Aussies in NBA: Joe Ingles talks leadership, Exum and his breakout season

Joe Ingles and the Utah Jazz both find themselves in an unfamiliar position.

For the Jazz franchise, the dog days of an NBA season are different this year. After being safely removed from the playoff race during Quin Snyder’s first season, and on the fringes of achievement last year, the Jazz are fighting for something tangible this February. As the All-Star break approaches, Utah is firmly entrenched within the top half of the Western Conference, sitting just two games (in the loss column) behind the third seeded Houston Rockets.

After a four-year playoff drought, it appears Utah will return to the NBA playoffs this season. In other words, the Jazz are finally where they have been telling the NBA world they belong.

“Our goal is to make the playoffs.” That was how George Hill set expectations for this Jazz season back in September.

“Anything less is not a good season for us. We want to get to that.” Such a proclamation completed Hill’s pre-season prediction. Utah was a sexy pick to vault into the West’s upper echelon, and all that thought-provoking appeal has been overtaken with tangible achievement.

The sense of belonging and validation that characterises the 2017 Utah Jazz is also the best way to describes Joe Ingles’ breakout NBA season. The same successes are evident in Ingles, the Jazz’s jack-of-all-trades.

He is no longer just the token Australian brought in to mentor Dante Exum, or just the go-to for every Twitter joke (although, there are still some good ones floating around the Twitterverse). Instead, Ingles is an NBA sharpshooter and there are smart NBA minds and analytic systems, such as Steve Shea’s perimeter defence rating, which indicate unthinkable defensive results such as this.

I mean, the fact that Ingles being “snubbed” for the NBA’s three-point contest is real news kind of says it all. Australian larrikin Joe Ingles is now bona fide NBA contributor Joe Ingles.

In the midst of a career season, Ingles sat down with The Pick and Roll during the Jazz’s recent home stand. In a conversation that reinforced the boyish charm which has made Ingles a fan favourite in Utah, he touches on all things Jazz basketball, the old men of Salt Lake City, fitting in and why his Australian running mate remains on track.

Ingles’ role on the Jazz

Ingles has seen consistent minutes for the Jazz all season, but his role changed in January. With Rodney Hood battling knee injuries, Ingles was inserted into the starting lineup. We asked the Australian whether there were any challenges with switching between the starting five and the bench.

“Not really. The biggest part is starting and not coming off the bench after five or ten minutes, or whatever it is.

“Obviously, the roles are a little bit different. Starting with Gordon (Hayward), Favs (Derrick Favors), George (Hill) and Rudy (Gobert) is different than coming off the bench. Just trying to fill in a different role. Trying to get those guys involved. Get them some easy looks early.”

While Ingles was quick to downplay the impact of stepping into a starting role, the positive results from his time with the Jazz's frontline are impossible to ignore. The five-man unit consisting of Ingles and Utah’s other four starters (Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors Gordon Hayward and George Hill) has a net rating of 10.9 this season. In comparison, the same four regular starters plus Hood have a negative rating of 4.7.

“When coming off the bench sometimes you try to be a bit more aggressive,” Ingles noted. “Obviously, the biggest thing is just not starting. Getting used to coming off and sitting down for 15 minutes or whatever it is.”

However you slice it, Ingles proved in January that he could perform when given a starting opportunity. He has now returned to the bench, but the Jazz have a proven option should Hood succumb to further setbacks.

On the addition of George Hill, Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson

“They’ve been massive,” Ingles proclaimed when asked to speak on what the additions of Hill, Diaw and Johnson have done for the Jazz.

“With George starting and doing what he does, bringing what he does. Boris with his veteran leadership and communication. And Joe’s a great guy to have around with his leadership. He’s a bit more quiet than the other guys but you can just tell by his daily work ethic and the little things.”

The combination of Hill, Diaw and Johnson added over 2,800 games of NBA experience to the Jazz. More significantly for Ingles, all three are on the wrong side of 30 and swiftly replaced Ingles as the old man of Utah’s locker room. We asked Ingles what it feels like to suddenly be one of the guys, and not the old guy anymore. The response was emphatic.

“No, thank god! That was the happiest I’ve been when they signed those guys.”

On leadership and his NBA age

Despite now having senior figures to lead the way, Ingles remains an atypical NBA athlete. In just his third NBA season, Ingles is 29 and much more travelled than his NBA contemporaries. Dante Exum for example, who is also in his third NBA season, is just 21.

Hayward, the Jazz’s newly minted All-Star, is 26 and in his seventh NBA season. Throughout his entire NBA career, Ingles has been equipped with life experiences that exceed what a “standard” NBA athlete in his place should have, a feat which is not lost on the man himself.

“Yeah, it’s funny I guess.” Ingles replied at first, when asked about leading younger professionals with more NBA experience. “Especially when I first came in. Trying not to step on anyone’s toes and fit in a little bit. Trying to see how it works.

“My first year and a half, first season and a half, was a lot of learning and a lot of watching.”

When talking to Ingles, you get the sense that his first 18 months in the NBA were a fact-finding mission as much as anything else. It’s not that he didn’t want to impact an NBA locker room, far from it. Rather, he was deadset on being himself whilst making sure his trademark character could integrate into the confines of the American sporting machine.

“The cool thing in the situation was that I was always going to be myself and be me. That’s talkative and saying the things I see or the things I think can help the group. From day one, all the guys were really accepting. I think just the group we’ve got, I think it’s a pretty unique group, obviously a lot of Europeans guys here.

“Was just trying to fit in while still being myself. I think the guys were great and its only got better and better as the groups gone on.”

On his journey

Ingles' path to his breakout season is the Australian sporting dream. A South Australian prodigy who was plucked from his home at age 16 and sent off to the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, Ingles was overhyped at 18, overlooked at 21, lost in the bowels of Europe at 23, and somehow managed to find his way into the Staples Centre to guard Kobe Bryant during the dying moments of his career at aged 28. Quite the journey!

We asked Ingles whether he ever thought that he’d be in the NBA, be involved with a moment like guarding Bryant during his final game or playing on a team pushing for a top four seed. And in trademark style, the answer was brutally blunt and honest.

“Probably not!” Ingles exclaimed, before admitting that the NBA was a goal when starting up with the South Dragons back in 2006.

“[The NBA] was just something that I had to keep working to. I wasn’t really given an opportunity. The first real one I got was with the Clippers, but I guess the real opportunity to get out there and play was here with coach Quinn.”

On Dante Exum

“He’s 21 years old. The first year he got thrown into starting. Our record showed that we weren’t the greatest team. We were probably at the end of that rebuilding phase.

“Obviously the knee injury hits you pretty quick for six. It was always going to take time. He’s 21 and got so much basketball in front of him. If you look around, I think Gordon didn’t play his first two and a half years in the league.

“As long as he keeps the right mindset, keeps working hard, he’s going to come out and when he gets his opportunity. Like he did tonight, play hard and do what he does. Tonight (being January’s performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder) was a great showing, especially for not playing in the last three or four games.”

In trademark fashion, the undeniable highlight from our time with Ingles came in the form of a banter-laden comment. See, we managed to witness Ingles on a night where he dunked the basketball, in real life NBA game! Talk about all your Christmases coming at once.

Unbeknown to me, it was the third time (according to Ingles) this season when Aussie Joe has thrown it down, well as much as he can throw anything down. But the significance of three ordinary moments in a league full of the extraordinary means so much.

“Me and Boris (Diaw) have a bet on that. I’ve got to beat him by the end of the season. I’m up three zero.”

And the prize awaiting the victor of this bet is something money can’t buy. “I don’t think we actually came to an agreement on it. Just a bit of fun.”

Just a bit of fun, that’s Joe Ingles in a nutshell. The Australian sporting misfit, who is now the most loveable Australian here in America.

Ingles and the Utah Jazz are headed for the NBA playoffs. Both posses the charm that defines their humbles roots and success hasn’t changed them. Free agency, life changing contracts and the realties of professional sport await Ingles in the offseason, but there is still much fun to be had before life gets too serious.