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The Jazz are surging, and Joe Ingles is a big reason why
The Utah Jazz have won ten of their past twelve games, and now sit firmly in the top six in the Western Conference standings, with a 23-12 record. A big reason for this hot streak has been swingman Joe Ingles, who moved to the starting lineup after starting point guard Mike Conley Jr went down about a month ago.
Comparing to his previous few years, Joe Ingles was having a mediocre 2019 in terms of basketball play. In the FIBA World Cup in China, Ingles was solid, yet inconsistent. Ingles distributed the ball excellently - he was in the top ten in assists with 5.6 a game - but his scoring was erratic. He averaged 10.5 points in the tournament, but had several games with under six points.
Fast forward to this NBA season, and Ingles' role changed from his previous season at Salt Lake City - he was now coming off the bench - due to the arrival of Bojan Bogdanović, as well the emergence of Royce O’Neal as a legitimate 3 and D player.
Here's where the narrative shifted again: against the Philadelphia 76ers on 2nd December, Conley went down with a hamstring injury, opening the door for Ingles to return to the starting lineup. The injury has proven to be a blessing in disguise for Ingles, who finally has returned to the form that earned him his 4 year, $52 million contract.
According to NBA.com, in the past twelve games the Jazz have the highest win percentage, the fourth-highest field goal percentage at 48.4% and the highest three point percentage at 39.4. This improved offensive production from the team can be partially attributed to the the 6’9 Swiss army knife that is Joe Ingles, while other players such as Donovan Mitchell, Bogdanović and Rudy Gobert have been solidly pulling their weight.
In these games, Ingles has been on fire from deep, shooting 51.4% from long range, on 6.7 attempts per game. To put that in perspective: Ingles has been the most efficient shooter in the league, among players shooting more than six threes a game during during this span. Additionally, Ingles’ skill as a distributor has been a large feature of his outstanding play. He is averaging the second most assists on the go, with 5.5 per contest, with a majority of his dimes coming off his crafty play in pick and roll settings.
Ingles has also worked hard over the offseason to improve on a flaw exposed last playoffs, against the Houston Rockets. Houston forced Ingles to his less favoured right on high screens, and ultimately couldn’t quite find a groove against the Rockets. He averaged 6.4 points for the series, on a dismal 32% shooting clip.
In his limited time in the offseason, Ingles worked with Vince Legarza on drills going to his right hand, as noted by The Salt Lake Tribune. “It’s just something I had to get because it was inevitable that they were going to send me right,” Ingles said. The Aussie star has also extended on this offseason work by utilising a step back towards three towards his right, which he has had success with in the past month.
In the video above, watch how Ingles dodges the screen, and steps back for a three pointer to his right on both plays.
If Ingles can keep up his impressive shooting and passing, the Jazz could look for a top four seed out West. Traditionally slow starters, the Jazz are peaking earlier than they usually do if you compare it to previous years. In 2017/18 they were 16-21 at this time, which was 10th and they eventually finished fifth. In 2018/19 they were 11th at around the halfway point, sitting at 18-20, but eventually finished in fifth again.
The catch for the Jazz now is somehow incorporating Mike Conley back into the rotation without halting the team's momentum. Conley didn’t travel with the team on their three game road trip, and will most likely return in their next home game, according to Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
Conley’s points per game at 17.8 and 5.7 assists per game (according to Basketball Reference) the past six seasons have been at near All-NBA level, yet this year his stats have dipped fairly dramatically. His current averages include 13.6 points and 4.6 assists, while shooting a merely 36.5% from the field. Quin Snyder could incorporate Conley slowly back into the lineup by deploying him off the bench at first, and then tinker with lineups that work better with Conley as the dominant ball handler. When rotations are properly realised with a fully recovered Conley, we could see him back as a starter. Alternatively, Snyder could fully empower Conley by reinserting him right back into the starting lineup, potentially at the expense of Ingles.
Ingles' revitalised play might make the return of Conley a minor hump on the road, though. The South Australian looks as if he has found his confidence through the return of his shot and impressive passing. Hopefully a reshuffle to the bench, if it does happen, doesn’t impact him and “Slow Mo Joe” can continue to help lead the Jazz to a high seed.