may well be curious about how both players have played in their first taste of professional basketball.

Here’s what you need to know.

Taylor Hendricks

As you can see above, Hendricks has gotten out to a rough start to the season with the Stars statistically. The worrying thing is that, as a top-10 pick, he is struggling on the offensive end in significant ways against G-League competition. From 3-point range, 31% is acceptable in a small sample size. However, 40% from inside the arc is not.

Taylor Hendricks' shot chart. (gleague.nba.com)

The biggest problem here is the shots he takes in in-between ranges. If it’s not a dunk, a simple layup, or a catch-and-shoot three, he’s struggling right now. He forces some bad shots while trying to attack closeouts. Finishing in traffic is a noticeable weakness; he’s just so skinny and doesn’t have the craft to force defenders to either foul him or miss the contest.

On the other hand, if he doesn’t have to finish in traffic, he can use his length and athleticism to dunk. And perhaps Hendricks’ sneakiest offensive skill is his ability to take his normal 3-point shot over tough closeouts, knowing that his high release means it’s rarely going to be blocked.

He’s not a good playmaker right now, turning the ball over twice as often as he gets an assist.

I also think there’s some real footwork and timing things he needs to get down. For example, he’ll sometimes cut into the path of a teammate’s drive, bringing help toward the play at the wrong time. His timing is off elsewhere too: It’s just awkward when he chooses to slip or roll. These are typical rookie mistakes, but they can throw a wrench into things for the Stars’ offense.

Defensively, there’s some good and bad. The good news is that when Hendricks is engaged, in the right spot, and knows what he’s supposed to be doing, he looks absolutely elite. His length is bothersome for all of his opponents in isolation. In transition, when he gets back and is in the right spot, his sense of timing can create highlight-reel plays. When his rotations are well-timed, the weak-side blocks are so promising.

The bad news is that this doesn’t happen enough. He’s frequently a step early or a step late in his help. If he’s too early, it’s an easy pass to his man for an open three. If he’s too late, the opposition has a free lane down the rim.

The other worry is that he doesn’t apply himself frequently enough. He’s got excellent length for his position, but needs to be flying around the court to make an impact. (Think of the way Andrei Kirilenko made plays in a Jazz uniform, for example.)

Is this play his fault? Not really. But could he have run back defensively faster to pick up the shooter? Yes. (And then he’s easily boxed out by a smaller Warrior if there does happen to be a miss.)

In short, he looks a little bit shy defensively. Truth be told, he’s also a bit shy personally right now, moving to Utah and the NBA at a young age. I think there’s a role for him as a potentially game-changing havoc creator, but he’ll need to show he can execute base defense effectively first before hitting maximum potential.

All in all, I understand why he doesn’t have a role on the Utah Jazz right now. Even as a lottery pick, and even though the Jazz are a rebuilding team, his mistakes would make life difficult on the other Jazz young players who are further along, like George and Walker Kessler. I think he’s at the point where playing major minutes in the G-League, and potentially building confidence and know-how there against weaker opposition, is the best thing for his development. It’s clear that he’s better now than he was two weeks ago, which is a great start.

I thought he’d be more ready to contribute right away. Top-10 rookies generally end up playing their rookie years primarily in the NBA. But it doesn’t mean he’s a bust — it just means his prodigious tools have to be significantly sharpened in order to be useful.

Brice Sensabaugh

Sensabaugh has had pretty much the G-League experience you’d expect him to have given his college production — with one hugely notable addition that may well change what to expect from him.

First, note the scoring. The 3-point shot has been hitting, and he’s also been able to finish well inside the paint, which is a great sign given the increased length he’s facing at the G-League level. He does take some bad midrange shots, though, which hopefully get ironed out of his game.

Brice Sensabaugh's shot chart. (gleague.nba.com)

But that wonderful addition is the passing. Sensabaugh has remarkably become one of the most reliable playmakers on the Stars, averaging nearly five assists per game. He only averaged 1.2 per game in college, a remarkable switch to flip. There are some remarkable plays in this video, for example.

There are also mistakes — that low pass in the corner at the end of the game is an example. But while the execution is developing, that he has his eyes out and is looking for teammates is so promising to see from a player who didn’t end up doing that much last year.

It’s worth noting that he’s doing his part and then some on the glass. He actually averages more rebounds than Hendricks, despite the height and length disadvantages.

In essentially all of those categories, I think he’d add something to the big-league Utah Jazz.

Defensively, he’s been more of a negative. He’s yet to get a block, though he has picked up 1.4 steals per game. On-ball, he’s basically been okay when asked to defend one-on-one.

The worries are mostly off-ball. Standing at 6-foot-6, he can make plays, but isn’t reliably getting himself in position to make them, playing more of a passenger role defensively. It would also benefit him to get in somewhat better shape for the NBA level.

Focus is the biggest question for Sensabaugh from play-to-play. He gets lost on a couple of plays here, for example. It’s the kind of plays that NBA coaches wouldn’t be happy with at all, especially given that he’ll be a role player when he’s called up.

But truthfully, despite going No. 28, Sensabaugh is probably more NBA-ready than Hendricks right now. He could play in the NBA tomorrow, and I wouldn’t think it would doom the Jazz by any means. He’d be a plus bench scorer who struggled on the defensive end — like a lot of bench scorers do.

The question is pretty simple, though: would he benefit more from 30 minutes per night in the G-League or 5-10 minutes per night with the Jazz? There’s enough defensive mistakes that he can clean up that the decision to try to get him more reps playing the same system in the minors makes sense for now, so long as he focuses on improving there.

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