As we speak, all twenty-eight NBA G League teams have either touched down or are currently on their way to Las Vegas, Nevada. That shared destination is due to the 2019 MGM Resorts NBA G League Winter Showcase, which will tip-off tomorrow at 2 PM CST with a game between Maine and Canton. All of those teams will be competing in two games between Thursday, December 19th, and Sunday, December 22nd.
One significant thing that separates this year’s event from previous iterations is that it will feature a mini four-team tournament between the best squads from the first 12 games of the season. That will include the 1st seed Memphis Hustle, 2nd seed Wisconsin Herd, 3rd seed Salt Lake City Stars, and the 4th seed Grand Rapids Drive.
When it comes to G League fans, most of the attention will likely be on the Hustle and Herd. The intrigue surrounding Memphis makes sense as they will enter the event with a league-best 14-1 record thanks to having a top 5 offense AND defense. Meanwhile, the Herd stands at 13-2 thanks to a collective offensive effort led by Jaylen Adams and Rayjon Tucker.Although the attention on those two teams is warranted, fans shouldn’t overlook the phenomenal play of the Salt Lake City Stars.
After starting the year with two consecutive losses against Sioux Falls and Iowa, the Jazz have vaulted themselves towards being the hottest team in the G League by winning eleven straight games. That undefeated stretch brings up memories of the Jerry Stackhouse-led Raptors 905 squads, which had phenomenal success despite not having a dominating scorer.
Like those 905 teams, the Stars have been able to dominate through being fantastic on the defensive end. Pre-G League Winter Showcase, opposing teams are averaging just 97.6 points per 100 possessions against the Stars, which stands as the lowest average in the G League. It’s significantly better than the opponents’ points per 100 possessions number that the 905 maintained in 2016-17 (102.9 points per 100) and 2017-18 (101.6 points per 100) when the aforementioned Jerry Stackhouse coached them.
That tremendous defense makes sense when you continue dipping your toes in the statistical waters. Their league-best status persists when you look at significant categories like opponent field goal percentage (42.1%) and opponent three-point percentage (30.6%). Although another team can overtake them in one of those categories, as Wisconsin and the Raptors 905 are within .3% in opponent field goal percentage and three-point percentage, respectively, the Stars will still go into the Showcase as the top defensive team.
Salt Lake City standing as the best defensive team in the G League has more to do with overall cohesiveness than having an elite shot-blocker or stealer. Currently, the Stars don’t have a non-assignee that has more than one block per game. Meanwhile, front-court players William Howard and Jarrell Brantley are the only guys without guaranteed deals from Utah with over 1.5 steals per game, as they’re averaging 1.6 and 1.8 steals, respectively.
Salt Lake City working as an in-sync unit becomes evident when you start to watch film. That’s due to how effortlessly all five players are when it comes to switching onto offensive weapons in pick-and-rolls or the willingness to play help defense. That process prevents opposing players from having open mid-range or perimeter jumpers, clear driving lanes, or easy shots near the rim.
A great example of that description is evident in the play below as the Stars prepare to guard the Northern Arizona Suns on the final possession of the quarter. Mike Scott starts the sequence defending Shawndre Jones. However, he brilliantly moves to the corner to switch onto Aaron Epps after recognizing that two teammates were going to come to guard a screen. That switch was enough to force Epps to start driving to the paint. Scott’s presence was enough to direct the Suns’ forward to try to score on 7’2 big Isaac Haas. That attempt isn’t successful.
Sticking with their ability to switch, the Stars are lucky in a way as they have front-court players like Jazz two-way player Jarrell Brantley and William Howard that are incredibly comfortable with defending on the perimeter. Visual evidence supporting this is evident below as Jazz two-way player switches onto Jared Harper after Justin Wright-Foreman gets pushed away. The forward holds his own by forcing a steal just as the Suns’ guard was trying to cross over.
Although Salt Lake City’s defense is due to a cohesive effort among everyone on the team’s roster, there are some leaders of that core. Aside from the aforementioned Brantley, Howard, Mike Scott, and veteran wing Kyle Collinsworth have stood as the best defenders in an elite unit. In regards to Collinsworth, he sometimes stands as the unit’s general by directing the four other troops on the court on where to go.
That is seen in the clip below as he uses his hands to instruct teammates while the opposition was standing on the top of the key. After that instruction and the ball sails to the corner, the wing quickly closes out on Skyforce wing Jordan Swopshire and plays some solid on-ball defense, which leads him to lose the ball.
After struggling during the first two games of the season, the Salt Lake City Stars have been able to use phenomenal defense to enter the NBA G League Winter Showcase as one of the best teams in the league. That status comes even though they don’t have a singular player on the roster that is also close to averaging 20 points per game.
Although it’s impossible to know how their remaining 37 games will go, I’m optimistic that their success will continue. Optimism is because of how they’ve been excellent thanks to defense rather than relying on a fantastic offensive weapon or two. As great defense mostly comes from excellent game planning and coaching, the Stars seem to be in a great spot to continue their success as the season goes on.