I learned I was ready for the stage and capable of being an impact player on a team in the NBA. —Trey Lyles
SALT LAKE CITY — When Trey Lyles was drafted out of Kentucky by the Utah Jazz last June, it wasn’t exactly a popular pick.
Although his selection wasn’t booed like John Stockton’s was 30 years earlier, his selection at No. 12 in June’s NBA draft was greeted with yawns by many, while some folks thought the Jazz could have done better.
Players such as Lyle’s college teammate Devin Booker or Murray State point guard Cameron Payne were available and drafted directly after Lyles, and players such as Kansas guard Kelly Oubre and Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker were drafted a few spots later.
Perhaps fans weren’t impressed by the 6-10, 235-pounder's numbers as he averaged just 8.7 points and 5.2 rebounds in college for a loaded Kentucky team that included No. 1 draft choice Karl-Anthony Towns, No. 6 pick Willie Cauley-Stein, along with Booker and the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew.
But looking back, you can see that the Jazz made an excellent choice as Lyles exceeded most everyone’s expectations.
After a slow start, Lyles came on strong in the second half of the season when he got a chance to play major minutes due to injuries to Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors.
While Lyles acknowledged his first season was “a little bit of up and down,” he and most Jazz watchers saw his tremendous upside as he improved tremendously as the season progressed.
The former Mr. Basketball in the state of Indiana finished with so-so averages of 6.1 ppg and 3.7 rebounds per game on 43.8 shooting and 38.3 from 3-point range. However if you look at his final 24 games since Feb. 29, Lyles numbers are an impressive 10.3 ppg and 3.9 rpg with similar shooting percentages (45.6 overall and 37.1 from 3-point range).
“I learned I was ready for the stage and capable of being an impact player on a team in the NBA," Lyles said. "I was able to show that I’m capable of playing with these guys.”
In his postseason assessment of the team, Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey, said, “We can’t point to one guy that hasn’t improved, and in some cases it’s been extreme improvement — most notably this year with Trey Lyles’ in-game improvement.”
Early on, Lyles didn’t show much in his limited minutes as he averaged under eight minutes a game in the first two months and didn’t even get into a couple of early games in November.
His playing time picked up in December when Rudy Gobert went down with an injury and Lyles was thrust into the starting lineup alongside Derrick Favors. He averaged 21 minutes per game in December, but still averaged just 4.1 points per game.
He doubled his average in January when he had six double-figure games, his best coming in a home win over Sacramento when he scored 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting from the field.
His numbers fell off in February when Gobert and Favors were both healthy, but Lyles came on strong over the final two months of the season.
One of his highlights was scoring 12 points in just 13 minutes of a win over Cleveland when he made 5 of 8 shots, scoring 10 in the fourth quarter. He followed that with a 17-point night in just 19 minutes against Phoenix.
Perhaps his best performance of the season came in the last week of the season against Denver. Lyles was informed just seconds before the game that he would start in place of an injured Favors and he coolly responded with a career-high 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting, including 4 of 8 from 3-point range.
Lyles is expected to become Utah’s first big man off the bench in 2016-17, assuming Trevor Booker isn’t re-signed. Booker is a free agent, and the Jazz may want to give Lyles more of a chance to blossom next year.
Booker, for one, didn’t hold back when asked his opinion of Lyles and his future.
“He’s going to be a special player, especially offensively” Booker said. “I can easily see him becoming an All-Star some day. Defensively he has a lot of upside.”
When told of Booker’s comments, Lyles said, “I think everybody wants to be an All-Star. Being an All-Star would be terrific, something I’m definitely going to be working towards.”
Lyles is also aware that in order to play in Quin Snyder’s system, he has to improve defensively.
“Defense is something I definitely need to work on,” he said. “I know that, the coaches know that, and it’s something I’m going to be focusing on during the summer. I definitely want to be as good of a defensive player as I am an offensive player.”
Lyles also needs to get to the foul line more — he shot just 82 free throws all season, a little more than one per game — and his rebound numbers should be higher for a 6-10 man. But he’s excited to improve even more next year
“If I can continue to work and progress, I’m willing to do whatever the coaches need from me,” he said. “If that’s third or fourth big man, I’m happy to go out there and be able to play the game.”