Utah Jazz rookie Brice Sensabaugh is adapting to a new role — and hoping it pays off

The No. 28 pick in the draft is spending most of his time in the G League, learning the nuances of becoming a wing in the NBA. And while he’s getting a chance to show off his passing, he’s also trying to prove he can be more impactful as a defender.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brice Sensabaugh, the No. 28 Utah Jazz NBA draft pick, addresses members of the media at the Utah Jazz Basketball Center, June 26, 2023.

Keyonte George has gone from a Day 1 rotation guy to the Utah Jazz’s lead ball-handler.

Taylor Hendricks has mostly been in the G League, but when injuries to a pair of big men necessitated someone else stepping in, he got a call-up from the parent club and an opportunity to contribute.

Brice Sensabaugh, meanwhile, has been flourishing with the Salt Lake City Stars … but still has just those 2 minutes and change in an NBA game from garbage time in the season-opening loss to Sacramento.

Three rookies taking three roads to the same destination.

“We all have different paths right now,” Sensabaugh said after a practice this week at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus.

Sensabaugh’s presence with the Jazz is noteworthy.

With three days in between Saturday’s overtime victory against the Blazers and Wednesday’s matchup with the Mavericks, the coaching staff saw an opportunity to get a couple of practices in. And an opportunity to have Hendricks and Sensabaugh get some work in with the NBA team.

It was a welcome surprise for the 20-year-old, who’s experienced plenty of change since being selected No. 28 overall in the NBA draft.

With the Buckeyes, Sensabaugh did a ton of isolation offense, a bunch of back-to-the-basket post-up stuff.

At 6-foot-6, that’s not really going to fly in the NBA, so he’s been working on his face-up game.

“Yeah, obviously, times change and roles change, especially coming to the NBA with the best players in the world,” he said. “… It’s definitely different. You’re right, obviously it’s going change. … I kind of played the 4 in college, to be honest, so I was in more of those back-to-the-basket situations. But now, being a 2, maybe a 3, [I’m] just trying to come off pin-downs and come off screens sometimes, just trying to see the game better, and learn. And it’s way different — this game is way different than college, even the G League [is way different than college]. The floor has more space, there’s just more stuff to work with, better players.”

He acknowledged that the learning curve is steep, but that he’s been putting the work in. Asked what’s most different for him now than when he first began training, Sensabaugh quickly settled upon his understanding of the pro game. He pointed to the Jazz’s trio of rookies as proof of concept, noting that while George caught on pretty quickly, it’s taken more time for himself and Hendricks.

In his 10 games with the Stars, Sensabaugh is averaging 17.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.3 steals, while shooting 43.8% overall, 39.5% on 3s, and 93.3% from the free-throw line. It should also be noted that he’s averaging 3.4 turnovers in 29.9 minutes.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Brice Sensabaugh (8) during NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.

The rebounding has been a welcome part of his game, though perhaps not an altogether surprising one, considering his size (6-6, 235 pounds). The passing numbers, however, seemingly have come out of nowhere considering he averaged just 1.2 assists with Ohio State.

He attributed that, in part, to his position change, as well.

“I’ve always had good [court] vision, I feel like I see the floor pretty well. But [as] mentioned earlier, roles change, so I think I get to tap into that a little bit more as a 2-guard,” Sensabaugh said. “The spacing is way different, a lot more different actions in the NBA, and it kind of simplifies the game and slows it down a little bit. At least the actions I’m running on offense. It’s worked pretty good for me so far, and the game is definitely slowing down.”

He’s been less effective on the defensive end, though, and acknowledged that he still has work to do in learning schemes and becoming an effective team defender.

There’s also an issue with focus, which he conceded. Then again, he also claimed that he’s not that far away from being solid on that end of the court.

“I think it’s mainly just staying engaged off the ball. I think I’m a pretty good on-ball defender,” he said. “Sometimes it feels like there’s a lot going on that end, especially as I’m making the jump to the NBA. So just staying engaged. I don’t think I have that much work to do, I think I’m pretty close to it. You know, effort is always a thing, because that’s mainly what defense is, it’s all effort. So [it’s] just understanding stuff, and make sure I’m in the right spot, and just give 100%.”

Sensabaugh added that even though each of the trio of rookies is on a different path right now, they’re all keeping tabs on one another.

It’s been constant communication between him and Hendricks, as they’ve been Stars teammates for most of the season. But he said that he and George talk at least once a week, and sometimes more.

They’re all trading notes on what their respective professional basketball experience is like.

He noted that sometimes they’re discussing off-the-court life, whether it’s the latest video game they’re into, or something more personal. Frequently, though, he said they’re “engulfed in the basketball,” and often get to discussing the schedule and the constant travel, and how they’re acclimating.

“Obviously, it’s way different — 82 games, like three times a college season,” Sensabaugh said. “… So it’s definitely an experience and it’s a grind, for sure. But that’s what we asked for, and that’s what the dream is.”

Well, that and some more minutes in actual NBA games, anyway.

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