The Triple Team: The cold, hard truth of starting three Jazz rookies on display

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Taylor Hendricks (0) passes around Houston Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr. (10) as the Utah Jazz host the Houston Rockets in NBA action at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 29, 2024.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 101-100 loss to the Houston Rockets from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Starting all three rookies just makes it tough to win

I’ve been asking around the Jazz recently: “Why are you this bad?” Why are the Jazz the worst team in the NBA after the trade deadline? On paper, you would not expect the departure of Simone Fontecchio, Kelly Olynyk, and Ochai Agbaji to make them the worst.

But the truth is that the biggest problem is not the departure of those three players, all role players worth 2-3 wins over the course of an NBA season. The problem is that the rookies are pretty bad at playing a lot of minutes in their stead. This was the case tonight, as the Collins/Collin pair led the Jazz to a close game, while the rookies struggled to make an impact on both ends of the floor.

Taylor Hendricks has a 11.8% usage rate right now while making a below-average points per shot for a forward, 1.1. He has just a 3.9% assist rate, only fourth percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass. He’s very good at getting blocks, but doesn’t get many steals and has one of the worst foul rates in the league.

Taylor Hendricks offensive stats since Feb. 8. (Cleaning the Glass)

Taylor Hendricks defensive stats since Feb. 8. (Cleaning the Glass)

Keyonte George is using way more possessions, but isn’t a very efficient player. Maybe more worrying recently is that his assist rate is down. Nor is he impacting the game on the defensive end of the floor or as a rebounder.

Keyonte George offensive stats since Feb. 8. (Cleaning the Glass)

Keyonte George defensive stats since Feb. 8. (Cleaning the Glass)

Brice Sensabaugh has the worst points per shot of the three, but has found a useful way to contribute with his passing and rebounding. Unfortunately, the turnovers are worst-in-league, and the defense hasn’t been there either.

Brice Sensabaugh offensive stats since Feb. 8. (Cleaning the Glass)

Brice Sensabaugh defensive stats since Feb. 8. (Cleaning the Glass)

Now does this mean that the three rookies are hopeless as NBA prospects? No, of course not. All three have been thrown in the fire, and just because they’re currently getting cooked doesn’t mean that will be the case forever. But if these three rookies were 5-year veterans, we’d be begging for them not to play and for the Jazz to get role players of the Fontecchio/Olynyk/Agbaji ilk.

2. On Keyonte George’s brain

So given how poorly they’re playing, why is there belief in the young guys? That’s what one Jazz fan asked.

It’s a fair point: Sexton is playing incredibly well this year, while George isn’t. By the metrics alone, the Jazz should be prioritizing Sexton as their point guard of the future.

But there are mitigating factors that make all the difference.

First, the age gap. George just turned 20, Sexton just turned 25. While George has a lot of developing to get to Sexton’s level, players are capable of taking absolutely huge leaps in their early 20s in a way you just don’t see as much later in the age curve.

Second, the size gap. While Sexton is listed at 6-3, he’s closer to 6-1. George is more legitimately 6-4. Both have 6-7 wingspans. Still, the hope is that George can use his additional height to good use while playing defense, especially in a playoff situation. To be frank, he hasn’t shown that defensive ability so far.

Third, the salary gap. George is paid $18 million cumulatively over this season and three next. Sexton makes $18 million per season for this season and two more. If George gets good, it allows the Jazz more salary flexibility to do things.

Fourth, the Jazz are really optimistic about George’s brain. Here’s Jazz coach Will Hardy:

“Keyonte is really, really smart. He’s really, really smart in general, and that applies to basketball. He watches a lot on his own, which is very rare these days. He’s at home watching League Pass, watching games. So with that he has pretty quick recognition of things. He has an ability to learn things fast. He has really good recall. He can remember plays that we ran three weeks ago that we haven’t scripted in a while. We actually had a scrimmage yesterday, and he called a play after a free throw that, I’m dead serious, we probably haven’t run in a month.

“So he has a really, really unique brain for a young player. I think that’s where he’s got a big advantage on everybody else because it’s going to hopefully be able to kind of accelerate his learning curve. Basketball is pattern recognition when it comes down to it on the offensive end. And the best players are the ones that know all the patterns and can recognize them quickly. Keyonte has shown the ability to do some of that.”

Sexton’s not dumb, I’m not saying that. But as a 25-year-old, he does miss some pattern recognition elements on both ends of the floor that the Jazz believe (or hope!) George will get by the time he’s that age.

3. The Wolves’ ownership situation

The Athletic had a must-read article this afternoon on the Minnesota Timberwolves situation. To wrap up, current owner Glen Taylor announced he’d no longer be selling the team to proposed buyers Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez (yes, the baseball one). Meanwhile, Lore and A-Rod say they’re still contractually in line to buy it.

If you’re a Jazz fan, you have to read that situation with glee. There’s a common phrase used among NBA people about this: “Ownership is the biggest competitive advantage in the NBA.” If the Wolves have a difficult ownership situation, aren’t they likely to go downhill? And the Jazz own the Timberwolves next seven drafts after this year — if the Timberwolves go down in a blaze of self-inflicted immolation, the Jazz are the obvious beneficiaries. Indeed, there was some significant rejoicing upon this news from some in Jazz Twitter.

On the other hand... I’m not so sure that this matters as much in sports as it used to? Collective Bargaining Agreements are pushing teams closer and closer to one another in order to bring more parity. Leagues have gotten so good at supporting the departments of individual teams with the resources they need to succeed, even without the influence of ownership.

Look at the last two NBA and NFL champions. The Denver Nuggets are owned by the Kroenke family, who are not super well regarded. Moving the St. Louis Rams, getting involved in lawsuits, making it impossible for much of the Colorado fanbase to watch the Nuggets, it’s all been not great. But here they are, an NBA champion, because they got the right players and right coach at the right time.

The Kansas City Chiefs are back-to-back NFL champions. Their owner, Clark Hunt, was given an F- grade by NFL players in a player association poll, worst in the league, and I’m not sure the grade he’d get from Chiefs fans overall would be any higher, despite the titles.

My point is: the Wolves having a bad ownership situation doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll encounter trouble on the court. Indeed, they look well set up there for years to come.

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