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Analysis: Ochai Agbaji’s opportunity, lesson from DeMar DeRozan and where the Jazz lost the game

The Jazz were outscored 42-29 in the fourth quarter.

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Utah Jazz guard Ochai Agbaji (wearing black) goes to the basket as Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan (11) and center Andre Drummond (3) defend

Utah Jazz guard Ochai Agbaji (30) goes to the basket as Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan (11) and center Andre Drummond (3) defend during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Chicago.

David Banks, Associated Press

CHICAGO — The Utah Jazz lost another one on Saturday night, falling to 20-22 on the season.

I’ll get to why I think the Jazz couldn’t beat the Chicago Bulls, but before I dive into the negative, I first want to focus on a couple of positive aspects.

Opportunity for Ochai

Jazz head coach Will Hardy said earlier this week that he thought it was time to start working Ochai Agbaji into the rotation, that the work Agbaji has done behind the scenes deserved some reward.

On Thursday night in Houston, Lauri Markkanen scored a career-high 49 points, and with an absolutely straight face Hardy said the game ball went to Agbaji, who had a career-high 11 points for the Jazz.

Hardy didn’t mean it as a joke, he was dead serious, and for good reason. Agbaji has been given only garbage-time minutes on top of his work in the G League and it’s really hard to stay ready and present and confident and patient when that’s the situation. But Agbaji has managed to be all of those things despite his shooting struggles in the G League and his lack of opportunity.

Then, on Saturday night in Chicago, Agbaji scored a career-best 19 points off the bench, going 7-of-7 from the field including hitting four 3-pointers. He was also scoring off the dribble and working to find seams in the defense. His game started to open up even more.

How is it that Agbaji is making the adjustment so confidently after a start to his rookie season that has been difficult?

“His time with the Stars and in the NBA is a small sample size,” Hardy said. “Ochai was National Player of the Year at Kansas and won a national championship, it’s not like he’s never played good basketball, and he was a very good shooter while he was there. I think it’s about finding a little bit of rhythm — understanding when the shots may come and where they may come from.”

It’s hard not to think about Jared Butler, who was never able to really put a stamp on the game and whose confidence was understandably shaken with the transition from national champion to underutilized rookie.

Agbaji has managed, so far, to avoid falling into the same rut and the Jazz are really hopeful about Agbaji’s future. Of course, we’re again talking about a small sample size, after only a couple of games with Agbaji playing meaningful minutes, but the early returns have been nice.

Lessons from DeMar DeRozan

Both Agbaji and Talen Horton-Tucker spent a lot of time guarding DeMar DeRozan on Saturday night. I feel like it is a really, really bold choice to put two really young players, including a rookie, on a player of DeRozan’s caliber.

DeRozan is one of the smartest offensive players in the league and he’s incredibly good at drawing fouls, a thing that young players are notoriously bad at avoiding. You could tell that Agbaji had been warned about biting on DeRozan’s pump-fake. Agbaji, more than once, jumped before DeRozan let go of a mid-range shot and the rookie quickly put his hands down at his sides and tried to land as straight as humanly possible. But you could tell from early on that he was scared of DeRozan exploiting him to get to the free throw line.

Even so, it was impressive that DeRozan didn’t get Agbaji into foul trouble. Horton-Tucker was doing a pretty good job too and his length as a defender is a great tool against a player like DeRozan.

As the game progressed and the two players did eventually get called for a foul, both started to relax a little against DeRozan. Their defense wasn’t as tight and they were worried about getting into DeRozan too much and getting caught with their hands in a bad place.

Additionally, when these two young players go back and watch the film, they’ll probably see that DeRozan backed them down into the paint right where he wanted to be. He’s an excellent midrange player and once he’s there, even a contested shot is a good one for DeRozan.

I point out all of this to say that Hardy was teaching some valuable lessons to these young players, using DeRozan.

“I think what happened to both those guys is you end up backing off, you start only thinking about fouling and so you stop contesting, you’re not guarding him quite as close and then he gets to shoot a couple rhythm jump shots,” Hardy said. “This is part of the life of our team right now — you just get thrown in the fire. I don’t care and we don’t care that you don’t have much experience guarding the best scorers in the NBA. This is our team, this is our roster, and you have to be willing to be put in those situations.”

Why the Bulls beat the Jazz

The Jazz were outscored 42-29 in the fourth quarter and as I rewatch all of the Bulls offensive possessions, a few things pop out.

The Jazz were obviously on the wrong side of an incredible clutch shooting performance by the Bulls. They had shot 33.3% from deep through the first three quarters and then they went 6-of-7 from deep in the fourth. And, as stated above, they started to get a little tentative with the way they were guarding DeRozan.

But the Jazz also were their own worst enemy in a few other ways.

Patrick Williams, who had gone 0-7 through the first three quarters, had been defended well and was only taking contested shots. But then on three straight possessions in the fourth quarter, Williams was ignored by Rudy Gay and left wide open. So on the next trip down the floor, he knew he’d be wide open for a 3, and he was. He hit two such 3-pointers in the fourth, which were huge for the Bulls.

DeRozan had the room he needed with Horton-Tucker failing to put pressure on him, and Zach LaVine started to read the defense with intention. He caught Malik Beasley sleeping on a late clock situation then later waited for Mike Conley to go under on a screen. That was two fourth-quarter 3’s in the bank for LaVine and then he was in a rhythm, so when he got Jordan Clarkson on his back and in a bad position to contest, he let another one fly. He missed one with Kelly Olynyk guarding him, but then later blew past Olynyk, using his athleticism to get to the rim.

The Jazz were just too relaxed on the defensive end in the fourth quarter and they let the Bulls get into a perfect rhythm and let them pick their shots and spots. Eventually, that put the Jazz into a double-digit hole and they couldn’t claw their way out.