I've never been in a situation where I haven't been playing before, so it was the first time for me. But I try to just realize it's a process. —Trey Lyles
SALT LAKE CITY — A year ago, Utah Jazz forward Trey Lyles had just finished up a solid rookie season during which, at times, he looked like a strong member of the playing rotation, if not a potential NBA star of the future.
There were even some longtime Jazz observers and local sports-talk radio hosts, though they'd likely deny it now, who said Lyles' inevitable emergence as a starter might soon make power forward Derrick Favors expendable in the Utah franchise's future plans.
Well, folks, that was last year.
And a year later, even with Favors missing much of the 2016-17 season with nagging knee problems, the 6-foot-10 Lyles' late-season showing looked very little like it did during his first year with the Jazz.
With the addition of veterans Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson to Utah's roster during the 2016 offseason, Lyles wound up getting pushed closer and closer to the end of the Jazz bench as the 2016-17 season progressed.
And, instead of being a potential building block in the team's future moving forward, he looked more like — to borrow an old expression from the early days of Saturday Night Live — a "Not Ready for Prime Time Player."
At the team's annual locker-cleanout-day press conferences last week, Lyles admitted that this was a difficult year for him, but one which will serve as a valuable learning tool as he looks ahead to better days down the road.
"I was definitely, you know, I wanted to play a lot more," he said. "But it was a good learning experience for me. You could kinda say that my rookie year was this year instead of last year as far as playing well and stuff like that.
"It was good to have veterans that I could learn from and ask questions like Joe and Boris. (As young players) they went through the same thing I did this year, and they helped me out a lot. Them and Joe Ingles, George (Hill) and those guys, they kept me positive and stuff like that, so they made it a lot easier. And I just continued to work and do those things in the gym to kinda stay ready, I guess you could say."
On the surface, a quick glance at Lyles' first and second NBA seasons doesn't reveal much of a difference. He averaged 6.1 points and 3.7 rebounds per game as a rookie, and 6.2 points and 3.3 rebounds in his second season, and he only averaged one more minute of playing time on the court as a rookie than he did this season.
But a closer look at the stats shows that Lyles played 80 games as a rookie and started 33 of them, shooting 43.8 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from 3-point range. In his second season, he played in 71 games but started only four times, and his shooting numbers dropped dramatically — to 36.2 percent from the field and 31.9 percent from beyond the arc.
The dropoff doesn't end there.
Over the first 40 games of the 2016-17 campaign, Lyles was an integral part of Utah's rotation. He played in all 40 games, logging double-digit minutes in all but one, and scored double-digit points 18 times over that span, including a season-best 21 points in a game at Houston, 19 points with seven rebounds against Toronto, 18 points against Memphis, and 15 points with seven rebounds against San Antonio.
But after averaging 8.7 ppg through those first 40 games, Lyles' contributions steadily declined.
Over the final 42 games of the regular season, he averaged just 3 points per game, going scoreless 10 times as his playing time steadily diminished. He did not play in 11 of Utah's last 25 games and, over a rough six-game stretch from mid-February to early March, he shot a combined 1 of 22 from the field.
"It was just more they went with the older guys because they felt like they were ready to do something with them as far as making a (playoff) run," Lyles said of the season's second half.
"And just for me (he was told) to stay prepared, stay ready, and that's what I did. I had coaches working with me all year, and we continued to work on things that I'd be doing in the game or in game-time situations. So we just to simulate things that I would do in the game.
"It's been pretty challenging," he admitted. "I've never been in a situation where I haven't been playing before, so it was the first time for me. But I try to just realize it's a process. It was hard for me to digest at first but, like I said, having older guys tell me they went through the same thing kinda made it a little bit easier, I guess you could say."
After playing just one season at the University of Kentucky, Lyles was taken by Utah with the 12th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Jazz passed on a chance to take Lyles' Kentucky teammate, shooting guard Devin Booker, who was regarded as one of the best outside shooters in that year's draft and was subsequently selected by the Phoenix Suns with next pick No. 13.
The Jazz have since gotten second-guessed at times over that selection, especially after Booker averaged over 22 ppg, albeit for a weak Suns squad that finished dead last at 24-58 in the Western Conference this past season. In March, Booker became only the sixth player in NBA history to score 70 or more points in a game with a 70-point outburst in a loss to Boston.
But Utah head coach Quin Snyder hasn't given up on Lyles and still feels like the 21-year-old forward can be a productive pro player going forward.
"I think Trey's still got a bright future in the league," Snyder said. "Trey came in the year before last to a team when Rudy (Gobert) went out for a significant period of time, so did Derrick, and Trevor Booker was a very different player than Trey, so Trey's skill set was more unique to our team.
"When you add Joe (Johnson) to that group, there's another guy that can shoot the ball that's more of a skilled four, Boris is different and is one of the premier passers in the league and has his veteran experience.
"I think part of what happened with Trey is to be expected a little bit. It just happened (in his second season)," he said. "He almost had a rookie year this year and our team was performing at a pretty high level."
Lyles played sparingly in this year's postseason. He didn't play at all in Utah's first-round playoff series triumph over the Los Angeles Clippers and got some late mop-up duty in two of Utah's second-round losses to Golden State.
And while the jury's still out on where Lyles fits into Utah's future plans, Snyder fully expects the young man to learn and grow from this year's challenging experiences.
"I think, for Trey, like a lot of young players, it's more about him taking stock and looking at the year, figuring out he can use it to improve," the Jazz coach said. "Sometimes you have to go through some things like that in order to get a good gauge on where you are.
"I expect Trey to have a terrific summer and look forward to him leveraging some of that adversity to make himself a better player."
EMAIL: [email protected]