Recapping the 2017/18 season: Is Joe Ingles the most valuable Aussie this year?
Imagine for a moment, that the ‘Most Valuable Battler’ award actually exists in the NBA. This prestigious honour -- also possibly known as the Luc Longley Award -- is bestowed upon the best Aussie performer in the league each season, with recent recipients being Patty Mills, Andrew Bogut and Matthew Dellavedova. Future recipients on the other hand, would likely be made up of a regular rotation of Ben Simmons, Ben Simmons and Ben Simmons (or maybe younger Aussie talents like Josh Green or Jonah Bolden if the voters got Simmons fatigue, just like how the league came down with LeBron fatigue, or the sustained bout of Jordan fatigue in earlier years.)
This season though? Well, the MVB Award might just go to Jazz wing and Aussie Boomer stalwart, Joe Ingles.
When Utah lost All-Star forward Gordon Hayward to the Celtics in the off-season of 2017, many anticipated that move jettisoning the Jazz's immediate playoffs future.
However, like the unforeseen rise of Ingles as one of the premier two-way players in the NBA, the Jazz shocked most by securing the fifth seed in the muddled, yet extremely talented Western Conference.
If rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell acted as the fuel that made the Jazz engine run in 2017-18, Ingles was the lubricant that greased the parts, and made everything else work properly. The Aussie solidified himself this season not just as a genuine NBA starter, but as a top 10 small forward in the league.
Let’s break down the season that was for Ingles, and access how he may have put Ben Simmons’ stranglehold on the hypothetical MVB Award on hold for at least one more year.
When Gordon Hayward elected to join forces with his former college coach Brad Stevens on the Celtics, it left a sizeable hole in Utah's overall offensive scheme. In his last season with the Jazz, Hayward led the team in usage percentage at 27.8, meaning that when on the floor, the Jazz went to Hayward over a quarter of the time on offence. Combine that with the departure of George Hill to Sacramento, who was second on the team in usage percentage, and Utah all of a sudden had a significant hole in their offensive productivity.
Between them, the departing starters provided Utah with 38.8 points and 7.7 assists per game in 2016-17, production that had to be recouped elsewhere.
While rookie Donovan Mitchell took most of the offensive burden, Ingles upped his usage percentage to a little over 17 once Rodney Hood was shipped out of town mid season, up from 13.9 a year prior.
With the ball in his hands more frequently, the Aussie averaged career highs in both points (11.5), and assists (4.8), while still remaining in the upper echelon in terms of efficiency in the league.
Ingles’ role in head coach Quin Snyder’s offense evolved from that of mostly a catch-and-shoot player, to being a playmaker for his squad. The Aussie's assist percentage increased from 17 percent last season to over 22 percent this year, while still featuring the second-best assist to turnover ratio on the Jazz.
“He’s an incredible playmaker,” Donovan Mitchell told NBA Australia earlier in the season.
“He knows the game, he calls the plays... There are times where I might not be playing well and he's always there to tell me 'don't worry about it, keep shooting, keep doing this, keep doing that' whatever it may be."
Ingles’ ability to find teammates is often benefited thanks to his supreme three point shooting. With defenders often scrambling to close out on him, Ingles was more willing to put the ball on the floor and drive and dish.
"He's learned to use fakes, ball fakes, pass fakes, shot fakes," coach Snyder told The Salt Lake Tribune late last season.
"And with his size, he's still able to see. He's able to throw a lob. I like to say he's got his eyes out. He's worked at that."
While the development of Ingles as a genuine playmaker may have surprised some, his status as one of the top three-point specialists in the league again this season comes as a shock to no one.
The 30-year-old shot 44 percent from three this year, tied with Klay Thompson for the fourth best percentage NBA wide. His 204 made three-pointers set a Utah Jazz regular season record for the most in a single season ever, shattering the previous record of 179 set by Randy Foye in 2012-13.
This seems like a logical time talk about gravity. Not actual gravity, but gravity in the basketball sense. When a player is a significant threat from deep, it forces opponents to stay home on that player rather than help off on others (refer: Curry, Stephen). Ingles being a 44 percent shooter from three this season means he has a certain pull, a gravity, that draws defenders closer to him. This gifted teammates like Donovan Mitchell, Derrick Favors and others more space to drive or post up unencumbered by double teams. Next time you see a highlight reel Donovan Mitchell jam, look to see if Ingles was standing on the perimeter. Don't be surprised to see Jingles' defender completely glued to him, as Mitchell strolls through the lane.
Ingles came into the league with a sound defensive reputation thanks to his size, length, and ability to guard multiple positions on the perimeter. With many defensive schemes across the league now relying on switch-heavy systems, Ingles’ skillset has only increased in value since his inaugural year in the NBA.
The Aussie was often tasked with defending the opposition's best wing player, which, in the Western Conference, includes players like Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Paul George and James Harden. Quin Snyder’s defensive schemes thankfully allowed Ingles to receive help, with Jae Crowder able to switch on ball, and others willing to show help. Of course, having arguably the most impactful defender in the NBA, Rudy Gobert, defending the basket behind the Aussie certainly helps those on the three-point line switch with more confidence.
During Utah’s first round playoff series against the Thunder, Ingles was used as the primary defender against Paul George a total of 231 times across six games. Those 231 possessions yielded just 52 total points for George, well under the All-Star's usual output.
Similarly, Ingles guarded lethal Houston wings Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza 166 times combined in round 2, giving up a mere 17 points when acting as the main defender.
The story of the 2017-18 Jazz can be split into two distinct phases, separated by a loss against the lowly Atlanta Hawks on the road in mid-January. The defeat meant the Jazz were sitting nine games below .500, and any hope of proving the post-Gordon Hayward doubters wrong was all but extinguished. While Ingles would go on to produce career-defining performances inside the lines during the regular season and playoffs, his work behind the scenes during this precarious phase helped define what would eventually become an overwhelmingly successful season for Utah.
Speaking to the Salt Lake Tribune in January, Ingles’ teammates were enamoured with his leadership throughout Utah’s rocky first two months, with Mitchell, coach Snyder, and lead guard Ricky Rubio all singing his praises.
“He’s that guy to keep the energy going, to keep up jokes and be funny,” Mitchell said of the Aussie amidst the teams struggles.
“He’s always been that guy. We love him. He keeps the same energy whether we’re up or down. He keeps the same energy, and that’s one of his best locker room attributes, to be able to keep everybody up with a positive vibe.”
Having played on the biggest basketball stages outside of the NBA prior to his arrival in the league in 2014, Ingles is recognized as a bona fide veteran in the locker room despite the 2017-18 season being just his fourth in the NBA. His words of unwavering positivity in the face of turbulence helped steady a Jazz squad that was dealing with both growing pains in the backcourt and the loss of perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert to injury.
After the January 22 loss to the Hawks, with the team occupying a 19-28 overall record, they accomplished what looked like the most perplexing of feats. Utah rattled off 11 straight wins with Ingles averaging 15.9 points over the four-week span, while shooting a crazy 54.2 percent overall from downtown. As noted by The Pick and Roll in February, the shooting numbers produces by Ingles during the win streak were off the charts. However, it was his off-court work prior to the streak may have been just as important in defining his, and Utah’s, season.
Aussies really love the playoffs, don’t they? Matthew Dellavedova, Patty Mills, Andrew Bogut – these guys have all done some of their best work in the postseason in recent times. Let's not forget about Ben Simmons' dominance against the Miami Heat.
Joe Ingles is no exception, with the swingman having arguably his finest professional performance yet in game 2 of the Western Conference Semi Finals against to Rockets.
Ingles exploded for a career high 27 points on 7/9 shooting from downtown, leading the Jazz to a series tying win on the road.
For the post season, Ingles posted averages of 14.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists.
Some pundits questioned the four-year, $52 million dollar contract the Jazz rewarded Ingles with last offseason, but his leadership, efficiency on offense, and defensive work against the likes of Paul George, Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon during the Jazz’s post season run surely made that contract a lot more appealing to even the biggest of Ingles sceptics.
What lies ahead
The 2017-18 season was a defining one in the story of our Aussies in the NBA.
We had a record number of our countrymen suit up across the league, while Ben Simmons pieced together one of the greatest rookie campaigns ever. It’s rather easy to point to each Aussie player and say they had a decent, or great season. Still, Joe Ingles may have been the best of the bunch.
With their backs against the wall early, Ingles’ off court leadership laid the foundation for what would become a truly special season in Utah. His willingness and ability to expand his offensive responsibilities in conjunction with his already stout defence allowed him to have his best professional season to date – something worthy of challenging Ben Simmons for title of the best Aussie player this season.
As for next season, there is nothing stopping Ingles from matching, or even surpassing his efforts from this year. As the saying goes, the Jazz man finds himself on the wrong side of 30. However, for Ingles, it may just be the right side of 30. If the last seven months have taught us anything, it's that Ingles is still expanding his offensive game, still hounding All-Stars on defence, and is harnessing his experience better than ever.
When Gordon Hayward left Utah for Boston, it seemingly placed the veteran Aussie and the suddenly scrambling Jazz on different trajectories that were sure to clash eventually. However, with Utah completing one of the greatest on-the-fly rebuilds in recent memory, it surprisingly realigned Ingles and the Jazz's immediate plans to win now.
With three years left on his deal in Utah, expect Ingles to be an important piece on a squad that is certain to be a very dangerous competitor in the West.