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The TribUte: Utah basketball has a David Jenkins Jr. conundrum

A fifth-year junior with almost 1,800 career points, Jenkins Jr. has seen a diminished role for Utah of late

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard David Jenkins Jr. (1) as the Utah Utes host the Westminster Griffins, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021.

As the University of Utah basketball team has gone winless over the last month, there has been an interesting subplot bubbling, which now appears to be coming to a full boil following the Utes’ 63-58 loss to No. 9 UCLA late Thursday evening.

David Jenkins Jr.’s role seemed to be undefined, but now, whatever that role is, it is shrinking to almost nothing.

On Thursday, the UNLV transfer checked in at the 15:44 mark as the eighth man off Craig Smith’s bench. He picked up a foul and checked out at 12:07, subbed back in at 9:34, picked up his second foul at 8:23, checked out again, and that was it. His night was over.

Five minutes, zero points, zero shot attempts, the two fouls, an assist, and no run in the second half as the Utes pushed the Bruins to the limit for 40 minutes. Jenkins Jr. went scoreless for the third time in six games, and it would have been four out of six had he not knocked down a transition 3-pointer with 35 seconds to play in an 18-point loss at Arizona last weekend.

Thursday’s scoreless outing came after Jenkins Jr. appeared to turn a corner, dropping 14 points and playing crunchtime minutes at Arizona State on Monday.

In the middle of all that, it should be noted that Smith substituted liberally on Thursday night. At the 11:00 mark of the first half, Smith had played 11 players. That included third-year walk-on sophomore guard Eli Ballstaedt and Jaxon Brenchley, who played sparingly at Arizona and not at all at Arizona State while dealing with an ankle injury.

In seven minutes, Ballstaedt played hard and brought some energy to the lineup. Brenchley played smart, aggressive, and well in scoring a season-high eight points in 13 minutes. Both players drew postgame praise from Smith.

Ballstaedt ate up rotation minutes. Brenchley’s minutes have fluctuated, but he clearly earned more opportunities after Thursday. So, as things pertain to Jenkins Jr., now what?

Jenkins Jr. has been a consistent topic of postgame questioning, and it came up against Thursday night.

“He had two fouls in the first half and I really loved how we were playing,” Smith said. “He got his second foul, we took him out and I thought we had a really good mojo, good rhythm, really good timing, and the way we were guarding.

“You go to practice on a day-to-day basis and Eli makes plays. Jaxon had a minor injury last week and wasn’t quite as sharp, but he was really good in practice yesterday. He was really good, and we’re going to reward performance.”

You can read between the lines there, right?

Other things on my mind

Bradlee Anae signed a reserve/future contract with the New York Jets on Wednesday. Good for Anae, who became a victim of a logjam of quality defensive ends with the Dallas Cowboys before being released on Nov. 2, then re-signed with the practice squad. There is undoubtedly an Anae–Zach Wilson buddy cop comedy waiting to be written.

Lazar Stefanovic is a significant piece of the Utah basketball program’s future. So is Gabe Madsen. I’m not sure of a lot these days watching this team, but I feel certain that those two freshmen are going to play a ton for Craig Smith if both stick around.

• You can argue who Utah’s best player is, but Branden Carlson is Utah’s most-important player. That becomes more clear with each passing game he does not play in.

• UCLA star guard Johnny Juzang is a seasoned pro when it comes to selling a foul. He made four trips to the foul line vs. Utah on Thursday night. At least two, probably three of them were the result of him selling the contact, which, to me, is a real skill, although it is being outlawed in the NBA this season.

• Here comes Oregon (12-6, 5-2 Pac-12), steadily moving towards the NCAA Tournament after a 5-5 start overall, including 0-2 in the league. Dana Altman is still the coach, which means the Ducks will almost always be there when it matters.

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