Trey Lyles has gotten off to one of the roughest starts of anyone in the 2015 NBA Draft class. The 6-10 forward looks absolutely lost on the defensive end of the court and he’s struggled to score inside and out for the Utah Jazz, hitting just 36.5 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range.
Overall, Lyles has made the Jazz nearly 11 points worse per 100 possessions when he’s been on the floor, per NBA.com. And in the last nine games, with Lyles promoted to the starting lineup because of Rudy Gobert’s injury, he has only averaged 3.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per contest. The Jazz have gone into a tailspin, too, winning four of their last 10 games and dipping to 17th in the league in defensive efficiency.
Lyles has been a part of that struggle, certainly. It’s clear that he’s had a hard time adjusting to the NBA game, and he’s even admitted that the first month of the season was a bit of a wake-up call. Some have begun to question whether Lyles is cut out for the NBA, though, and given the raw stats we’ve seen so far from his performance, this criticism isn’t surprising.
However, Lyles’s struggles aren’t entirely caused by his own singular performance. We need to consider the context of the situation, which has been the perfect storm for him to be overwhelmed.
Obviously, the Jazz have had team-wide defensive issues since Gobert injured his knee. With Gobert out, the Jazz have had to revamp the way they cover things defensively. Unable to just feed penetration to Gobert, the Jazz have had to focus more on tightening their perimeter defense, and this has been a struggle. The Jazz have done a decent job at protecting the rim with Gobert out, but the extra caution needed to focus on shutting down drives to the rim has cut down the Jazz’s chances to gamble, as they’ve only forced 12.9 turnovers per game since Gobert’s injury. This has particularly been true when Lyles is on the floor, because his lack of quick hands has produced one of the lowest steal rates for a rotation player in the league, at just 0.3 steals per 100 opponent possessions.
This has also exacerbated one of Lyles’s greatest weaknesses — isolation defense. Lyles struggled defending one-on-one at Kentucky, and he has been barely hovering around average at defending post-ups and isolations (67th and 53rd percentile, respectively). Lyles is being forced into more one-on-one situations where he doesn’t have the lateral quickness to contain the ball-handler and without a strong shot-blocker to cover for him, he’s been a bit of a sieve. It’s no surprise that since Gobert went down, the Lyles/Jeff Withey frontcourt has a defensive rating of 100.4, while lineups that pair Lyles with Derrick Favors (105.2) and Trevor Booker (135.3!) predictably have bled points. But Booker and Favors are the best Jazz frontcourt players offensively, and the Withey/Lyles pairing struggles with spacing.
Offensively, the pairing of Lyles and Favors has created some issues for Lyles’s offensive game. Lyles was a fairly inconsistent shooter coming out of college, but excelled at finishing at the rim and working in the post. Favors is one of the league’s best young post scorers, and he also is a solid producer out of the pick-and-roll. Because the Jazz want to maximize one of their best players, and because Lyles has potential as a spot-up shooter, Utah has been conditioning him to take a ton of jumpers. The major negative consequence of this is that it doesn’t allow for Lyles to concentrate on developing a go-to shooting spot — his jumpers have come pretty evenly from every spot on the floor — that so any of the league’s most effective spot-up shooters have, and he hasn’t been effective as a result.
Now, Lyles’s percentages at the rim are indeed a problem. 41.9 percent is a cause for concern for a frontcourt player, even if it’s come in only a 31 shot sample. Part of the issue could be that a majority of Lyles’s touches at the rim have come as the roll man in the PNR, and he’s still learning how to finish against the trees in the NBA. Lyles has gotten 15 field goal attempts as the PNR roll man, per NBA Synergy Stats, and he’s converted just four shots, putting him in the 5th percentile. This shouldn’t be surprising, as it’s not a role he has been tasked with before. (After all, with his prowess in the post and Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson on your team, why would you have Lyles finishing the pick-and-roll?).
Still, Lyles needs to improve here if he’s going to be a viable offensive option, because his percentage right now will not allow him to play even if his jumper develops.
Ultimately, I’d chalk Lyles’ early struggles up to the situation he’s been placed in than anything about him as a player. This is different than Anthony Bennett not being able to crack the rotation of a bad Cavaliers team and closer to Doug McDermott taking a season to adjust to the NBA 3-point line. Lyles is a 20-year-old rookie who, after just 111 minutes of game action, saw his role drastically change due to injury and who has been dealing with a conflict of team need and skill set since. It is a definite possibility that Lyles will perform better defensively when he has Gobert behind him again and that his jumper will even out and he’ll continue to develop at the rim.
The first 24 games of Lyles’s career haven’t inspired much confidence, but given the dire situation Utah has been placed in by Gobert’s injury, there’s also no reason to believe Lyles’s career is doomed, either.