The Triple Team: Have the Utah Jazz found a diamond in the rough?

The Jazz have won back-to-back games after a brutal 13-game losing streak, thanks to the play of Kenneth Lofton Jr.

(Eric Thayer | AP) Los Angeles Clippers guard Bones Hyland (5) and Utah Jazz guard Johnny Juzang reach for the ball as Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker (5) and forward Kenneth Lofton Jr. (34) watch during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Friday, April 12, 2024.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 110-109 win over the Los Angeles Clippers.

1. Seriously, could Kenneth Lofton Jr. be something?

Andy wrote about Kenneth Lofton Jr. last night, but honestly? Lofton Jr. deserves an encore tonight. This is the same man who bullied Victor Wembanyama in the 2021 under-19 World Cup, dropped a 40-piece in his only NBA start, and averaged the second-highest points in the G League this year. Frankly, I’m surprised he was ever available for the Jazz to pick up to begin with.

Beyond the obvious touchpoints, Lofton is just a mover. He’s off the screen while finding his spot here, but he’s battling for it before the ball even crosses halfcourt — and he gets rewarded for it!

His transition dunk a few minutes later was the highlight of the night. There’s something to be said about his athleticism here, it’s super impressive.

Probably his best staying skill for the NBA is his rebounding. It’s a minuscule sample size but in his ~200 NBA minutes, his teams have rebounded 6.5% more of their own missed shots when he’s playing than when he’s on the bench. It’s easy to see, too. He’s just such a hustler, and it’s hard not to love a guy like that.

He reminds me a bit of a few guys that excelled in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this year. Colorado’s Eddie Lampkin Jr. and NC State’s D.J. Burns Jr. (ironically, all of which are Jr.’s) have similar builds, though he’s 3-5 inches shorter than the two of them. Regardless of the height difference, it feels as though both professional and college basketball officials have been moving towards giving offensive advantages to players who play into the defender’s chest for years, and who does that benefit more than big-bodied bruisers?

Regardless of what lies in his future, it’s exciting that the Jazz have him under a non-guaranteed contract for the next three years. If his summer doesn’t go well? The Jazz are under no obligation to keep him over other end-of-roster guys. If it does? Well, this feels similar to how Utah found themselves paying Royce O’Neale next to nothing for three seasons of starter-level production.

2. Could Brice Sensabaugh become a point guard?

In the last six games, Brice Sensabaugh has run 28 pick-and-rolls and the team scored 40 points on those pick-and-rolls. Utah also didn’t turn the ball over once in these possessions. It’s a small sample size, but it’s also encouraging to see. Since he’s only 6-foot-5, could Brice become a point guard at the NBA level? Talen Horton-Tucker was drafted into the league as a wing, yet has played almost exclusively at the point during his time with Utah.

Here’s one look that impressed me in Thursday night’s game against the Rockets. Brice anticipates the switch and watches the help-defender’s feet while feeling the screen open a passing window to Lofton.

It’s something we saw in the G League from Sensabaugh, where he averaged 3.3 assists per game and created 7.6 possessions per game. I’d love to see the Jazz experiment more with it in this year’s summer league as they did with Ochai Agbaji last year, and I suspect the results would be more positive than they were with Agbaji.

3. Was the Russell Westbrook trade worth it?

At this point in Utah’s rebuild, there have been essentially six trades where the Jazz moved players for draft picks. Donovan Mitchell returned three first-round picks and two options to swap picks. Rudy Gobert returned three unprotected draft picks, one lightly protected pick, and one pick swaps. More recently Utah moved Kelly Olynyk along with — by virtue of the Mitchell trade — Ochai Agbaji for another late-first. Royce O’Neale and Simone Fontecchio relayed picks on either end of the first round.

The most controversial of the bunch is when Utah moved Mike Conley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker for Russell Westbrook, who never dawned a Utah uniform.

The semi-frustrating thing for Utah fans is that all of these players are pretty good, actually. Conley’s on the wrong side of 36 now, but he’s clearly made a significant winning impact for Minnesota. Vanderbilt started his way through LA’s conference championship run and was trending up from a poor start to the season before his toe injury in February. Beasley’s been starting all year with Milwaukee and might’ve hit his career’s peak, shooting 42%. Nickeil Alexander-Walker has been one of the best 3 or 4 defenders on the best defensive team in the league in Minnesota. And of course, Russell Westbrook has been valuable assuming the 6th man role behind James Harden.

Utah walked out of this deal with a single top-4 protected pick from the Lakers set to convey in 2027. It’s a bit ironic for a team that is still haunted by its choice to give up a top-12 protected first-round pick to move Derrick Favors’ $10 million contract.

Yet, the Westbrook deal is still arguably a net-positive move for the Jazz. The Lakers are riding on the final years of a 39-year-old Lebron James, they are devoid of cap flexibility, and only have two first-round picks available to be traded. In the next three years, LA could look very similar to how they did from 2015-2018 when the aging cliff caught up to Kobe Bryant and company. With Utah still likely to be years away from title contention, the idea of cashing out their shares of players with value and using the vacant roster spots to try to spot new talent is precisely what gave a player like Simone Fontecchio the chance to shine in the first place. Looking through the list of the players like Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley, then Simone Fontecchio and Kris Dunn, and now Darius Bazley and Kenneth Lofton, Utah’s ideal rebuild seems to consist of throwing darts and cashing value on the players with the most positive returns.