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Utah Jazz prioritizing health, bench development as seeding games wind down

Deseret News logo Deseret News 8/11/2020 Sarah Todd
Trey Burke holding a basketball: Dallas Mavericks Trey Burke (32) shoots under Utah Jazz’s Rayjon Tucker (6) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. © AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool Dallas Mavericks Trey Burke (32) shoots under Utah Jazz’s Rayjon Tucker (6) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

SALT LAKE CITY — Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending wrist surgery is so much more impactful than just asking for more production from the already heavy-usage players. There are ripple effects.

When Jordan Clarkson came to the Utah Jazz in a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers in December, he immediately ignited the Jazz bench and added some scoring power that had been lacking. A second unit led by Joe Ingles with Clarkson, Georges Niang and Tony Bradley gave the Jazz a nice nine-man lineup to lean on.

Now, with Ingles back in the starting lineup, there isn’t that extra veteran, ball-handling presence on the depth chart. Granted, the rotations are staggered and when the games really matter you won’t see an all-bench lineup, and yeah, when the playoffs start not many teams go farther than an eight-man rotation if they can help it. But, never has an NBA postseason gone by when a deep reserve has not been called upon in times of trouble.

The Jazz’s number one priority heading into the playoffs is health, which is why they have allowed their starters to take some extra time off, including letting Donovan Mitchell nurse a minor lower leg strain rather than play in Monday’s 122-114 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.

“The other thing we’ve been really looking to do is just to evaluate some of our younger players in order to develop a bench in what is a shortened period of time,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “A lot of times you’re able to develop a bench over the course of a season.”

That’s not a luxury the Jazz have. When the season stopped, Bogdanovic was still under the impression he could potentially play through his wrist injury. Then four months passed without games and before the team knew it the Jazz were eight games away from the playoffs with an incredibly thin depth chart and missing the size and strength of one of the best shooters in the league.

It was even harder to have confidence in the Jazz when they started playing in the bubble and multiple players were in 3-point slumps, including Niang, who before the NBA shutdown had been the Jazz’s most efficient 3-point shooter.

When Niang is on, as he was against the Mavericks, going 4-for-4 from deep, things aren’t so bad, but since Niang isn’t a defensive specialist, if he’s not knocking down shots he becomes a liability.

“I was struggling a little so to start connecting on threes was really huge,” he said Monday.

Jordan Clarkson holding a basketball: Dallas Mavericks’ Maxi Kleber (42) drives as Utah Jazz’s Jordan Clarkson (00) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. © AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool Dallas Mavericks’ Maxi Kleber (42) drives as Utah Jazz’s Jordan Clarkson (00) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Clarkson is a notorious bucket getter, but he can often play too fast and fall into isolation-heavy possessions. Bradley will be getting the reserve center minutes, whether he’s ready or not, and then outside of that things started to look a little shaky for the Jazz, until recently.

None of this is to say that Miye Oni, Jarrell Brantley or Rayjon Tucker are going to be the keys to the Jazz’s success or that they are going to save the day and lead the Jazz to a championship. The point is that Snyder has elected to get them on the court more than they have been through their careers in hopes of finding something even remotely reliable should things get dicey during the playoffs.

Whether you believe the Jazz have tanked by playing mostly reserve players in order to get the sixth seed in the Western Conference — including blowing a 22-point lead against the Mavericks on Monday and being torched to the tune of 34-14 in the fourth quarter — the fact that they are allowing some of the low-usage players to get some run is incredibly valuable.

“We can talk about health all we want but there is reality, especially in a playoff series where it is so physical, and people are playing so hard. We’re going to have to at least have the option and the potential to get to the bench in some crucial minutes and that’s going to be important for us.” — Jazz coach Quin Snyder

“We can talk about health all we want but there is reality, especially in a playoff series where it is so physical, and people are playing so hard,” Snyder said. “We’re going to have to at least have the option and the potential to get to the bench in some crucial minutes and that’s going to be important for us.”

The physicality of the playoffs is bound to cause foul trouble at least a couple times as has happened more than once through the seeding games. So if Royce O’Neale needs to be replaced because he’s racked up early fouls, or even Clarkson or any of the guards, the Jazz are going to want someone that is defensively versatile with a frame that can handle the power of playoff basketball or the scoring acumen and speed to maintain the score. Enter Brantley and Oni.

“Being willing to throw those guys in the fire, it’s hard to do that in Game 2 of the playoffs if you haven’t done it in the regular season,” Snyder said. “Both Miye and Jarrell have given us an opportunity to do that and I think they’ve responded well.

“In order for us to be able to use those guys, it is important for them to play. Whether it’s playing with some of the regular guys in rotation or tonight when they are out there collectively.”

Tucker, who has had more playing opportunities through the season than Oni and Brantley is also a valuable asset for the Jazz as they look toward the playoffs. He and Oni both showed grit Monday in crashing the defensive boards, an area that has hurt the Jazz, and Tucker finished the game with a career-high 17 points.

Niang is familiar with what it’s like to have to earn a spot in the rotation, playing in just 32 games through his first two seasons in the league, so he knows what it’s like to be the young guy on the team with an opportunity to prove yourself and he says that he couldn’t be happier for the young Jazz players.

“They’ve worked endlessly for their opportunity and they’re really capitalizing on it,” he said. “And those guys are fearless, they don’t care who you are, they’ll run through a brick wall, and I’m so proud of them and so happy to be on this journey with them because it’s amazing to see the growth that they’ve shown since the beginning of the year.

“They get to do it, you know, on television, on the biggest stage and I think those guys are proving not only to the coaching staff but to us that they are ready to be tossed in at any moment at any time.”

The Jazz have just one seeding game left, against San Antonio on Thursday, the only game in the bubble so far for the Jazz with more than a day in between contests. Though the stars will be well rested, it wouldn’t be surprising if the rookies continued to get some substantial time on the court for one last look before the real show begins.

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