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Jazz's Joe Ingles: from out of the league to top-10 NBA small forward

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SALT LAKE CITY β€” I underestimated Joe Ingles.

OK, nearly everyone did. But after the Clippers waived Ingles, and the Jazz picked him up alongside Jordan Hamilton on the eve of the 2014-15 NBA season, I tweeted this:

I understand why everyone is tweeting about Ingles (Australia is a fun country!), but IMO Jordan Hamilton is the much better prospect here. β€” Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) October 27, 2014

Oops. While Hamilton dropped out of the league, Ingles has been an NBA steal. He ranks second on the Jazz's roster in [ESPN's Real Plus-Minus]( and 34th in the league. Ingles has played every game for the Jazz in two consecutive seasons, while every other player has been injured at one point or another. And Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey calls him a top-10 small forward. He's probably right.

But it's not just that Ingles was underestimated from the get-go. He's also become one of the biggest two-way threats in the league, a consummate 3-and-D player that has added an ability to playmake and score for himself in other ways.

It might be the defensive end of things that's most surprising. Former Australian head coach Brett Brown remembered Ingles as an "aloof" defender. Coming into the NBA, Joe Ingles was treated like fresh meat. NBA guards and wings of all types, upon seeing themselves defended by Ingles, would back it up, lick their lips, and prepare to score. That's not atypical for rookies, but with a nickname like "Slow-Mo Joe," it happened frequently.

"I'd remember guys would, like, walk out and their eyes would light up," Ingles remembered, going on to describe his defense in his first year with unprintable expletives. "I was like, 'I'm not going to let this keep happening.'"

There were other considerations, too. "At the end of the day, especially with coach (Quin Snyder), if you weren't playing defense, you weren't getting minutes," Ingles added.

So Ingles worked on his defense, and realized a workaround on his lack of speed: If he could just anticipate what the attacker was likely to do, he could get there first. Ingles calls it "playing ahead." He also realized that defenses were switching to get mismatches on him, so he started to learn Snyder's defensive system from all positions one through four. Once Ingles was in the right spot, it was hard to get around him.

"Everyone knows I'm not the quickest guy in the league," Ingles said. "I was just trying to figure out ways, basketball IQ wise, trying to figure out a way that I could stay out there."

Ingles said there wasn't really a turning point where he really believed he was a good defender who could stick with anyone, but I'll never forget this play midway through his third year, where LeBron James tried to bully him into a basket. Ingles just stood his ground and forced a tough shot.

Joe Ingles isolation defense on LeBron: β€” Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) January 11, 2017

Fast forward to today, and Ingles is frequently tasked with guarding the opposition's best wing player, giving Donovan Mitchell freedom to attack offensively. The anticipation he's worked on has him flying all over the court. Here, he stays in front on Paul George, but then even starts running to guard the corner as soon as the pass comes out to the wing. As a result, he blocks a Carmelo Anthony 3-point shot:

NO SAYS JOE πŸ–οΈ β€” Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) December 6, 2017

The other quirk of early-NBA-career Ingles was that he was one of the least aggressive offensive players in NBA history. As [ESPN's Zach Lowe commented]( in Ingles' first season, "a drinking game guaranteed to leave you sober: Drink every time Joe Ingles takes a shot!"

And Ingles agrees. "I think in my first couple of years I passed up more open threes than anyone in the history of the NBA," he quipped. There's actually serious evidence to that point. Ingles was one of the lowest usage rate players in league history, as Lowe pointed out.

That has changed. Maybe the biggest thing that's opened up Ingles' game is the speed at which he can take shots now. Early in his career, Ingles really needed to be set to take shots. Then, he needed to dip the ball below his waist.

Joe Ingles shot form before: β€” Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 6, 2018

Now, he doesn't need to:

Joe Ingles shot form after: β€” Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 6, 2018

Jazz assistant coach Zach Guthrie preps him on that skill. "Every pregame, I shoot shots where he throws it at my head, and I've got to shoot it," Ingles said.

And this season, he's expanded his playmaking, especially recently. Ingles is averaging 7.1 assists per game in his last 15 contests, essentially running the Jazz's offense whenever Ricky Rubio is off the floor. And while turnovers are sometimes the worry with Ingles, he's been doing a better job of not being tempted by the highlight reel advance pass in recent games. His pick-and-roll chemistry with Rudy Gobert is gotten much better, and with Derrick Favors, it's always been great.

Jingles is averaging 7.8 assists per game in the last 10 games, and 7.1 per game in the last 15. That's pretty crazy. Here's one to Favors. β€” Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) April 6, 2018

At this point, there's just not much Ingles can't do on the court. He can get to where he wants to go with his dribble game, shoot it over the top or get to the rim, and pass the ball to find open teammates. He can defend quicker guards going around screens (like J.J. Redick in last year's Clippers series) or bullies who use physicality to get inside (James).

All in all, Ingles has been one of the Jazz's biggest weapons, proving people everywhere wrong along the way.

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