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NBA AM: Good Problems? Deciphering Utah’s Depth

The Jazz’s depth is posing big lineup questions even as they rack up wins, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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Midway through the third season of the best television show in history, one of the best television villains in history is contemplating a brighter future for himself.

Drug dealer Marlo Stanfield is winning his turf war with rival Avon Barksdale, and preparing for a reality where he might hold more territory and wear the proverbial “crown” of Baltimore hustlers. When an advisor points out that this also means he’ll be faced with more responsibility and pressure, plus rivals gunning for him, Stanfield’s response is among the more iconic lines in the show (warning: video NSFW).

“Sounds like one of them good problems.”

A “good problem” seems a bit like an oxymoron, but Marlo’s point was clear: A brighter future might present a few extra challenges, but they’re well worth the trouble.

And as watchers of The Wire will know, Stanfield did, in fact, hold it down once he took the crown, in some manner of speaking. He wore it longer than anyone else on the show, and was one of the only major characters in his line of work still living when the final credits rolled (plus, as we’re led to assume, he had a pretty nice chunk of change in his pocket for his efforts). A good problem, indeed.

Take away the drugs, the gangster rep, the cold-hearted murders and maybe a few other silly details: Marlo Stanfield and his good problems feel something akin to this season’s Utah Jazz.

Bear with me here.

From the moment the 2016-17 season began, Jazz fans everywhere had at least one eye toward a quickly approaching brighter future. Maybe they weren’t in line for a crown, per se, but only a few nagging injuries stood between them and the realization of a contender several years in the making.

And then a few more nagging injuries pushed the timetable back a little. And then a few more. The Jazz were winning games and staking themselves to a likely playoff spot the entire time, but it was hard to escape the feeling that their real rise lay ahead. With the full clip in tow, so to speak.

Fast forward a month, and it seems like the Jazz may have a few good problems on their hands – but potential problems nonetheless.

They’re still dealing with that same array of now-standard issues, with starters Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood both once again sidelined this week. But with those injuries hopefully minor and the rest of the team finally on the floor together, an interesting question is on the table in Utah: Is there such thing as too much depth?

When everyone is healthy, there’s an argument the Jazz employ 14 NBA rotation-quality players. Some of these are borderline, but look at the track records: Shelvin Mack started 27 games last season (the Jazz went basically .500 in those against a tough Western schedule); Raul Neto started 53 of his own in the same season, at an above-.500 clip; Jeff Withey played nearly 700 minutes, including 10 starts while Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors suffered overlapping injuries in early 2016; Dante Exum started his entire rookie season for one of the biggest surprise young teams in the league.

With some offseason additions and actual health, though, these guys are often relegated to DNP status. George Hill has stepped into the spot Mack and Exum may have otherwise battled for, and Alec Burks’ return to the lineup after missing nearly all of last season has given coach Quin Snyder the option to play neither of them (or Neto) behind Hill – an option he’s taken the last few weeks. Favors has mostly taken Withey’s backup center role when healthy as Snyder staggers his minutes with Gobert’s and works in guys like Boris Diaw and Trey Lyles.

“You just look at numerically – I think there’s only one lineup that’s played more than 100 minutes together all year,” Snyder said.

He’s right. Only the team’s ostensible starting lineup, a Hill-Hood-Hayward-Favors-Gobert length-fest that’s still somehow been a significant net minus on the year, has crossed the three-figure barrier. There are 75 such lineups in a 30-team league, and the Jazz barely even have one of them.

The NBA isn’t a video game, and player chemistry matters a lot; at the same time, having better players to fill the roles needed on the court is a decided positive. Suddenly, continuity – especially vital in a Snyder system that prioritizes cohesive movement and attention to detail – is beginning to emerge as a real challenge for the Jazz, even with more talent on the floor. Good problems, anyone?

“You’re not going to have some of the instinctive stuff that players have when they’ve played together a lot,” Snyder said. “You have that with individual guys, with combinations. But as you work new people in, that has to develop. It’s not a question of chemistry as much as it is repetition. It’s a good thing that we’re going through this.”

In the long term, there’s no doubt he’s right. The resilience through injury made them stronger, and the ability to keep winning while working major guys back in will do the same. In the present, though, it’s created two interesting rotational quandaries to consider.

Backup Point Guard

As if this one wasn’t already complicated enough with three guys behind Hill on the depth chart, each of whom started games for this team in the last 18 months, Hill’s own various injuries thrust both Mack and Exum into the starting lineup for periods at a time. Both have been relatively all over the place this season, and Snyder has appeared reluctant to use Neto as more than a change of pace.

More recently, with Burks back on the court and returned to a more impressive form than many might have assumed right away, none of the traditional backup guys are getting any run. Burks replaces Hill late in the first and third quarters, and functions as the de facto point guard with bench units.

“When we have that lineup, particularly if it’s Joe Ingles and Alec too, they’re sharing the ball-handling a little bit on some level,” Snyder said. The real emphasis is on the other end, where the Jazz’s backups have badly struggled containing quicker guards this year. “I think [Alec’s] athleticism allows him to be impactful [defending] the ball. His size. It allows us to switch certain matchups.”

It’s a smaller sample, but the Jazz are clearly succeeding in these minutes so far. It seems tough to question that Burks is the best available option currently.

Hanging over all this, though, is Exum’s future. The young Aussie’s absent campaign last year due to an ACL injury is looking more and more damning every day. Instead of entering his second NBA season holding the keys at the point for a franchise still in development mode, he’s in a logjam for backup minutes for a team that wants to win right now.

He’s clearly doing it on a different grading scale than other Jazz youth, too. When a guy like Lyles or Hood makes a glaring schematic mistake (they happen all the time, probably about as often as Exum in Lyles’ case), they may get a talking-to or even a yelling-at. When Exum makes the same mistake, he sits on the bench – often for the rest of the game, and sometimes for games at a time. His confidence is visibly shaken, to the point where it’s become common practice in Jazz media circles to watch for Exum looking back over his shoulder for the incoming sub every time he does something noticeably wrong.

Look, it’s no one but Snyder’s place to address his handling of Exum, something local media has already run him through his paces on. His developmental track record at multiple levels of basketball is beyond even a hint of reproach, and the very real possibility that Exum simply isn’t as good as his draft slot suggests, and might never be, looms over all of this. Snyder’s mandate is different this year, and as sad as it is, Exum’s devastating injury last season isn’t Quin’s fault.

Still, it’s likely the most interesting future subplot in a series of rotational complexities that mostly affect the present. Exum becomes eligible for a rookie extension following this season, and a completely justifiable emphasis on winning games right now is making it more and more likely the Jazz still have very little clue if he’s worth a future investment by the time July rolls around. It’s one of Utah’s current good problems that could turn iffy in a hurry.

Power Forward

Favors hasn’t been completely right all season, and his struggles with nagging injuries and form over the last year and change are at least a little concerning. What’s resulted is a bit of a revolving door at the four spot, with Favors typically starting each half alongside Gobert and then mostly functioning as the backup center after the first set of subs.

Diaw and Lyles both get their turns alongside Gobert each game. While it’s surely due at least in part to Favors’ nagging issues and some noise, both these combos have been better on a per-possession basis than Utah’s presumed starting frontcourt, by over double in Diaw’s case. There have been chunks of time where the Favors-Gobert combo looks too cramped to get buckets against focused defenses, and though their season-long figures are hovering near respectable together, Snyder has been totally unwilling to play them down the stretch in most close games.

Thing is, his best choice between these three options might be…none of them.

The Jazz have played 253 minutes of small ball with Gobert on the floor and no other traditional big men, per nbawowy.com. They’ve scored at a rate just a hair short of the Warriors during these stretches. In the 212 of those minutes where Joe Johnson has been the small four, both Utah’s offense and defense have been better than the league leaders in both categories on the year (again, the Warriors in both cases).

The numbers feel tough to match with the eye test for each of Snyder’s three traditional alignments. Each unit has strong and weak stretches, skewing toward the former, and each seems to have its vulnerabilities. With these small lineups, though, there’s no visible confusion alongside gaudy numbers: Utah is really potent, and there’s a good chance they aren’t sacrificing much defensively against a lot of teams.

There are fewer and fewer true brutes at the four in the NBA these days, and the few who play big minutes are usually giving up more on the other end to guys like Hayward and Johnson. If tweeners want to post those guys up, the Jazz will gladly take most of those looks. Meanwhile, Utah can switch all over the court around Gobert, now spreading his near-literal wings as the league’s most fearsome interior defender.

And if their defensive integrity continues to hold in these small groups, there’s little doubt these are the Jazz’s best looks. This is Gobert’s purest form offensively, a hyperactive screen-setter using his rim runs to vacuum up space for the four above-average three-point shooters dotting the perimeter.

All four can usually run some pick-and-roll, too, and the Jazz can pick on weak defenders regardless of where the opponent hides them – something Snyder can look to more often in a matchup-driven playoff series.

Snyder has noticed how good they are small, and there are times where it feels like he’s resisting the urge to lean on these lineups more at the expense of his three traditional power forwards. And can you blame him? Those guys are each legitimately good!

It’s evident he sees the writing, though: Over half these small minutes come in the fourth quarter, and many have been in high-leverage crunch time moments. As the games get bigger, you wonder how much more he’ll be willing to expand their role. If they’re healthy come playoff time and the roster stays intact, the Jazz have at least five guys they can cycle through the four perimeter spots – six or seven if Snyder can trust Exum or Mack for minutes here or there.

Once again, there are some future ramifications here for these good problems.

Favors is at the center; he hasn’t had the same success minus Gobert, with those lineups mostly treading water even against a lot of bench-heavy units. Untangling his diminished play from his health issues is priority one for the Jazz, but if the answer isn’t encouraging, the clock is ticking.

Lyles is still inconsistent, but he looms as a more mobile, rangy option who provides a cleaner theoretical offensive fit alongside Gobert. Next year will be Favors’ last at his bargain contract before he gets very expensive; his value in a hypothetical trade gets lower every day until then, and even as it feels painfully early to say it, these are the kinds of things Dennis Lindsey and Utah’s front office have to consider.

Maybe this is an overreaction to what are still cloudy data samples, even if the eye test seems to back them up. Lyles is still a long way away in several areas; he’ll cover up a lot of them if he ever hits enough open threes to change the way defenses play him, but he’s taken a big step back there this year. Diaw has stretches where he’s fantastic, and fewer others where he looks his age. It’s possible that balance changes as the year wears on and legs get heavier.

If Favors’ negative indicators are all health-related and turn around soon, there are plenty of ways this works moving forward. Diaw is on a non-guaranteed deal next year, and Snyder’s willingness to use Favors as a center against benches opens up more minutes for more spaced out options around him and Gobert.

The Jazz sit fourth in the West as of this writing; it’s a bit strange to see a team with that much success despite still ironing out so many kinks in the details.

“We’re still finding out about our team,” Snyder said. “It’s a little more discovery. We know our guys – and then you have to continue to see how they play and fit together.”

These have been good problems so far, but even some good problems might need solutions. The next few months will be telling for one of the league’s deepest and most complicated teams.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes

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The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge

Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.

Matt John

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Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.

Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.

“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”

Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.

July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists

Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.

“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”

On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.

“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”

Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.

“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”

In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.

“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”

When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.

In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.

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