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Trey Lyles Is Utah’s Secret Weapon Hidden Behind the Towers

He’s been concealed in various ways since college, but the Jazz would be wise to find more ways to showcase his talent

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s only been a season, but the 2015 NBA draft class seems destined to be one of the best ever. Even beyond clear superstar talents like Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, the class is teeming with players who, in one way or another, serve as a key to understanding their respective teams’ long-term identity. Over the next few weeks, Jonathan Tjarks will be looking at 2015 draftees entering Year 2, and how their teams can best serve their pillars of the future.

Trey Lyles should be a household name. He was one of the best prospects in his high school class, taken in the lottery after only one season in college. Lyles is an archetypal modern power forward, with the size (6-foot-10, 234 pounds, with a 7-foot-2 wingspan) of a traditional big man and the offensive game of a perimeter player. His only real fault in college was being a part of a Kentucky recruiting class that included one of the best prospects of his generation in Karl-Anthony Towns, a player who occupied Lyles’s natural position at the 4 in their lone year in Lexington. It’s hard to stand out in college when the no. 1 overall pick is forcing you to play out of position and off the ball.

Call it the Eric Bledsoe Predicament. After spending a season playing alongside John Wall at Kentucky, Bledsoe wound up being drafted in the middle of the first round by the Thunder despite having top-10 talent, and immediately getting traded to the Clippers for a protected first-round pick. Bledsoe spent most of his stint as a Clipper backing up Chris Paul on teams that didn’t need him to play a big role early in his NBA career. Lyles finds himself in a similar situation in Utah, playing behind the Jazz’s established twin towers, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. Can the Jazz take advantage of Lyles dropping into their lap better than the Clippers did with Bledsoe?

He hasn’t had the chance to put up big stats yet, but the skills are there. The NBA is all about creating mismatches, and with his unique build and inside-out ability, Lyles can score over the top of smaller defenders and get around bigger ones. In the rare opportunities he got to play big minutes as a rookie, he looked like a player who could help the Jazz figure out who they are as a playoff team. I focused on three games in which he played at least 33 minutes, all matchups against fellow Kentucky alumni: Terrence Jones (Rockets), Towns (Timberwolves), and Julius Randle (Lakers).

January 7 vs. Houston — 9 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks, 2 steals, 4 turnovers on 4-of-11 shooting, 0-of-1 from 3

Lyles was still getting comfortable with the speed of the NBA game in early January, after a wave of injuries to the Utah frontcourt opened up playing time for him. There’s a reason playoff teams don’t expect 20-year-old rookies to play major minutes, and Houston exploited Lyles on both sides of the ball. He was lost on defense, letting Jones dribble around him and barely rotating as a help-side defender. He was just as bad on offense, where he airmailed open jumpers and didn’t have a great feel for when to look for his shot and when to move the ball.

Lyles is neither particularly long nor particularly fast, so he lacks the natural advantages other players at his position have on defense. Opposing players shot 55 percent against him at the rim last season, one of the worst figures among rotation players who are at least 6-foot-10, comparable to fellow sieves around the rim like Kevin Love, Al Jefferson, and Kelly Olynyk. He’ll have to learn to rotate faster across the lane to at least get himself in position to make plays, and he’ll have to get stronger to prevent opponents from pushing him out of the way and establishing position against him. Even the fastest rookies play slower on defense; Lyles learning to recognize what is happening in front of him is the key to making the most out of the physical ability he does have.

April 1 vs. Minnesota — 18 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block, 1 steal, and 1 turnover on 7-of-16 shooting, 2-of-4 from 3

Lyles looked like a different player three months later. The biggest difference for Lyles between January and April was a sharp uptick in 3-point attempts. Lyles averaged fewer than one attempt behind the arc per game in his 15 games to start 2016, but in his last seven games of the season in April, averaged nearly four per game. He made two 3s in the first two minutes against Minnesota, and it opened up the rest of his game. With the Wolves’ big men forced to guard him out to the arc, Lyles had room to take them off the dribble, and it’s in that space where his unique feel for the game is seen best. He glides from Point A to Point B, and when he is facing up and attacking in space, there isn’t much a bigger defender, even one as mobile as Towns, can do to prevent him from getting to his spot.

The biggest question mark about Lyles coming out of Kentucky was his 3-pointer. He shot 73.5 percent from the free throw line and 46 percent from beyond 17 feet, so it wasn’t like his jumper was broken. But his 4-of-29 season from 3 at Kentucky established a clear ceiling to his game if he couldn’t consistently stretch the floor, especially if he was going to continue playing as a combo forward. Lyles shot 38.3 percent on 1.6 attempts per game as a rookie, and that’s the shot that could change everything for Utah. Given the amount of defensive attention Gobert and Favors command rolling to the rim, the 3-point shot will be consistently open for Lyles. If defenses have to guard Lyles out on the perimeter, it forces them into some difficult decisions.

April 13 vs. Los Angeles Lakers — 18 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, 5 steals, and 3 turnovers on 7-of-15 shooting, 2-of-6 from 3

If you caught this game, you definitely weren’t watching it for Trey Lyles. Kobe Bryant’s last game in the NBA was a spectacle in every sense of the word, a mind-numbing 50 shots in 42 minutes where the makes were breathtaking, and the misses even more so. Kobe’s final encore was aided by the absence of Gobert and Favors, as well as the Jazz learning their season was over minutes before tip-off. Lyles spent a lot of time at the center position, and while it created huge mismatches on the offensive end, his poor defensive chops make playing him in smaller lineups difficult at this stage in his career.

Where Lyles did his damage on defense was against Randle, and the way he played Randle is a perfect illustration of why the jump shot is such an important factor in his offensive development. Lyles played nearly five feet off of Randle for most of the game, clogging up the Lakers’ offense and repeatedly generating turnovers by getting his hands into passing windows. Randle’s ballhandling and passing ability are less effective without any driving lanes, and, like Lyles, he doesn’t have the length or explosiveness to put his head down and bully his way into the paint at the NBA level.

Context is huge in the development of a young player. These games are a window into what Lyles could have been at Kentucky without Towns. He was only 20 last season, young enough that scouts wouldn’t have held his age against him if he had stayed in school. Given how weak the 2016 draft was, Lyles could have gone much higher in the draft than no. 12, and people would have been talking about him as a future star instead of a potential role player.

But as far as his NBA development, Lyles couldn’t have found a better place to land than Utah. The length, shot-blocking, and overall quickness of Favors and Gobert can protect him on defense, while his improving ability to stretch the floor and make plays off the dribble can make them better on offense. Lyles and the newly acquired Boris Diaw will be Utah’s primary frontcourt reserves, but they will be better staggering minutes with Gobert and Favors so that each of the Jazz big men pairings have an offensive- and defensive-minded component. The Jazz still need to figure out whether a Gobert and Favors frontcourt can work in the grind of a seven-game playoff series, when opposing teams can expose the lack of spacing in their half-court offense. Lyles is the answer to that question, and the more chances he’s allowed to demonstrate his considerable talent, the higher their ceiling is as a team.