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Things are different for Joe Ingles when he starts — but not for the reason you may think

Utah Jazz guard Joe Ingles (2) dribbles in the game against the Toronto Raptors at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.

Utah Jazz guard Joe Ingles (2) dribbles in the game against the Toronto Raptors at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Joe Ingles leaned in close to the microphone to make his point loud and clear.

"I do not care," Ingles said when asked if he felt any different when he starts versus coming off the bench.

For the last three season, Ingles has been the near-automatic replacement when one of Utah's starting wings or guards missed time. With that the case, it's a question that keeps coming up for the veteran player.

Ingles has previously said getting asked about trash talking was his least favorite question, but the starter-bench query is likely a close second.

"Do I enjoy starting? Yeah, it's fun," said Ingles, who admitted he was rambling a bit as he searched for an answer (he honestly just doesn't care). "But I also enjoy coming off the bench with JC (Jordan Clarkson) and jacking a bunch of 3s and playing with him as well. It's two different styles. I don't really have an answer, but I know what the statistically correct answer is."

When it comes to the stats, the answer is pretty obvious: In a bit of irony, Ingles made a strong push for Sixth Man of the Year last season mainly due to his time spent in the starting lineup.

In the 30 games he started last year, he averaged 14.7 points, 5.8 assists and shot 44% from the 3-point line on 7.0 attempts. When he came off the bench, those numbers dipped to 9.9 points and 3.9 assists; he still shot the heck out of the ball (46.7% from 3) but on less attempts (5.0).

It's been more of the same this season, if not even more dramatic.

Off the bench, Ingles has averaged 6.5 points and shot just 36.2% shooting from 3-point range, leading to some fans wondering how much he has left in the tank. In the five games he's started, though, he's up to 12.4 points and shooting 50% from deep, and he's looked more like the player fans have come to know over the years.

For the last two games, Ingles has been in the starting lineup as Royce O'Neale recovers from a sprained right ankle/foot. It's probably not a coincidence that Ingles has looked the best all season. He's been more engaged in the offense and adding another ball handler to the group has likely helped Utah recapture the ball-movement issues that had been missing for much of the season.

"I'd love to start nine guys with our team; that'd be the answer and we'd beat everybody," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said, only half-joking. "But that's not the way it is. For this group, that's the unique thing is just figuring out how to connect and play together regardless of whether you're starting."

O'Neale isn't about to lose his starting spot; the Jazz value what he brings defensively too much to change it up. The same goes for Mike Conley or Donovan Mitchell, so is Ingles stuck in a weird state where he'll only be at his most effective when someone is injured? Well, not necessarily.

The good news for Ingles and the Jazz is his success in the starting lineup is less about beginning the game on the court and more about playing alongside Rudy Gobert.

When Ingles is a starter, he's often tethered to the All-Star center in the rotation. The two have one of the best pick-and-roll connections on the team, and more playing time together allows that to standout — like when Ingles found Gobert for dunks on consecutive plays in the first quarter of Monday's win against the Portland Trail Blazers, or when Gobert freed up Ingles for a number of open 3s.

It's a good combination.

Gobert and Ingles played 27 minutes together Monday (about double what they normally get), and the Jazz outscored the Blazers by 20 points in those minutes. That begs the question: Can Snyder find some more time for that combo, even when the roster is fully healthy?

That actually might be more of a challenge than you'd think.

The problem is that Ingles isn't alone in greatly benefiting from playing next to Gobert. When Gobert rests, someone has to keep on playing. But with some tinkering, the Jazz should be able to carve out a few more minutes with Ingles and Gobert; it's all part of the process of figuring out how this year's team works best together.

That process may end with Ingles starting, or it may not; whatever the case, he certainly won't care.

"I'm probably talking way too much about it because I don't have an answer, so I'm trying to make something up as I go," Ingles said. "The real honest one is I don't care. Obviously, I've just got to figure out how to be as aggressive and effective and all that whether I am starting or coming off the bench."

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