After signing Derrick Favors to a 4-year, $49 million contract extension earlier this month, Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey hardly tempered expectations for the play of his 22 year-old big man.
“Very rarely will you get a 6’10’’, 260 pound player saying, ‘Hey, I’m a defender. I’m a rebounder. Build the defense around me. That’s what I want,” Lindsey told The Salt Lake Tribune. “So if he can be our Bill Russell, we’ll be very, very pleased.”
Any modern comparison to Russell whatsoever is replete with hyperbole, and Lindsey’s, obviously, is no different. Favors is already an impactful defensive presence and his influence on that end will grow as he gains experience, but there’s little to no hope he develops into a once-a-generation force like Russell. 11 championships and five MVPs, after all, is a lot to ask of even transcendent superstars like LeBron James or Kevin Durant.
But Favors certainly has the physical profile, disposition, and base-level instincts to be one of the league’s top-flight defenders. Big men with his combination of quickness and shot-blocking ability are few and far between, and perhaps have never been more valuable than today. In a league increasingly reliant on ball-screens and floor-space, all-encompassing erasers like Favors – of a high screen-and-roll and its many wrinkles or a basic dribble-drive at the rim – serve as the fulcrum from which elite-level defenses swing.
Think Joakim Noah, Serge Ibaka, and Larry Sanders – this the kind of player the Jazz believe they have in Favors, and the terms of his new contract support that optimism. The rookie-deal extensions of that esteemed trio – 5 years/$60 million, 4 years/$49 million, and 4 years/$44 million, respectively – align almost perfectly with that of Favors’. His market value was easily set for Lindsey and player agent Wallace Prather, basically; the price for Favors seems appropriate.
The value that lies in that type of impact no longer needs an explanation. The days of bemoaning Noah’s lack of a back-to-the-basket game are over, and rightfully so. His worth to Chicago’s defense easily masks the already nit-picky nature of his offensive weaknesses, and the construction of the roster around him – hello again, Derrick Rose! – blurs their edges anyway. Noah is one of basketball’s truly elite defenders, and that accounts for the majority of such an expensive and lengthy salary commitment. His strengths on offense – great passer, underrated mid-range shooter, all-around elbow facilitator – speak to the small remaining dollar minority.
Much of the same can be said for Ibaka and Sanders. The Thunder need the former’s offensive rebounding and ever-extending shooting range, but place far bigger offensive burdens on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Milwaukee’s talent-base doesn’t have those primary scorers yet, but that doesn’t mean they’ll ask too much of Sanders; he’ll always be a pick-and-roll threat a la healthy Tyson Chandler before anything else.
But Favors? There could be more to him offensively.
“We’ll let the offense [of Favors] kind of define itself,” Lindsey said. “He’s still 22. Literally, I’m scouting 22 year-olds right now in college and internationally.”
While youth is definitely encouraging, it’s general malleability that intrigues even more. For despite his three years of NBA experience, Favors is still a huge ball of offensive clay. With Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson finally playing elsewhere, this preseason we’ve begun to see inklings of the work of art Favors could eventually become.
Necessary disclaimer: these highlights come courtesy of preseason action. It’s fair to say the Jazz and their opponents weren’t going full-tilt physically or stylistically for the entirety of these games. More important are Favors’ surface-level struggle to score: he averaged just 9.4 points per game on 41.4% shooting in Utah’s eight preseason contests.
The takeaways and conclusions gleaned from this analysis is merely optimistic as opposed to foolproof. Favors won’t become Al Jefferson on the block or Blake Griffin in picks-and-rolls overnight. Growth is a process by its very definition; considering just the highs of Favors’ preseason performance would be as remiss as only measuring the lows.
That middle ground is what we need to find here, and it’s hard not to see. Favors, clearly, has many colors on his palette from which to paint. What the canvas will ultimately look like is left to question, but there’s enough to work with that it could be something close to beautiful.
It’s more important than anything else that Favors is just the offensive player Utah expects him to be at minimum: a mobile, versatile force in the pick-and-roll. He struggled mightily last season finishing as a roller or popper, and doesn’t have the natural playmaking instincts of a guy like Noah or Marc Gasol. But Favors is exceptionally quick for a man his size and can exhibit a soft touch when his feet are set and he’s shooting confidently. He showed off those attributes in the preseason on occasion, but even those flashes aren’t what gleans most optimism.
Favors is a raw package of offensive skills, but you wouldn’t know it by watching him move without the ball. The situations highlighted above are tricky for big men – in all three instances, the man playing the ball jumps towards Favors’ high shoulder, forcing the ballhandler to reject the pick. Where to go from here is where so many screeners – especially green ones – get lost. But Favors is steadfastly patient, moving in sync with the guard to keep that narrow passing lane available as they trek farther into the teeth of the defense. And that’s pertinent, not just because the Jazz would have to go to another offensive side if the pick-and-roll stalls, but due to the ease of a potential finish should the ball come his way, too. Favors isn’t a good shooter yet and operates best off the dribble when his bounce is used to gather instead of really create; doing both from 15-feet as opposed to 20 is a far better proposition.
If Favors mostly stalls as an overall offensive player, it will be due to his inability to find a consistent jump-shot. With every opportunity – and remember, there will be far more of them this season than in ones past – he’ll get more comfortable putting the ball on the floor. The clips above exhibit Favors’ rare amalgam of coordination, speed and power; few players his size are capable of moves like these. The latter two plays are especially indicative of that talent level. How many center-sized players have sets designed for them to run off baseline staggered screens? How many could beat Ibaka from the post with an off-hand bounce before finishing on the other side of the rim? Few. Very, very few.
The developing jumper, keen off-ball movement, and uncommon dribble game encourage, but it’s Favors’ exploits from the block that tantalize. The Jazz have a playmaking wing in Gordon Hayward and emerging interior presence in Enes Kanter, but neither is anything close to a surefire primary option just yet; the former seems better off as a supporting actor and the latter’s two-way viability might be this team’s biggest question mark. Utah’s future would loom even brighter, then, if Favors “pops” as a scorer, and that possibility is dependent on the realized strength of his post-game.
There’s so much to like in the video above. The Jazz seem intent on giving Favors legitimate post-up opportunities, and frequently create them by using a guard’s cross- or back- screen to free him to the left block, an area dominated in Utah by Jefferson the past few seasons. And while Favors – like most big men – appears most comfortable turning over his weak shoulder to the middle, he asked for and received the ball on the opposite block many times this preseason, too. That versatility is important, but not half as crucial as the litany of moves and counter-moves he’s capable of completing.
Face-up jumpers, step-backs, spinning hooks, simple drop-steps, off-hand finishes, and-1s – Favors showed it all and more from the post in these eight preseason games, and Utah worked hard to establish him as the additional isolation scorer it so desperately needs for the future as much as the present. Without realistic playoff ambitions this season, it’s likely that effort continues when the Jazz start their real games on Wednesday in Oklahoma City. Serving as a top offensive option for stretches will be a huge adjustment for Favors, but Utah has the time and incentive to conduct such experiments – there’s at least a puncher’s chance Favors can eventually put all of this together. It’s already happened once in 2013, against the Clippers last week.
Performances like that aren’t the new normal. Favors has far to go before becoming the pick-and-roll ancillary piece the Jazz need him to be, let alone the primary scoring option they’d like him to be. The raw tools, though, are definitely here for Favors to evolve into parts of both. And in that case, his extension won’t be fair for the Jazz, but an absolute steal.