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Utah Jazz mailbag: Who could boost the bench and biggest NBA bubble surprises

Houston Rockets’ Austin Rivers (25) defends as Utah Jazz’s Georges Niang drives the basket in the second half during an NBA basketball game Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, in Salt Lake City. The Houston Rockets defeated the Utah Jazz 120-110.
Kim Raff, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz are just one game away from the playoffs and while their first-round opponent has yet to be decided, there’s still plenty to talk about.

What is on the minds of Jazz fans heading into the postseason? I put out the weekly mailbag call to find out.

There’s a couple of ways we could go with this. As the second unit is constructed right now — in the bubble — it would be great to see Georges Niang continue his improvement on defense. With his size and shooting ability, having a guy like him who you could trust on both ends of the floor would be hugely beneficial.

To his credit, Niang has definitely improved and there have been some really impressive flashes in the bubble of him on the defensive end. Unfortunately through many of those he was in a shooting slump and so they were overshadowed a bit. Now that he seems to have found his shooting stroke, this is a chance for him to really focus in on the other side.

With that in mind, a guy like Jarrell Brantley, if given some legitimate second-unit minutes, could really give the bench a boost on defense. He’s incredibly versatile, in the same way that Royce O’Neale is and has already impressed the Jazz coaching staff. Actually he has the fifth best defensive rating of any Jazz player in the bubble. It’s probably not as likely that Brantley sees the kind of minutes he would need to really become a part of the rotation between now and the end of the playoffs, but he’s a guy that I would really keep an eye on.

As far as skill level goes, all of these guys could have a career, the problem is just opportunity. It’s very hard to break into a rotation unless there are unique circumstances, which is exactly what I would say about the Jazz’s situation today.

Without Bojan Bogdanovic out and with the Jazz combing through the bench trying to get the most out of the players they have in the bubble, the mother of all unique circumstances, we’ve been able to see some really good things from these guys.

Juwan Morgan had already started to get some run before the shutdown in limited minutes and so had Rayjon Tucker. Now Miye Oni and Brantley are starting to get more looks for the Jazz. The great thing about all of these players is their defensive versatility, which is something teams are always looking for, but they can’t easily look for what isn’t available to see. It’s not a question of their talent, it’s a question of their opportunity.

Brantley, Morgan, Tucker and Oni are all talented players but it could take things like injury to rotational players, foul trouble and standout performances for them to really break through.

Actually, Jordan Clarkson isn’t a contender at all for Sixth Man of the Year honors.

Los Angeles Clippers players Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dennis Schröder are the finalists for the award as announced by the NBA on Saturday.

While Clarkson did receive buzz for the award, and deservedly so, his midseason move to Utah probably had most voters looking at other players who played complete seasons with a team.

T.J. Warren, Luka Doncic, Devin Booker/The Phoenix Suns.

I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone that had a top-3 bubble list that deviated much from that answer and it’s because these have been clear standouts.

Warren has had an incredibly strong year for the Indiana Pacers and has improved his defensive game by 10-fold since leaving the Phoenix Suns after last season, but when All-Star forward Domantas Sabonis left the bubble before seeding games started, Warren took things to a whole new level.

He scored 119 points through the first three seeding games and is averaging 31 points per game while shooting 52.4% from 3-point range. He has been the talk of the NBA bubble and for good reason.

Doncic has been absolutely insane since the restart. He’s been incredible all year — despite being just 21 years old — and part of the NBA’s best offense, but in the bubble he’s averaging a triple-double of 33.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 11.6 assists per game. His ability to score anywhere while seeing the floor with exceptional precision makes him one of the toughest covers in the league and he hasn’t slowed down at all in the bubble.

The Phoenix Suns, at the time of this article being published, are undefeated in the bubble and playing their seventh seeding game against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Suns came into the restart with most people completely uninterested in what they would do and are now a threat to be the eighth seed in the Western Conference when this is all over.

Leading the Suns’ charge through the seeding games is Booker, who is averaging 30.3 points per game and hit an absolute dagger of a game-winning shot right in the face of Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George in their Aug. 4 matchup.

If you would like to have your question answered, you can send it to me at stodd@deseretnews.com with “mailbag” in the subject line, or you can send it to me via Twitter @NBASarah with the hashtag #SundayJazzMailBag.

Every week a mailbag article will be published at Deseret.com answering many of the submitted questions, and I save some special ones specifically for the newsletter readers.