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‘Throwing strikes’: How the Jazz’s willingness to pass has upped their assist game

‘The willingness to pass, we have that as a whole, one to 15,’ says Donovan Mitchell

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell passes the ball as New Orleans Pelicans guard Eric Bledsoe watches during game Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Salt Lake City.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Even as the NBA continues to evolve and drift farther away from the cookie-cutter roles that traditionally defined its players, it can still be very easy to put players into a box.

Mike Conley is a playmaking guard. Royce O’Neale is a defensive specialist. Donovan Mitchell is a dynamic scorer.

Sure, those things are true, but there’s so much more to their games than just the single thing that stands out to the untrained eye.

One thing that struck me during the Utah Jazz’s win over the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday — and has stood out all season — was the number of effective and accurate passes from players not known for their creating skills.

Conley, Mitchell and Joe Ingles have the ball in their hands for the lion’s share of Jazz games and are responsible for the majority of the Jazz’s assisted baskets, which makes perfect sense. If this, then that.

But the Jazz’s best (or most efficient) passer might actually be O’Neale.

When O’Neale is on the floor he accounts for about 10% of the Jazz’s assists, which really doesn’t seem like a lot, but relative to his usage, it is a lot.

Of the Jazz’s nine main rotational players, O’Neale’s usage rate is the lowest at 9.9%. When you factor together those two things, the number of assists O’Neale has considering how low his usage numbers are, he ranks in the 93rd percentile per Cleaning the Glass in assist-to-usage ratio.

It’s not just that he is an effective passer. He’s also accurate and dynamic in his passing. He’s not just passing on handoffs or lobs.

Take this pass from O’Neale to Bojan Bogdanovic. O’Neale has to lead the pass and pass over his own defender as well as the much taller Rudy Gobert. He makes it look simple and crisp but that’s a really difficult pass to time and execute.

O’Neale, who is also one of the Jazz’s best defenders and rebounders, is often one of the players pushing the break after a steal or rebound, which requires a totally different set of skills. The ability to read the situation quickly and be aware of a trailing shooter or an opening elsewhere is not something to be taken lightly and O’Neale does this very well, as evidenced below:

He’s also not deterred by pressure and is really the personification of passing up a good shot for a great shot.

In this clip, when the Pistons were still making a fourth-quarter push to keep the game close, O’Neale could have continued his drive to the basket. He might have made the layup over Mason Plumlee, or Plumlee could have fouled him, or blocked his shot.

Rather than find out what would have happened against Plumlee, O’Neale shot the ball to the corner to Bogdanovic, who had just hit a 3 from that exact spot on the Jazz’s last offensive possession. Easy money.

And it’s not just O’Neale who is proving to be an effective passer. Across the roster, Jazz players have improved their assist numbers over the past two seasons and many players’ assist percentages are up this season compared to last year.

Mitchell and Bogdanovic laughed during the game about one of their connections, because it’s usually Bogdanovic on the receiving end of a bullet pass from Mitchell rather than the other way around, which was the case Tuesday night in the second quarter when Bogdanovic threaded the needle to a cutting Mitchell.

“The willingness to pass, we have that as a whole, one to 15,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s what makes it special, that’s what makes it fun. We enjoy making those passes to each other and I think that’s what makes this group special, that’s not always the case.”

There are some times when O’Neale has been known to pass up what would be considered the great shot, much to the chagrin of fans and others.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder doesn’t want his players to give in to those moments of temptation to ‘overpass’ just for the sake of an extra pass and miss out on an open opportunity that the team worked so hard for.

“If we make an accurate pass, we’ll get a shot,” Snyder said. “That accuracy in the pass and ‘throwing strikes’ as we like to call it, is really, really important for our team because if you have an open shot, we want to shoot against those close outs, and the passing allows us to do that.”

Rather than shooting over a set defender or a defender who only has to take one step to get a hand in the face of a shooter, the Jazz’s passing forces the defense to rotate so many times that eventually you’ll end up with a shooter that has a defender running to close out. That’s the great shot.

The Jazz roster is full of players who are constantly hunting that open player, from Gobert and Derrick Favors to Jordan Clarkson and Georges Niang.

Of course Conley and Mitchell and Ingles always have their fare share of dimes and they make it look easy, too. But it’s noteworthy that the Jazz are also reliant on the passes and secondary assists (for which they are fifth in the league) from every man on the roster.