The Utah Jazz have had an interesting season, to say the least. Prior to their roster changes, they were 18-12. This mark was certainly impressive, all things considered, but it left a lot to be desired considering all the win-now moves they made in the offseason — like the acquisitions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, for example.
They have some great wins over the Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. All those wins, however, came at home.
On the flip side, they’ve suffered blowout losses on the road to the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors. Those are solid teams, so the losses weren’t surprising. But it’s the way they lost those games – and a handful of others – that left supporters with a sour taste in their mouth.
Utah’s starting unit hasn’t really been an issue whatsoever. For five-man lineups in the NBA that have played at least 100 minutes together, the Utah Jazz have two of the top six when it comes to net rating. Each unit is an iteration of the starting five – the league’s second-best features Mike Conley at point guard and the sixth substitutes Joe Ingles.
The issues for Utah have come almost exclusively from their bench unit. Because of this, the Jazz front office got crafty and did what they could to improve the reserves with what little assets they sported. In the first trade since the Russell Westbrook-Houston Rockets deal back in July – putting an end to the longest trade-drought since 1968 – Utah sent Dante Exum to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Jordan Clarkson. They also waived struggling veteran Jeff Green to acquire G League standout, Rayjon Tucker.
Before the deal, five out of six of Utah’s primary bench players held a negative net rating on the season with Emmanuel Mudiay barely owning the only positive rating.
Justin Zanik decided it was finally time to mix things up, to some much-welcomed applause. Clarkson brings instant offense to Utah’s struggling bench as he’s averaging 14.6 points per game on a career-high effective field goal percentage of 53.2 percent.
In his first game with the Jazz against the Portland Trail Blazers on Dec. 26th, Clarkson showcased his scoring chops to the tune of nine points, albeit on inefficient shooting. His scoring has picked up dramatically, more recently with 19 points against the Los Angeles Clippers and 20 versus the Detroit Pistons.
Through three games with the Jazz, he’s averaging 16 points on 47.4 percent from the field, which is exactly what that bench has needed. He’s doing that on a notch over 24 minutes per night – that’s 23.9 points per 36 minutes. Obviously, Clarkson will likely never see that much time on the floor, but it’s showing that he’s fitting in as planned.
“Coach told me to come here and play my game,” Clarkson said after his first game in a Jazz uniform. “I’m just happy for the opportunity, playing and competing. I love the energy here. I just came here with an open mind.”
But when discussing his expectations for learning head coach Quin Snyder’s elaborate offense, Clarkson was optimistic in response.
“He puts guys in a lot of good positions, he runs a lot of screen and rolls . . . they spread the floor awesome,” Clarkson told Basketball Insiders. “Just going in there trying to learn what all he’s putting in is definitely going to be a challenge but I’m ready to pick it up and ready to jump right in.”
After his first performance, Snyder was quick to praise Clarkson too.
“You can tell there’s a hunger about him, he plays with a level of confidence that we need. Early on there was a late clock possession where he was able to get a shot so [he has] this ability to create both off the dribble and create for other people.”
Snyder continued, “I think he’s unselfish. He’s trying really hard to do things right and that’s hard when you’re not sure where to go and what to do. I think our team embraced him.”
Down the line too, the new-addition of Tucker brings some much-needed athleticism off the bench. It’s unclear how much of a role he will have early on with the Jazz, but his skills have been on full display for the Wisconsin Herd. In 16 games, he averaged 23.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists. Better, Tucker’s also been shooting 38.6 percent from deep in the G League, so that will only aid Utah’s No. 1-ranked three-point offense.
“Our approach has been experience in practice, experience in games in the [G League], opportunities which came early in the preseason, that’s been there and other games as well,” Snyder said about development their younger players and fluctuating playing time, including Tucker.
“Whoever can help us play well and win. And again, some of that’s situational.”
In the end, the Jazz will stick with whoever brings results — as any competent franchise should.
Donovan Mitchell, to his credit, was effusively positive about the Clarkson addition.
“He’s aggressive, I loved it. He’s learned on the fly. For him to understand some of the reads and the plays we’re running, for him to get it like that, that’s impressive,” Mitchell said. “People don’t understand that our system, what we run, it took me a whole year and a half to figure it out.
“So, I think for him just being able to learn, he’s going to keep finding his spots. It also helps that a guy like [Clarkson] you can give it to him, get in the paint and get a bucket. He’s gonna be a big piece for us.”
Best of all, the Jazz are 3-0 since Clarkson has joined the squad, with one of those wins coming against a red-hot Clippers team on the road. It’s a little too premature to call him the missing piece that will help lead them to their first NBA Finals birth since the 1997-98 season, but through his first couple of contests, the fit looks like a match made in heaven.
Clarkson’s scoring chops are a real thing – and he’s getting buckets at his most efficient level ever – so he provides Utah’s bench with the exact skill set they’ve lacked. If he’s proved anything over his career thus far, it’s that Clarkson can create offense by himself.
In July, it would’ve been tough to imagine Clarkson saving the day for the Jazz — and, admittedly, it’s early — but, so far, he’s just the shot in the arm this franchise needed.
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