DENVER — So much of this season is going to be about watching for the continued improvement and development of players who could possibly be on the next iteration of the Utah Jazz.
So when guys such as rookie Ochai Agbaji and second-year guard Leandro Bolmaro get extended minutes for whatever reason, it’s worth taking a deeper look at how they did.
On Friday night in Denver, the Jazz were a little shorthanded. Rudy Gay and Simone Fontecchio are in the league’s COVID health and safety protocol, Walker Kessler (illness) also stayed behind in Salt Lake City and then Collin Sexton, Kelly Olynyk and Talen Horton-Tucker ended up in foul trouble.
That led head coach Will Hardy to not only try out some smaller-than-usual lineups, but also give Agbaji and Bolmaro a chance to spread their wings a little bit.
Though Agbaji was an excellent shooter his last two seasons at Kansas, on Friday night he scored all of his points either inside the arc or at the free-throw line. That’s great news for those of us watching and evaluating who want to get a better look at what else he has to offer.
The two things that stood out the most on Friday were Agbaji’s ability to finish and his awareness off the ball.
First of all, really impressive for both Jordan Clarkson and Agbaji to keep this ball in play, but then Agbaji spins to lose his corner defender and gets enough hang time at the rim to double-clutch and land the bucket.
On this next one, you get to see Abaji’s timing and spacial awareness without the ball.
A couple of soft screens put Clarkson and Lauri Markkanen on the 3-point line, and with Horton-Tucker driving baseline, there’s little defensive attention on the middle of the floor where Agbaji runs in for an easy bucket.
“I thought Ochai did a good job recognizing his opportunities to cut from the perimeter,” Jazz head coach Will Hardy said. “I thought he got out and ran in transition.
“You know, Ochai’s taken the challenge defensively that we’ve kind of given him, and his physicality can really impact the game. For his first NBA minutes in the regular season, I thought he represented himself very well.”
When it comes to Bolmaro, the two things that really came across on Friday were his ability to play with speed and still make quick decisions and also that he is pesky on defense and doesn’t give up, even if he’s outmatched.
First, a look at Bolmaro’s playmaking. This play had some people wondering why Bolmaro didn’t just go up for the bucket, but I’m of the opinion that he made the right choice.
Bruce Brown gets Lauri Markkanen in a tough spot, and Markkanen finds Bolmaro under the basket. It’s not great position though because once he puts the ball on the floor he’s got Brown, Christian Braun and Nikola Jokic ready to contest and Bolmaro is much smaller.
In a split-second decision, he gets the ball back to Markkanen, who now has the room to score.
In the above clip, Bolmaro knows he’s going to kick out to the right corner and drives with intent. Despite moving quickly, he’s able to jump, which gets Brown in the air, and wait until he has a clear passing lane to Agbaji, who then swings the ball to Horton-Tucker, who drives in for the score.
Finally, in this last one, Bolmaro is picking up Bones Hyland full court — something Bolmaro did most of the time he was in the game.
He slides his feet well on defense and is really quick and doesn’t get beat often. Even though he’s screened on this play and is trying to catch up, he doesn’t die on the play and actually gets his fingers on the ball just as it leaves Hyland’s hands.
“We love Leandro’s toughness and we love his ability to guard the ball,” Hardy said. “The pace that he plays with, the fire that he plays with on both ends, is definitely representative of how we want our team and our program to be. ...He really made some strong drives and kicks and got our offense moving with some good decisions in the paint.
“We’re happy to have him in our program and I think he’s got a bright future.”