NBA, Utah Jazz

Joe Ingles is the best fifth-man in the NBA

Joe Ingles is not the Utah Jazz’s best player on either end of the floor. Rudy Gobert, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, has that end covered. Donovan Mitchell, who nearly won Rookie of the Year, is the team’s offensive engine.

Ingles is not the team’s best perimeter defender, nor its best rebounder and not its best passer. He doesn’t use a ton of possessions (his 18.8 percent usage rate this season is a career-high) and he doesn’t even really have the ball in his hands all that often — among the 292 players who have played at least 100 minutes this season, Ingles ranks 105th in time of possession percentage, meaning the ball is in his hands about as often as it’s in those of, say, Andre Iguodala.

But Ingles is a valuable connector piece for the Jazz on both ends of the floor, and perhaps more than anyone else, the thing that makes the Jazz, the Jazz. Utah’s offense is one of the most egalitarian in the NBA, with more second-side action than almost any team in the league. The Jazz switch less often on defense than other teams, instead preferring to force opponents into pockets of space where they have to decide how best to attack Gobert. Ingles fits both their offensive and defensive systems like a glove.

He’s a heady ball-handler, capable of beating a closeout and either getting to the rim or making the extra pass. He’s not the fastest or quickest player in the world, so being afforded the advantage of working against an on-the-move defender works well for him. He’s averaging 10.8 drives per game this season, according to Second Spectrum tracking data on NBA.com, second-most on the Jazz behind Mitchell. More often than not, he drives in order to create something for someone else down the line. Among the 103 players averaging at least five drives per game, Ingles’ pass rate of 43.4 percent is fourth-highest. All three players ahead of him are point guards.

Ingles does take some risks when passing the ball, but his assist rate over the past few seasons is on par with players like Malcolm Brogdon, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal. For a player who doesn’t touch the ball nearly as often as they do, that’s damn good, and the Jazz surely are okay accepting the trade-off.

The primary reason Ingles is able to so consistently beat closeouts and create passing opportunities down the line is that he’s an elite 3-point shooter (41.4 percent in four-plus NBA seasons). Interestingly, however, he’s not necessarily treated like one by opposing defenses.

Consider the following chart, which shows the percentage of Ingles’ 3-point attempts classified by NBA.com by their coverage: very tight, tight, open, and wide-open. (That’s 0-2 feet of space, 2-4 feet of space, 4-6 feet of space, and 6+ feet of space between Ingles and the closest defender at the time of release, respectively.) Note that the squares where Ingles’ rate is better than league average are colored green, while the squares where his rate is worse than league average are colored orange. (Obviously, you want to more open and wide open attempts and fewer very tight and tight attempts.)

In other words, Ingles very rarely faces tight or very tight coverage when letting fly from 3. Contrarily, he is almost always left open or wide-open, with four-plus feet of space between his release and the closest defender. Even while being left wide open less often this year than ever before, Ingles has still been afforded four-plus feet of space on more than 95 percent of his 3-point attempts. Again, this is a player who has connected on 41.4 percent of his 3-point attempts during his four-plus NBA seasons. And teams just leave him open constantly. (That has its positives and its drawbacks. An elite shooter not treated like one finds himself open more often than he should. But an elite shooter not treated like one also sees his teams spacing cramped more than it should be.)

Some of that, surely, is because Ingles does not cut a very imposing figure on the floor. He stands 6-foot-8 and weighs 225 pounds, but when watching the Jazz on TV one could easily mistake him for having a dad bod. His left-handed release is high and awkward-looking, with his guide hand seemingly on top of the ball and his elbow sticking all the way out to the side.

Defenses tend to bend toward Mitchell, which makes sense given his virtuoso off-the-dribble creativity. But they also get sucked into the paint by Gobert or Favors rolling to the rim, and devote the requisite attention to Rubio when he’s handling the ball. (Rubio’s off-the-dribble shooting improvement means he now receives even more attention when coming around screens than he did during his time in Minnesota.) All of this leaves Ingles as the forgotten man on the floor far too often, and it’s why you always see him lining up those wide-open 3s, which he has hit at a 47.2 percent rate over the past three seasons.

Ingles’ work on the opposite end of the floor has long been underrated. He’s not a lock-down individual defender by any means, but he works well within the system and he is always, always, always in the right place at the right time, for the right reasons. He knows what he’s doing, and why. And it’s not like he’s some slouch who just gets smoked off the dribble anytime he comes up against a more athletic wing. He can hold his own in most matchups. And he’s got incredibly active hands and a knack for knowing exactly when to get into a passing lane. There’s a reason he ranks 10th in the NBA in deflections this season and ranked inside the top 40 a year ago.

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And while he does play most of his minutes alongside Gobert, it’s also not a coincidence that the team’s defense is typically better while Ingles is on the floor. Having smart players out there who stay alert and active is always going to be beneficial. Ingles is one of those guys.

Every time he hits a 3 or deflects a pass or beats a closeout and finds a shooter on the opposite side of the floor, it gets more and more difficult to believe he slipped through the cracks the way he did, getting cut by the Clippers out of training camp before landing in Utah. It’s been to the Jazz’s benefit, but to Ingles’ as well. The team and the player are a perfect fit.

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