In a flash of confusion, disappointment, heartbreak and occasional hope, the offseason came and went for the Utah Jazz.
Normally considered a “down period” for the NBA, this summer was anything but relaxing for the Jazz, who lost their two most productive scorers and completed a handful of trades to add a new starting point guard and potentially the steal of this year’s draft. Training camp, which begins on Sept. 26 for the Jazz, will be more meaningful than in years past, not only because Utah will try to integrate its new talent, but because Quin Snyder will have to cut at least one of his players.
Attempting to fill the voids created by the departures of Gordon Hayward and George Hill, the Jazz signed a number of role players to multi-year contracts this offseason, including Thabo Sefolosha, Ekpe Udoh and Jonas Jerebko. While their roster spots are secure with the Jazz, the team will also have players in training camp who’ll have to compete against each other for a locker inside the newly renovated Vivint Arena.
Barring any unforeseen trade, the Jazz will enter training camp with 16 players under contract who have at least partial guarantees. The league doesn’t allow teams to begin a season with more than 15 players on a roster, not counting the two players who are designated for “two-way” contracts, which the Jazz have also filled with Nate Wolters and Eric Griffin.
When camp begins, teams usually have a couple of fringe players on their rosters who are often ones that play the same position. That won’t necessarily be the case for the Jazz, since point guard Raul Neto, swingman Royce O’Neale and big man Joel Bolomboy are all on the cusp of making the team.
Based on how the team’s structured, one of the aforementioned players — unless, again, an unexpected move occurs — won’t be on Utah’s roster come Oct. 18 when the Jazz start the season against the Denver Nuggets.
Salary for 2017-18: $1.47 million
If you wanted to find Neto this offseason, he wasn’t difficult to spot. He was usually partaking in all the summer festivities alongside Rudy Gobert and Ricky Rubio, including summer league at the University of Utah.
Show me a better NBA bromance. pic.twitter.com/H5mMMvQGJR— Taylor Griffin (@griffdunk) July 27, 2017
Having spent two years in Salt Lake City, Neto’s teammates have embraced him like he’s a member of the Jazz core. But it’s going to take more than familiarity for Neto to stick around.
Neto’s contract won’t become fully guaranteed for this upcoming season until Jan. 10, so his play in training camp could determine his future with the Jazz.
Utah Jazz guard Raul Neto poses for a photo on media day at their practice facility in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
In 2015, Neto played well enough to steal minutes away from Trey Burke, which appears more of an indictment on the latter than a measure of success since Burke is now a free agent.
Neto showed poise, able to run an offense without Snyder worrying about him doing anything out of the ordinary. Per 36 minutes, Neto averaged 11.4 points and 4.2 rebounds and made an impressive 39 percent of his attempts from three. A year later, though, Neto had a difficult time cracking the rotation behind Hill, Shelvin Mack and Dante Exum.
After appearing in 81 games in 2015-16, Neto only played 40 times for the Jazz last season, some of it due to injury. His playing time was sliced in half, so naturally, the number of possessions he had decreased, along with his shots attempted. He was essentially Utah’s fourth point guard.
Mack, the reason for Neto’s relegation in the rotation, is now with the Orlando Magic. Neto could have the biggest shot at making Utah’s roster as a result of this off-season shakeups.
Standing in Neto’s way is Dante Exum (who’s penciled in as the primary backup point guard) and Wolters, who’s had stints with the Milwaukee Bucks and New Orleans Pelicans. Wolters also played in preseason for the Washington Wizards last year.
Comparatively, there’s not much separating Neto and Wolters. Neither possess tremendous upside, but have skill sets to be serviceable when called upon. Both have solid court vision, play within their roles and have sub-par outside shots.
Wolters is going to be spending most of his time in the NBA G-League with the Salt Lake City Stars, but if he stands out in training camp, Neto could quickly become dispensable.
Neto has to find a niche and that could be his defense.
Per-36 minutes — which could be deceiving, but is a projection most useful for players who aren’t getting consistent minutes — Neto led the Jazz in steals with 2.2 per game last season.
Snyder and the Jazz continue to view defense as the foundation of the team. No one likes a pest unless they’re on your roster. Neto should focus on being a disruptive defender, punching his ticket to a guaranteed contract.
Salary for 2017-18: $1.3 million
Bolomboy’s contract for this upcoming season is fully guaranteed, but the Jazz are stacked with bigs, three of whom weren’t on the roster last year (Udoh, Jerebko and Tony Bradley).
Trey Lyles was included in the Denver Nuggets deal that netted Utah Donovan Mitchell in June, but the Jazz have five bigs under contract who are presumably ahead of Bolomboy in the rotation — Gobert, Derrick Favors, Jerebko and Udoh. Joe Johnson will also likely see more time at the four spot after performing well in small lineups during the postseason. Bradley, whom the Jazz acquired 28th overall in a trade with the Los Angeles Lakers on draft night, will also have a chair at the end of Snyder’s bench this season.
Utah Jazz forward Joel Bolomboy poses for a photo on media day at their practice facility in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
At 23, Bolomboy isn’t quite in his prime, but he’s old enough to start showing polish. Although he only played 53 minutes in his rookie season, Bolomboy appeared ready to contribute for the Jazz after a dominant season in the G-League. Bolomboy averaged 16.5 points and 13.3 rebounds, while shooting 54 percent from the field and 47 percent from three. Defensively, Bolomboy was an effective rim protector, blocking more than one shot per game. All around, Bolomboy was developing into a player the Jazz could rely on and eventually call up to their main roster.
Then summer league began and Bolomboy failed to carry the momentum over from the G-League. Bolomboy put up 6.5 and 5.6 rebounds, making just 36.5 percent of his total shots in five games. Griffin nabbed playing time away from Bolomboy, averaging 9.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks — enough to earn a two-way contract with the Jazz.
Bolomboy went from looking like a rotation big in the G-League to just another player in summer league, where the competition was higher. Bradley, who’s 19, can get away with unproductive moments because he has untapped potential as a project player. That’s not true for Bolomboy.
Utah’s coaching staff won’t be running plays for Bolomboy, so he has to find a way to make an impact without scoring, like Griffin did in the summer. Utah was in the bottom half of the NBA in rebounding last season (19th) and Bolomboy’s most valuable trait on the court seems to be his willingness to crash the glass.
If he can turn some heads with his energy and rebounding, Bolomboy could stick in Utah, but it’s going to be an uphill battle with the amount of bigs already on the team.
Salary for 2017-18: $815,615
As far as guaranteed money goes, O’Neale’s contract would be the cheapest to shed since only the first of his three years is on the books. But the Jazz must’ve seen something in the relatively unknown prospect to sign him to a multi-year deal, hoping that he’d become one of the rare bargain deals in the NBA.
O’Neale went undrafted in the 2015 NBA draft and ended up playing basketball overseas, where he averaged 7.3 points and 4.8 rebounds in Spain last season. In summer league, O’Neale averaged 4.6 points and 3.6 rebounds for the New Orleans Pelicans.
Baylor forward Royce O'Neale (00) reacts to his three-point shot over Kansas State in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015, in Waco, Texas. | Rod Aydelotte, Asociated Press
None of the mentioned statistics jump off the screen, but O’Neale is a player who contributes in ways beyond the stat sheet. He prides himself on being a scrappy defender, a reliable outside shooter — he made 39 percent of his threes during tournament play in Spain — and someone who could help the bigs out with rebounding.
Nowadays, it’s easier for teams to play up to four wing players at the same time without worrying about losing size. At 6-5, O’Neale could play shooting guard and small forward for the Jazz, which theoretically increases his chances of making the team.
Hitting shots from the perimeter with confidence is going to be what will make the difference for O’Neale. In club play (32 games), O’Neale made 33.8 percent of his 3-point attempts. For all European competition, including the Eurocup in 2015, he made 33.5 percent of his threes. The 3-point line is 1 foot and 7 inches deeper in the NBA than it is in the Euroleague, but teams typically space the floor more effectively at the highest level, creating more open shots.
The days of getting playing time in the NBA without a jump shot are long gone. O’Neale has to make at least 35.8 percent of his threes to hit the league-wide average.
Joe Ingles was in a similar situation not too long ago, but forced the coaches into playing him after proving his worth as a shooter, and now he’s making $14 million annually. Shooting has never been more coveted than today and could be career-changing for someone like O’Neale.