Ten years ago, Trey Lyles would have been a divisive prospect. A 6'10 player entering the league with a perimeter-oriented game, a slight frame and no position would have been a gamble in the lottery. In the era of the stretch power forward, however, it's surprising he lasted until the No. 12 pick, where the Jazz snatched him.
Unlike other players selected in his range, Lyles doesn't have a big role yet. He's started about half the games for the Jazz, but averages just 16 minutes per game. Journeyman Trevor Booker plays above him many nights. His role was briefly expanded when Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors missed time with injury, but he's now fighting for minutes behind them again.
Yet he's done enough in his rookie year to be considered a potential core piece. That's great news for the Jazz, but there is a potential downside. It could eventually force them to make some tough decisions about their frontcourt.
Lyles has the tools to be the perfect modern power forward
Lyles is a smart offensive player. He doesn't have any one tool that stands out, but manages to make himself useful by doing the work necessary to get free. Whether it's screening as many times as needed to finally get the defense in a tough spot or moving without the ball into open space, the rookie forward finds a way to make himself available in a scoring position.
His success starts with his three-point shot. Lyles is shooting 38 percent from behind the arc, a fantastic and unexpected mark as a rookie considering he barely attempted three-pointers in college. He's not bad from mid-range either, connecting on 37 percent of his looks, though he could afford to limit the amount of attempts he lets fly from there.
Lyles does more than shoot, though. He's also an expert at anticipating which spots will become open and filling them to present himself as a target for his teammates' passes.
"Paying attention to details, just focusing and being able to depict things in my mind ahead of time is definitely something I take pride in and know that I am capable of doing," Lyles told the Toronto Sun's Ryan Wolstat.
Lyles is right. He adjusts to how the offense is unfolding in real time, something players much older than him do poorly. He's also developing a driving game that could make him a nightmare for opposing defenses.
Lyles averages just over one assist per 36 minutes, so any comparison to hybrid forwards like Boris Diaw or Draymond Green is highly optimistic based on his early record. If he can prove he can score consistently when he puts the ball on the floor, however, defenses won't have a choice but to help when he does. He clearly has the vision and the unselfishness to make the extra pass in those situations, so that part of his game should develop organically with time.
All the ingredients for a prototypical playmaking power forward are there. It just seems like a matter of time before Lyles puts it all together and becomes the perfect fit next to either Rudy Gobert or Derrick Favors.
Or, maybe he'll replace one of them?
If Lyles does become the player he seems destined to be, that could actually put Utah in an awkward position. Can they keep their current big man duo together when the modern ideal of a power forward is on the bench?
Right now, the numbers suggest the Favors-Gobert pairing works. The two together boast a positive net rating, meaning that the Jazz outscore opponents when they share the court. Yet the same happens when Lyles is in there with one of them and the other starters. The offense in particular does much, much better.
Lyles is a rookie replacing two of the league's toughest interior defenders, so the Jazz's struggles on that end are understandable. If he improves on that end, however, his developing offensive game could provide that starting lineup an offensive edge that it lacks with two traditional big men who can't spread the floor. Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood would get more room to create, and whichever big man starts next to Lyles would have the space to dive on pick-and-rolls without having to worry about help defenders blocking their path.
Both Gobert and Favors are too good to settle for a bench role, so if Lyles starts then one of them would have to be traded. That's not a discussion the front office has to entertain right now, but if Lyles continues to improve and becomes the player the Jazz hope, they might need to make a tough decision about their big man rotation at some point.
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After a slow start, Lyles is repaying the Jazz's trust by showing flashes of a well-rounded game that is perfectly suited for this era. The tools are there for him to become a floor spacer who can put the ball on the floor and hurt opponents. He could be one more great piece to build around for a team that has many.
The challenge now is to find out how they all fit together.