In the NBA bubble, the young players at the end of the Utah Jazz bench are more important than ever
Rookies Rayjon Tucker, Juwan Morgan, Miye Oni, Nigel Williams-Goss and two-way players Jarrell Brantley and Justin Wright-Foreman have become invaluable for things that won’t be seen on any stat sheet
KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The most prevalent sound in the NBA bubble arena is not the music or the talking on the court. It’s the cheering from the team benches.
It’s pretty easy to tune out the artificial crowd noise and the virtual fans during the game, but it’s impossible to ignore the chatter and support that teammates are providing. It’s also incredibly noticeable when the bench quiets and fails to step up to plate as the only source of encouragement a team has.
“Oh, man, they’re super important right now. Normally back home, you don’t necessarily have to stand up on every play or you don’t have to be the loudest one in the gym, but you literally have to be the loudest ones and show the most emotion and just really be behind each other because at this time, we’re all we’ve got.” — Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley
Players on the bench cheering for their team is nothing new in the NBA, but it’s gone from something that is easily overlooked to being vastly important, and that task that’s usually performed by thousands of diehard fans now falls largely on the low-minute players and rookies that make up the end of the roster.
Utah Jazz rookies Rayjon Tucker, Juwan Morgan, Miye Oni, Nigel Williams-Goss and two-way players Jarrell Brantley and Justin Wright-Foreman are part of large contingent of players in Florida who will likely not see very many minutes, if any at all, during the seeding games or playoffs, but they’ve become invaluable for things that won’t be seen on any stat sheet and won’t garner them any love from scouts or other team executives.
“Oh, man, they’re super important right now,” Mike Conley said of the group providing energy while on the bench. “Normally back home, you don’t necessarily have to stand up on every play or you don’t have to be the loudest one in the gym, but you literally have to be the loudest ones and show the most emotion and just really be behind each other because at this time, we’re all we’ve got.”
To be perfectly honest, in a packed arena with 20,000 screaming fans, the guys at the end of the bench who are intensely cheering are often seen from the outside as a cute and cheerful part of sportsmanship rather than an absolute necessity.
Though these players did not come to the NBA to be cheerleaders, they’re not downtrodden by their new roles. The opportunity to have a real impact on a game, even without getting minutes, is meaningful.
“Everybody on our team is important in one way or another, and you have to look at it like that,” Brantley said in a phone interview.
Hunger to improve
When the Jazz first arrived in Orlando, there were questions about where they would be as far as conditioning and how long it would take to refresh their memories regarding Quin Snyder’s system after months away from the team.
“The rookies have been ahead of the game,” Donovan Mitchell said of the young players. “I think that’s been one of the biggest things as well as everybody’s conditioning, too. I think that’s been a big standout.”
Snyder said he wasn’t surprised by the younger players’ commitment to growth or that what they’d been able to show in practices had stood out to Mitchell and some of the other stars on the team. And of course, it was the defense that was most notable to Snyder.
“One of the biggest things they’ve done is they’ve defended,” he said. “Particularly in a practice situation like this to have guys come in and really guard, it challenges our rotational guys to make plays and to be really good and have to make reads because the defense is good. That’s been a big help.”
Arriving in Orlando in good shape and with a hunger to improve and impress was not an accident by the players at the end of the Jazz’s bench. They know how fleeting an NBA career can be, and how you present yourself in practice and through adversity could be the thing that sticks in someone’s mind.
“I wanted to make sure that there was nothing negative or nothing in the way of me being able to contribute,” Oni said in a phone interview. “I just wanted to be ready for anything, whether it’s practice or in games, just to be ready for it all.”
The three scrimmages that led up to Thursday’s restart of the season provided a unique chance for some of the non-rotational players to get some run and show off their skills. While those minutes often come in garbage time when the result doesn’t matter or the game is all but decided, those minutes are meaningful.
Also, it’s not like nobody is watching. Basketball fans love to see developing players get minutes. It’s a glimpse at what the team has that can grow into something great in the future, and Jazz fans in particular are ravenous when they get a chance to check out what the rookies have to offer.
But it’s not just the fans or scouts from other teams thinking about seasons to come. The veteran players on the team are also watching, and they’ve been impressed with what they’ve seen.
“I see a lot of growth,” Jordan Clarkson said. “They still have to continue to grow. A lot of them are still playing fast, but that’s the same process I had to go through when I was a rookie, just slowing down, seeing the game. A lot of them are taking a lot of steps forward.”
That’s all that group of players can hope for, that they continue to get better and their efforts are noticed and appreciated. On the Jazz, there’s no doubt that they are.
“It always feels good to be believed in,” Brantley said. “Getting their attention means a lot. I know I have a lot to work on but it’s a start.”
It should be no surprise that the young guns on the Jazz have formed a bond. Many of them have spent most of the year playing together with the Salt Lake City Stars, the Jazz’s NBA G League affiliate, and are close in age.
But the Jazz rookies are particularly close and can often be seen featured in each other’s social media posts, betting that one won’t jump into a pool with all of their clothes on, taking part in air hockey battles that involve war screams and an intensity that is instantly recognizable among friends who love to compete.
“We all just genuinely like each other and like spending time with each other,” Oni said.
That group also includes Tony Bradley, who is also one of the Jazz’s younger players and before this season spent much of his time in the G League. Now, Bradley is a regular rotational player coming in as backup for Rudy Gobert.
His progress and position on the roster is not only a promise of what could come for the rest of the younger players, but a point of pride.
“I’m proud of him,” Brantley said. “He just wants to be the best version of himself, and he works really hard. He’s still young, too, so that’s something that people should be really excited about and his development so far.”
While Bradley will be seeing major minutes and be playing in the playoffs for the first time in his career, it’s possible that Tucker, Morgan, Williams-Goss, Oni, Brantley and Wright-Foreman stay on the bench for the rest of the time in the bubble.
There’s always a chance for them to be called on, especially when foul trouble and injury are as unpredictable as can be in the NBA, but there’s no guarantee and those aren’t things that they younger players are rooting for.
What they are rooting for is the Jazz, and embracing their new roles as the loudest and most energetic part of the new NBA.
“I think the guys on our bench take pride in picking each other up,” Brantley said. “There’s opportunity here and that’s part of the opportunity — being able to help whether you’re on the court or not. That’s one of the things that I like the most here. We still matter. It’s a special and unique thing going on out here in the bubble.”