How Ricky Rubio Became Elite At Drawing Free Throws

By Matt Esposito

Here’s a list of things we take for granted:

  • Getting a gift basket at a friend’s birthday during ages 4-10
  • Complimentary garlic knots at Italian restaurants
  • Hotel air conditioners that turn your room into a slumber tundra
  • Ricky Rubio’s ability to get to the free throw line

Did you see that last one? Up there next to Jonas Valanciunas and JaMychal Green, Ricky Rubio remains one of the more underrated players in the NBA. Although his shooting numbers have only recently become passable, Rubio has long worked wonders as a facilitator and defender.

But there’s a specific skill of his that remains under-discussed: Rubio is among the game’s best at drawing shooting fouls. Outside of a couple years in Utah in which he had a lesser role next to Donovan Mitchell, Rubio’s shooting-fouled percentages have been awesome.

Courtesy of Cleaning The Glass

So, how is Rubio currently in the top-25 for free throw rate (FTr) for all backcourt players and top-50 for all players who logged more than 1000 minutes?) The devil is in the details; let’s exorcise those demons by reviewing the tape.

Ripping Thru Arms In The Midrange

Throughout his career, Rubio has been a poor midrange shooter. In spite of this, he continues to place in above average percentiles for midrange shot attempts. This makes my Nancy Drew senses tingle—there must be a reason.

Rubio doesn’t shy away from midrange looks because he knows he can get fouled in that area. Fouled shot attempts don’t count as field goal attempts, but this gives insight into his approach. What does he do in particular to draw fouls there?

Normally, players seek out trips to the line by banging bodies at the hoop. For instance, Jayson Tatum changed his shot chart this season by bulking up in preparation of more paint attempts. Rubio tries a totally unique approach. The second he sees the opportunity, he swings his shot attempt through the outstretched arms of his opponent. It’s fascinating to watch because, without the foul, you’d probably never expect Rubio to take that shot.

Selling The Bump

There’s something about this subheading that doesn’t quite sit well with me, but this is why god gave us editors. (Editor’s note: nice.) Rubio relies on midrange fouls, but he’s no stranger to driving when the chance arises. This is one way he demonstrates his immaculate feel for the game.

Call it “acting”—or maybe you’d prefer the term “flopping”—but nevertheless, Rubio is a Harden-level master at selling fouls. He pays the price, too. Hitting the floor is part of the process. Watch Rubio explode off of defenders once he feels that they are (quite literally) on his hip. Kudos to you, our Spanish amigo.

Deceleration

Ah yes, another Harden favorite. Unfortunately for Ricky, the 6-foot-3 point guard can’t boast dozens of YouTube videos highlighting gravity-defying dunks. Aware of his athletic limitations, Rubio uses craftiness around the rim.

To create contact from unwitting defenders, he often stops short during hard drives. Frustrated defenders often crash right into his rear end or land somewhere on his back. All that’s left for Rubio to do is flip the ball up towards the rim to draw the foul.

Unless they’re one of my exes, I’m not one who takes joy in seeing other people frustrated. Watching these videos changed my mind—Rubio’s cleverness is a pleasure to watch. Usually, the mob takes out their pitchforks for perceived floppers, but he’s somehow managed to avoid the hate from #NBATwitter, too. But where you see flopping, I see art, and we should all enjoy this artist.

The Raptors’ Title Defense starts on… Defense

By Andrew Lawlor

After charming the hearts of NBA fans everywhere (except in the Bay Area) with their championship run, the Toronto Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in the offseason. They were expected to take a step back. So far, they haven’t: after winning their first two games since the restart, the Raptors are 48–18, in second place in the Eastern Conference. How have they stayed successful? It starts on defense.

Toronto gives up 104.7 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 2nd in the NBA this season. They give up 41.9 points in the paint per 100 possessions (second), and are holding opposing offenses to just 42.8% from the field (second) and 33.6% from three-point range (first). They force 16.8 turnovers per 100 possessions (second). They harass you into turnovers, and do not give up clean looks at the basket.

Like the ones in Jurassic Park, the Toronto Raptors are a pack of long, athletic players who can cover a lot of ground quickly. They are smart and do a great job of switching and providing help defense. When you watch them, it looks like they are all moving together on a string. This allows them to take a lot of risks on defense while avoiding breakdowns. The star of the team has been Pascal Siakam, who’s equally capable of harassing ball-handlers on the perimeter (1.4 steals per 100 possessions) and protecting the rim (1.3 blocks per 100) (BBall Ref)

On top of their talent, the Raptors have an innovative coach in Nick Nurse. Last year, he brought out a funky box-and-one defense in the Finals to defend Stephen Curry. He has taken it to another level this season. Nurse regularly dials up wildly different defensive schemes based on the opponent; Toronto has frequently used zones, full-court presses, and box-and-ones this season.

No matter the scheme, Toronto looks to pressure shooters. Any time it looks like someone might get off a clean shot, defenders fly out to contest. Rushing out so quickly leaves them susceptible to pump fakes and driving shooters, but Toronto’s help defense is excellent. Defenders know exactly where they need to be and move into position immediately. Driving lanes evaporate instantly, and offenses are forced to repeatedly rotate the ball to create an opening, which the Raptors regularly convert into turnovers or contested shots. It’s a really aggressive defense that requires nonstop effort and perfect synchronization.

Getting a clean look at the rim against the Raptors is nearly impossible; opponents attempt 28.5 shots per game inside six feet, which is the fourth-least in the NBA. On the rare occasion an opposing player does get inside, Toronto’s frontcourt is overflowing with rim-protectors like Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher, and Pascal Siakam. All told, the team holds opponents to just 57.3% shooting within that distance, the second-best mark in the league.

Here, the Raptors execute multiple switches to prevent the Lakers from getting good shots. Then when LeBron James finds Kentavious Caldwell-Pope open at the rim, Ibaka closes quickly to block the shot. It’s textbook defense:

Due to their aggressiveness, Toronto actually gives up a lot of three-pointers. According to NBA Advanced Stats, the Raptors give up 38.3 three-point attempts per game (second-most frequent in the league), which constitutes 43.7% of their opponents’ shots (highest in the league). In particular, a lot of these shots come from the corners, where the shooter is closer to the basket. But because the Raptors fly out to defend shooters, they also contest the second-most three-pointers per game (28.3) hold opponents to the lowest conversion rate (33.6%).

Image by Andrew Lawlor

Oftentimes, teams aren’t able to maintain low opponent field goal percentages—they can control where the shots come from and how open they are, but beyond that, it’s largely up to the offense. But Toronto could be the exception here. For one, they do contest a lot of shots. In addition, the threat of a close out is always there. Like when Sam Darnold was seeing ghosts against the Patriots, Raptors’ opponents often rush their shots, even when they’re open. Toronto has given up below-average three-point percentages in both seasons under Nurse. This is too little data to tell for sure, but if there is a way to sustain it, the Raptors may have found it.

Here, the Raptors harass Anthony Davis and James into passing the ball, before giving up a shot to Davis. Siakam still manages to get over to contest, forcing a miss. Here, Danny Green does manage to get an open look, but it comes after he is forced to pump fake Kyle Lowry. It’s a shot you’d expect him to make, but Toronto does not make it easy to find.

Interestingly, while Toronto does force opponents into poor shooting, the Raptors have struggled to rebound the ball: they grab just 71.7% of opponents’ misses, the sixth-lowest rate in the league, per NBA Advanced Stats. This may be a side effect of their aggressive close-out strategy. It hasn’t hurt them that much so far, but it is something to monitor.

Toronto inspires panic in opponents. They throw tons of different looks at opponents and have great defensive players. They give up nothing at the rim, and force a lot of turnovers. They do give up a lot of three-pointers, particularly in the corners, but opponents have struggled to make those shots against the Raptors. Even without Kawhi Leonard, this team is a force to be reckoned with. They are a major threat in the East.

FOUNDER’S NOTE – Welcome Andrew to The Playgrounder team! He is a wonderful addition and we look forward to the bevy of visualizations and articles he will provide!

The Playgrounder’s Top 25 Under 25

(Image by Tomek Kordylewski)

By Matt Esposito and Zach Wilson

You know you’re a media genius when you schedule a “Top 25 Players Under 25” content drop during the most anticipated basketball resumption ever. It’s only a matter of time until Zach and I become moguls. After all, why discuss our current basketball frenzy when you can discuss something entirely different?

Alas, here we stand, in full glory and ready to be humiliated. How did we rank our guys? I had the first pick. Zach then chose what he believed to be the second best player on his Under 25 big board. We switched back and forth after that. Stick around to read us roast each other. More importantly. click HERE to listen to Zach, myself and Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale draft our own Under 25 teams!

Rankings

1. Luka Doncic

Matt’s rationale – The flair, the shot-creation, the next level passing. What isn’t to like? And Zach, if you disagree with me, I’m going to steal your phone and text to an ex, “Hey, so…I just had a dream about you,” and watch you live with the consequences.

Zach’s response – I agree with this 100%, and that’s not because I got dumped less than a month ago…

2. Jayson Tatum

Zach’s rationale – The beard connected and the hair got chopped. He also has fantastic shot creation ability and is playing near an All-Defense level. Long hair Tatum would definitely drop out of the top 20 though.

Matt’s response – One time in 5th grade my Dad brought me to a lazy-eyed barber to get the Macaulay Culkin look from Richie Rich. My mom made us turn around immediately and get it shaved. I never felt so powerless. I’m basically Tatum, is what I’m saying.

3. Zion Williamson

Matt’s rationale – Dude’s nickname is Zanos. There has literally never been a basketball player with his athletic profile. What’re the odds that Zion is one of those freaks who forces the NBA to make a rule change?

Zach’s response – If we were ranking prospects, Zion would definitely be second or third, but for a guy who struggles to play more than 15 minutes per game, it’s difficult to place him as the third best player in this loaded group.

4. Nikola Jokic

Zach’s rationale – I would’ve put Jokic second, if it were completely up to me. Between his passing, shooting, post-game, and rebounding, he is definitely a top-ten player in the league. Matt said he would take KAT over him, but I guess Matt’s used to not making the playoffs.

Matt’s response – Zach’s extra sassy today. I’d take KAT over Jokic depending on what the rest of my roster looks like. Also, FWIW, I’m not sold on Jokic being able to be the best player on a championship team.

5. KAT

Matt’s rationale – I could have spelled his name out but for the sake of brevity, right? KAT is literally the most efficient big in modern history and no big deal but I have two degrees in History so…Now watch Zach make up for his KAT slander in 3…2…1…

Zach’s response – I’ve always said that he’s the most versatile offensive big in NBA history. Not the best, but most versatile; dog can play.

6. Ben Simmons

Zach’s rationale – Spoiler alert: He wasn’t taken by any of the three teams in the podcast draft, and I’m honestly not quite sure why. He has elite skills in every way, except for his jumper. It sometimes seems like my mom could out-shoot him.

Matt’s response – I like dudes who can hit jump shots. Turns out, NBA History tends to agree with me. Simmons is an awesome player but at some point his lack of shooting is going to make or break his career.

7. Devin Booker

Matt’s rationale – I’m already tired of typing “rationale.” I’m not tired of stanning DB, though. Did you know that Booker jumped from the 46th to the 87th percentile for assist to usage ratio this year?

Zach’s response – He may be the best player in the league to never make the playoffs… I don’t think I’m missing anyone, right?

8. Donovan Mitchell

Zach’s rationale – He is most definitely in his rightful place, right behind Book. However, go compare his 2019-2020 stats to Collin Sexton’s… That’s all I’m going to say.

Matt’s response – We had a better of chance seeing the name “Keyon Dooling” in this blog than “Collin Sexton” but alas, here we are. Very 2020 of you, Zach.

9. Brandon Ingram

Matt’s rationale – I was always decent at backing into a parking spot but never great at it. Then one day it just clicked. I feel like this is what happened to BI’s shooting mechanics? Zach, did my analogy land with you or no?

Zach’s response – If you improved in the same way BI did, then you would win the Most Improved Driver Award, and sometimes I feel like you have trouble walking.

10. Ja Morant

Zach’s rationale – Is he the most exciting player to watch in the league? He has to be one of them! Hopefully he learns to land on two feet, because I feel like watching him is taking years off my life.

Matt’s response – Ja Morant can’t land properly and apparently I can’t walk properly. I feel like I’m somehow losing this and I’m not even sure it’s a competition…

11. Jaylen Brown

Matt’s rationale – A blossoming 3-level scorer who plays defense and took grad classes at Cal as a freshman…need I say more or should I just show you his Christmas Day highlights?

Zach’s salty response – I’m good on the highlights, Christmas 2019 was already ruined for me once. People need to stop acting like he’s multiple levels below Tatum, he’s only one floor down.

12. Trae “Forever” Young

Zach’s rationale – One of the best offensive guards, but probably the worst defensively. I could argue he should be well below 12, but I’ll sip my tea on that one.

Matt’s response – Not even gonna say anything about the nickname I just inserted for Trae? Boy, byeeeee.

13. SGA

Matt’s rationale – My guy had a 20/20/10 game this year. Shai is learning from one of the GOATs and will get even better. Quick question: Can you be one of the GOATs? Doesn’t GOAT imply there is only one?

Zach’s response – Not quite sure how your brain functions, and quite honestly, I don’t think it does sometimes. SGA is my second favorite player in the league, and by next year will be within the top seven on this list. Mark my words!

14. Bam Adebayo

Zach’s rationale – Hot take: He’s been the best player on the Miami Heat this season. End of discussion

Matt’s response – You can’t say “Hot take” when discussing the Heat and refuse to address the pun. Lazy and quite frankly, immature of you.

15. De’Aaron Fox

Matt’s rationale – Fox is the most appropriate name for this dude. Quickest player in the league DO NOT try and disagree with me.

Zach’s response – Easily the fastest, and has top-five point guard in the league capability. I really wish their front office was competent, because Fox and Luka could be on the same team right now.

16. Domantas Sabonis

Zach’s rationale – He really should be higher. Received a well-deserving all star selection this year. His game is effective, but boring. Kind of like the Pacers as a whole without Victor Oladipo.

Matt’s response – Hotter take: Sabonis could be a better passer than Bam. Pun adressed.

17. Kristaps Porzingis

Matt’s rationale – KP just turned 25 and technically this was his age 24 season, so it counts. Are there any other bigs you would want to be teaming up as Luka’s sidekick?

Zach’s response – Yes, all the ones above him on this list.

18. Jonathan Isaac

Zach’s rationale – I almost shed a tear to the recent news of his torn ACL. Defensive Player of the Year capability, and a fluid offensive game. I’m praying he finds a way out of Orlando.

Matt’s response – There were too many Twitter losers saying, “Karma moves quick” after Isaac went down. Be respectful and move out of your Mom’s basement, she needs the storage space for her aerobics videos, meanies.

19. Jaren Jackson Jr

Matt’s rationale – Has JJJ reached the defensive heights we once projected him to get to? No. Will he? Yes. I’m excited for the JJJ vs. Deandre Ayton debate that’ll play out for the next decade. Hoping he comes back strong from injury.

Zach’s response – I may like the young core of the Grizzlies more than the Pelicans, and JJJ plays a big role in that.

20. Deandre Ayton

Zach’s rationale – The Suns have finally done something right! Well… They could’ve paired Booker up with Luka, but who’s keeping track.

Matt’s response -Ayton made some serious strides. I also made some strides in implementing the Twitter feature into WordPress.

21. OG Anunoby

Matt’s rationale – The best on ball defender in the NBA please tweet this and do it now.

Zach’s response – Why don’t we take it one step further? Best defender in the NBA! But once again, I’ll go back to sipping my tea.

22. Jamal Murray

Zach’s rationale – Shooting arrows all over the place. He’s the point guard for one of the best young cores in the league, and fits really nicely next to Jokic and MPJ.

Matt’s response – Hold up, you really like tea, don’t you? Like, in real life? And oh yeah, this Murray kid is good but the fluff piece by Jackie Mac came suspiciously too soon.

23. John Collins

Matt’s rationale – An almost perfect fit next to Trae Young offensively. Collins has progressed mightily as a floor spacer and still is a lob threat. I’m happy his potential “John the Baptist” nickname is dead and buried.

Zach’s response – It’ll be interesting to see his fit next to Capela. I’m a little skeptical on this one.

24. D’Angelo Russell

Zach’s rationale – Another guy who should probably be higher on this list, but isn’t because of his down year. Luckily he stopped recording his conversations with his friends, now the Wolves just need him to play defense.

Matt’s response – 3:1 odds that Russell never makes an All-Star game ever again.

25. Lonzo Ball

Matt’s rationale – Will I use this space to plug that The Playgrounder is going to be dropping a Zion/Lonzo related piece? Maybe yes, maybe no. I will, however, mention that New Orleans has three players on this list…

Zach’s response – His own brother will be higher on this list next year.

BONUS! Check out the draft podcast with Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale

2019-20 Rookie Review : Carsen Edwards Hasn’t Lived Up To His Pre-Draft Hype (Yet)

(Image by Tomek Kordylewski)

By Jesse Cinquini

There were high hopes for Carsen Edwards heading into his maiden NBA season. At the time, he was coming off a superbly productive stint at the Las Vegas Summer League. Just how terrific was he? Well, Edwards’ Summer League performance ranks among the top in Celtics history.

Over a five-game span, Carsen put up a franchise-record 19.4 points per contest, on superb efficiency no less. Forty-eight percent of his 91 field-goal attempts found the net. Also, Edwards was a flamethrower from deep, hitting 21 of 45 treys which equates to a scorching 46.6 percent clip. After a stellar showing at Vegas, Carsen appeared to be NBA-ready. But was he? Not quite, and we’ll delve into why.

Sub-par efficiency/shot selection with Boston

Edwards is on the court to get buckets. Plain and simple. The Celtics selected Carsen with the hopes that he’d provide consistent scoring off the pine. It’s not exactly a bold statement to say he failed to do so. The accuracy and confidence Edwards had in his shot eluded him once the regular season commenced.

Perimeter woes plagued the 22-year-old throughout his 35 games as a Celtic, too. He sits at a lowly fifth percentile among combo guards in points per shot attempt, according to Cleaning the Glass. To boot, Carsen managed to shoot just 32.7 percent from the field and 30.9 percent from deep as a pro. Not exactly numbers that scream NBA-ready.

Edwards’ less than ideal efficiency in the big leagues directly correlated with his tendency to settle for off-balance, low-percentage looks. Like I noted before, he’s a bucket-getter first and foremost, so I understand why he gets a bit trigger-happy on occasion. That being said though, the sequence below is an example of how taking unwarranted “heat check” shots can be detrimental to the team. Here Carsen launches an awkward, hurried 29-footer. There were 18 seconds left on the shot clock. Surely Boston could’ve executed something substantially more effective with that time.

Edwards proved during his college days he can convert inside among the trees. His shot-creation prowess extends beyond simply the perimeter. Carsen’s quickness and bulky frame make him a constant driving threat. Meaning, if a big happens to switch onto the 5’11” guard, he should exploit the mismatch by taking them off the bounce. In this snippet, Edwards gets a favorable matchup, as Bobby Portis switches onto him off the pick and roll. With a plethora of space to work with and an unprotected rim, Carsen foolishly opts for a pull-up trey and misfires.

The rook has yet to find his scoring rhythm in Beantown. Yet, his G-League display was an entirely different story. In 13 appearances with the Maine Red Claws, Boston’s G-League affiliate, Edwards flashed an offensive repertoire that should have Celtics faithful encouraged.

Promising stretch in Maine

The mid-range jumper is a lost art in today’s pace-and-space era. Still, scoring machines such as Chris Paul and DeMar DeRozan are living proof that the in-between shot remains an effective offensive tool. Said range served as Edwards’ bread-and-butter during his period with the Red Claws. Carsen utilized screens to set himself up for off-the-dribble pull-ups/ floaters near the free-throw line. Long story short, he burned the defense from this proximity. Edwards connected on an otherworldly 52.3 percent of his mid-rangers in Maine.

He operated as the team’s undisuputed primary scorer and ballhandler. Carsen averaged 19.4 shots in 34.3 minutes per game as a Red Claw. His top outing as a G-Leaguer came on January 16 against the Long Island Nets. The entirety of Edwards’ offensive repertoire was on display this evening. He was hitting his threes (4-for-9 from deep), knifing to the rim, showing off his touch, and even sprinkled in a handful of no-look dimes. He totaled 33 points, seven rebounds and three assists.

Edwards suffered from a case of the yips in Boston. But Portland, Maine is where he found his composure. The game has slowed down for him. Let’s hope this newfound poise can translate to the NBA level. I believe it will. As I’ll get in to below, his career arc is remarkably similar to a few prospects who went on to see future success.

Offseason To-Do List

Former high usage guards have a history of struggling when shifted to a lesser role in the NBA. But some bounced back after a rocky start. Two names in particular that come to mind are Trey Burke and Shabazz Napier. Both were on the cusp of losing their jobs. They adapted their playstyle though, and as a result resurrected their careers. Edwards can do the same.

It’s never been a matter of whether or not Carsen has the talent. Rather it’s about picking his spots and acclimating himself to the league’s size. What Edwards needs most to excel at the next level is simple: experience. Consistent run-time over a sustained period may prove to be the remedy for his NBA jitters.

Miami’s Zone Defense Will Be Pivotal To Their Success In Orlando

By Jesse Cinquini

In today’s NBA, a majority of team defenses are predicated on constant switching. The Miami Heat, guided by old-fashioned head coach Eric Spoelstra, are one of few exceptions. If playing at the league’s fourth-slowest pace doesn’t scream archaic, the Heat also utilized a 2-3 zone defense this season. You’ll see teams playing zone quite frequently at the college and high school levels, but it’s a somewhat lost art in the pros. Miami was able to see tremendous success when implementing their trademark scheme though, and against top-tier competition, no less.

What is a 2-3 zone exactly? To put it simply, it consists of two players positioned near the top of the key while the other three are behind to account for the corners and painted area. Its purpose is to protect the interior as well as the lane. That being said, the 2-3 is not without its weak spots. Its vulnerable to clubs with a plethora of capable outside shooters, as the zone can leave open areas on the wings and high post. With this in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Philadelphia 76ers (a squad notorious for their lack of perimeter threats) struggled to put points on the board at times against Miami.

One of the Sixers two losses at Wells Fargo Center this season came at the hands of the Heat on Dec. 18, who wreaked havoc and forced turnovers with their zone strategy. Miami’s pressure led to 13 Philadelphia blunders, and the team operated in a 2-3 for a total of 39 defensive possessions. While playing zone, the Heat limited their opponent to 38 percent shooting from the field including 7-for-21 from distance. It’s evident that the 76ers were discombobulated and uncomfortable; they had no answer for a scheme that mitigated their greatest strength on offense: interior scoring. Keeping Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons from away from the inside is no simple task, but it’s safe to say the Heat were victorious in accomplishing this feat.

Miami rolled out the zone on a nightly basis; it wasn’t exclusively reserved for Philly (or other sub-par outside shooting teams). As I already alluded to, zone defenses aren’t common in the NBA. Consequently, the opposition was oftentimes left unsure of how to crack Miami’s. Big league coaches likely aren’t prepping their guys to combat a 2-3; there are plenty of defensive schemes that are used with more frequency, so it wouldn’t be necessary to do so. Although, I’d argue it’s necessary for whoever takes on the Heat in the postseason. Opponent’s unfamiliarity with zone defenses and how to exploit them certainly gave the Heat an advantage.

Just because the zone has been effective doesn’t mean the Heat should run it all the time, though. Part of what made the 2-3 so lethal was the fact that Miami would leave the defense guessing as to when they’d employ it. Coach Spoelstra still used man-to-man coverage for a majority of possessions. He recognized that if the Heat played zone every time down the court, they’d become predictable. Not to mention opponents would develop a better feel for how to carve up the coverage if they constantly went up against it. Because of this, Miami would be wise to keep their 2-3 zone usage to under 20 percent of their total possessions on any given night. That way, the opposition will be on their toes and have to adjust on the fly to whatever sort of alternate schemes Spo throws out of his back pocket.

2-3 Zone In Action (Film)

Here at The Playgrounder, we pride ourselves on adding insightful tape to our pieces. Sometimes video provides a better explanation than words ever could. That’s why this section will feature a compilation of Miami’s stingiest defensive possessions whilst functioning under their patented 2-3 zone. Letters and numbers alone simply don’t do it enough justice.

There are two important takeaways from the film above. Firstly, team-wide defensive prowess has a lot to do with coaching. Spoelstra’s basketball genius rubs off on the entire roster; he has his guys in sync and communicating on defense. Everyone on the court for Miami knows exactly where to be. Players such as Derrick Jones Jr. and Goran Dragic aren’t known as perimeter lockdowns, but they both showcased an encouraging amount of effort and intensity in the compilation. As long as Spoelstra remains at the helm, Heat faithful should rest easy — because his presence guarantees that they’ll continue to rank among the league’s top defenses for seasons to come.

Secondly, the Heat’s guards and wings were tremendous at contesting perimeter jumpers when in the 2-3 zone. Even though the formation is traditionally weak against marksmen-filled ball clubs, Miami’s constant player movement resulted in a ton of excellent closeouts and missed shots. The Heat are exceptionally quick to contest open shooters in the half court. If opponents head into a playoff matchup with Jimmy Butler and crew assuming they’ll be able to let it fly from beyond unchallenged — they’re in for a rude awakening.

In short, the 2-3 zone defense should be Miami’s go-to scheme if they are in need of a stop with the game on the line. It’s capable of completely destroying a foe’s rhythm on the offensive end. The Heat don’t possess the star studded casts of the Raptors, Celtics, or Bucks, so to pull off an upset they must do it with their defensive chops. It’s Miami’s only hope for a lengthy postseason run in Orlando.

The Marcus Smart Effect Was In Full…Effect Versus The Bucks

By Matt Esposito

Well, I never claimed to be good at titling articles. Either that or I clearly had an Austin Powers movie on in the background while I was writing this. Perhaps this is why The Playgrounder just hired a new editor, Nick Trizzino. Regardless, I’m sneaking this one past him because I’m too darn excited to write about Marcus Smart.

Or should I say, Marcus “Brilliant?” Now that I’ve expended all corniness, it has become time to delineate why he is the subject of today’s blog. Last night the Milwaukee Bucks jumped out to a 17-2 lead on the Celtics. Barf. By the time Smart checked in they fought back to make it a 20-9 lead. Then, the Smart Effect took place.

Future Celtics videographer and current GOAT Tomek Kordylewski provided the instant break down of Smart’s performance. Before I break down the…break down (crap, did it again!) I will drop the full video below. Watch it and follow Tomek by clicking on that shiny, blue link.

(Q1 5:58) – Defending Middleton Before Hitting A Pull-Up 3-Pointer

I’ll move in chronological order of play to examine how Smart completely altered the feel of the game. The first play of note came against Khris Middleton. Middleton, a nightmarish figure for Cs diehards, received a lengthy arm in front of his face that forced an airball. Guess what happened next? Yup, my title ruined it. Smart in all of his glorious confidence nailed a transition triple.

(Q1 4:43) – Steal And Fastbreak Bucket

Don’t dribble around Marcus Smart. Just stay in a triple threat and whisper a prayer. Unfortunately, God wasn’t listening to Sterling Brown last night; he was overwhelmed with all the requests from G.O.P congressman to fix gun control.

But who needs divinity when you have a 6-foot-4, Homeric demigod who once played pickup with Achilles and Ajax? Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this play is not simply the steal but the way Smart jumped from the free throw line to hit a layup. Watch and enjoy, folks.


By that time, the Cs had cut the lead deficit to four (25-21) with more than four minutes remaining in the quarter. In a span of about three minutes Marcus Smart ignited his team and quickly cut down an 11 point lead. He continued to make plays in the second quarter as well.

(Q2 9:13) – Catching The Bucks Asleep, Perfect Lob To Theis

Well, at least almost every Buck was sleeping. Donte DeVincenzo told his teammates to watch out for a cutting Daniel Theis. Alas, they did and not and Smart tossed an exquisitely placed lob pass. This play cut the lead back down to five and kept the Cs within striking distance; a notable feat when considering their first quarter deficit.

(Q3 3:02) – Back-To-Back Possessions, Tip-In Then And-1

It’s time for a cold shower. The only thing we love more than a sell-out, nosefortheball tip in by Marcus Smart is when he converts a steal for an And-1. Luckily for me, he did both on back-to-back possessions for the Celtics and ended up tying the game. I had to pull these clips from a source other than Tomek but ssshhhh, we won’t tell him that.

(Q4 9:28) – A Gusty Pull-Up Triple After A Killer Move

Did I ignore Smart’s third quarter triple that gave Boston its first lead? Yes. Why? His 4th quarter triple might have been more important.

Milwaukee started the period by reminding everyone why they were the best team during the regular season. They were threatening to pull away for good. Naturally, it was time for a “No, no no…yes!” 3-pointer from the streaky Smart. This massive shot ensured that this game would remain winnable for Boston for the rest of the final stanza.

Alright, time to put my homerism aside. The Celtics have some issues going forward. Will Kemba be healthy? Can Brad Wanamaker play every game like he did last night and fix their bench woes? Will Brad Stevens exchange Enes Kanter for Robert Williams?

The answers to those questions are unclear. Yet, NBA fans everywhere should be rooting for a Boston-Milwaukee matchup. Stevens has the smarts (no pun intended) to challenge Giannis. Plus, last night’s game was just freaking fun to watch!

2019-20 Rookie Review: RJ Barrett Has Superstar Potential But Needs Work

By Matt Esposito

In 7th grade Health class my teacher, Mr. Green, knew students would have opinions on the difficult topics we were covering. To protect identities, he made us use an, “I know someone who…” model.

Well, I know someone who argued that RJ Barrett has a greater chance at becoming a top tier player than Ja Morant. This person made a solid case, too! Yet, this person also recognizes that Morant performed far better than Barrett this season. But he still believes RJ could be the better long term prospect.

Okay, you got me. I am that person. and if I have any credibility left with you so far, I urge you to read on. Uncover what Barrett did well this year. Learn about the aspects of his game that could hold him back from fulfilling his potential. Finally, for dessert, read expert opinions on his rookie campaign.

Pick & Roll Playmaking

There are a lot of analytics folks in the nerdery right now who will grow upset when I discuss Barrett’s pick and roll passing as a strength. After all, he finished in he 23rd percentile for pick and roll ballhandling this year. This is where game film comes in handy, people.

RJ ran pick and roll with a frequency rate of 27.7 percent this year; an impressive number for a rookie who is not a nominal point guard. Now, the Knicks surely lacked a traditional, effective offensive initiator. This played a role in Barrett’s high PnR usage. It also suggests, however, that New York may wisely be considering him as their primary initiator.

I’ll give you a second to recover from reading wisely in a complimentary sentence about the Knicks. It surprised me too. So, let’s turn to the film. RJ showed wonderful patience in the pick and roll. What’s more, his vision is truly elite for someone of his size and position. He slings difficult, one-handed passes and can do so with either hand. There is remarkable potential here.

Drawing Fouls

As a rookie, Barrett’s shooting efficiency proved to be lacking. He had some hot streaks from the perimeter but ultimately left fans wanting. You are correct to question if RJ will ever become an efficient shooter, especially from deep. Yet, his ability to get to the line could greatly mitigate that deficiency.

Barrett had a Free Throw Attempt Rate (FTr) that was better than Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Chris “State Farm” Paul, and Russell Westbrook. Just like that, I won back the analytics crowd. Why is FTr important? Free throws are easy ways to score points and help maintain efficiency for players with average or struggling shooting percentages. It’s one of the main reasons Carmelo Anthony was once revered as a scorer.

How does RJ get to the line so much? Keeping defenders off balance is key. He deploys crossovers, hesitations and some sexy footwork that gives him what amounts to a running start despite being in a standstill. Plus, Barrett loves to barrel into dudes (more on this later.) Now, he must learn to make those freebies at a clip north of 61.4 percent!

Capitalizing On His Brute Strength

Dating back to his college days, RJ has loved to bully around other players. He is built with a frame to pack on even more muscle or good weight. It is one of the reasons he loves attacking the paint. According to Cleaning The Glass, Barrett placed in the 91st percentile for field goal attempts at the rim.

Yet, he is having a hard time converting once there, as evident in his 21st percentile ranking for at rim field goal percentage. Sure, Barrett’s playing style is a coach’s dream but why is he struggling to finish these plays?

Below, watch Barrett create some serious separation with his body during drives. He routinely bumps players off him or sends them into a vulnerable defensive position.

Still, he finds it difficult to convert. He does a good job at administering the physicality but often opts into a handful of counterproductive scoring moves. These include moving away from the rim during layups, spinning into his non-dominant hand or jumping back into the man e just dislodged. Barrett must grow learn how to finish after doing the hard part.

3-Point Shooting

There was a moment when I thought Barrett had maybe figured out how to become a legitimate 3-point shooter. His percentage trend throughout the season tells a different story, one which shows a streaky shooter who has the potential to at least be league average from deep (which is all he needs, by the way!)

Courtesy of Cleaning The Glass

Some may look at this and chalk it up to the inconsistency that most rookies endure during their first pro season. But the tape suggests Barrett is in need of some serious fine tuning. Specifically, he must figure out what on God’s green Earth he is doing wit his guide hand. Pay special attention to it in the clip below.

Showing up to work with your shirt on backwards is bad, but it isn’t alarming. My coworkers will back me up on this. Having your guide hand collide with your shooting and after the release, however, is most definitely alarming.

RJ’s concern for what his right hand does during his shot is palpable. Nothing about it looks natural, as if he is actively thinking about it when taking the jumper. Fortunately for the Knicks, Barrett is already a notoriously hard worker and can call on his godfather, Steve Nash, to help him out.

Offseason To-Do List

I’m still incredibly high on Barrett as a prospect. His style of play is ripe for stardom and analytical success. He gets fouled, go hard into the paint often, and can create easy, high percentage scoring chances for his teammates. Plus, he is willing to take 3-pointers.

Yet, Barrett must improve his free throw shooting if he wants to cash in on his great FTr. Additionally, he needs to work on converting at the rim. Of course, his 3-point woes are well documented. There is one more area of improvement, however; one that should leave New York fans encouraged.

RJ demonstrated that he can create space to get off his own jumper Did he sink a lot of these? Heck no. But he has some wiggle to his game and knows how to send defenders in the opposite direction of where he is going.

BONUS: What Are The Experts Saying?

Although I’m a bit closer to New York than Boston, I’m a Celtics fan at heart. So, I reached out to some real New Yorkers for their opinions. The type of Empire Staters who think Timberland boots are religion and that FUBU still has time for a fashion comeback.

Geoffrey Campbell – Elite Sports NY

“For me Barrett embodies NY basketball. His game meshes the spirit of a construction worker clocking in for a day’s work with the gracefulness of Fred Astaire. Barrett has no problem working hard for his points and his decision making, in tight spaces, has been impressive, given his age. RJ makes plenty of advanced reads in the PnR and has proved to be much more a willing passer than his than his days at Duke would’ve suggested. But for me Barrett’s maturity is probably his most impressive trait. He forgets bad possessions, stays focused on the defensive end, and doesn’t let bad shooting affect the other parts of his game.”

Chip Murphy – Hoops Habit

“I thought RJ played really smart, aggressive basketball especially for a rookie. He showed no fear in attacking the rim despite his struggles to convert on drives. That should come in time. RJ needs more touches. There was too much Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton this year. He needs to improve his shot but he’s a 19-year-old rookie and what rookie doesn’t struggle with their shot? Also, the free throw shooting really improved after a terrible start. That’s a good sign.

Jonathan Macri – Knicks SI & The Step Back

“I’d say the two things that stood out the most is that for one, nothing was ever too big for him – the moment, the NBA game, the New York media, not being put in an ideal situation basketball-wise (and that’s putting it kindly) – he took it all in stride.”

“While the shooting (from both outside and in close) was obviously an issue, I think RJ showed a very good ability to draw fouls, but despite that being the part of his game that came easiest this year, he never drove with his head down. That’s not to say he didn’t miss a pass from time to time, but he developed a nice connection with Mitchell Robinson. His touch on lobs was that of a point guard…really solid.”

2019-20 Rookie Review: What Did Jaxson Hayes Show Us?

By Matt Esposito

Do I defend having Jaxson Hayes 20th overall on my Big Board? Do I make a case that he’ll eventually turn into an efficient rim protector yet be undeserving of a big contract extension? I could go the Danny Ainge route and detail how players like Hayes can be mostly replacable and on the cheap.

I’ll eat crow, however. Hayes seems to have already outperformed where I had him on my board. Plus, he showed some flashes of touch around the rim, passing and paint deterrence. We’ll get to those but first, let’s start with some areas of improvement for Hayes.

NBA Physicality & Contact

Currently, Hayes weighs 220 pounds, qualifying him as a undersized 7-footer. There were times when opposing bigs and even some veteran players who were not bigs pushed Hayes around. Many rookies come into the league needing to add good weight, but the impact on New Orleans center was noticeable.

During the first three plays in the clip below, you’ll see Hayes either avoid contact from players he is taller, more athletic than or, you’ll notice how he fails to creation separation when he initiates the contact.

Hayes is too darn (I’m over swearing in 2020) bouncy and long to avoid physical play. He neutralizes his natural gifts when cowering to other bigs. Defensively, it impacts him as well. Stronger players shove Hayes out of position and it causes him to commit fouls.

I’ll leave you with one more gift. Check out a chart representation of Haye’s fouling troubles. He is currently in the 17th percentile for foul percentage, according to Cleaning the Glass. Then, watch Nikola Jokic push him around. Even skinny Jokic would still be able to make Hayes pay in the paint.

Defensive Footwork & Abandoning His Stance

Believe it or not, I once wrote about Jaxson’s jaw dropping fluidity for someone his size. In the open court he moves like a guard and explodes like the good fireworks that aren’t allowed in my home state of Connecticut.

Some might have expected this agility and athletic ability to translate to perimeter defending. So far, it hasn’t. Opposing teams sometimes targeted Hayes in the pick and roll and let their premier guards either blow by him or collect a foul.

Hayes has a tendency to stay low in his stance early on during mismatches but then become upright the instant his man begins the drive. Turning the hips to run besides a quicker player is sound strategy if you are beat or going to be beat. Yet, Hayes ditches his stance before his man gets equal to or behind him. I would like to see him give an extra shuffle before turning the hips.

Why? Going upright too soon allows the attacking player to jump into the defender. Drawing fouls becomes easier. Plus, Hayes can be clumsy. Smart players decelerate on him and create scoring chances. Even players his size can exploit his footwork.

Jaren Jackson Jr did so during a drive against him. There, you saw Hayes’ choppy side shuffle. The result? JJJ got to the free throw line. Other times Jaxson is prone to stepping on his own heels, getting caught flat footed or stumbling while backpedaling. His technique will be refined in time but it is a concern for now.

Verticality

We just ate our Hayes vegetables and now it is time for some dessert. Although I pinpointed his dislike for physicality, I think Hayes will overcome this issue. There are flashes of him sacrificing his body while applying verticality that reassure me that this kid has a competitive mindset.

Standing just shy of 7-feet tall and possessing a pterodactylian wingspan, Hayes has racked up an awesome block percentage. This is due largely in part to his ability to go straight up during contests. If he masters this technique and does this more frequently not only will he emerge as a league leading paint deterrent but, his foul percentage could drop as well.

Courtesy of Cleaning The Glass

So, without further ado, watch Hayes stifle everyone from Ja Morant to Donovan Mitchell. You can’t teach height folks. Trust me, I’m a failed autodidact in that subject.

Soft Touch And Offensive Footwork

Remember about two minutes ago when I critiqued Hayes defensive footwork? Well, his offensive agility remains underrated and leads me to believe his defensive issues are correctable.

Those who watched him operate at Texas while in college were not surprised to see ayes deploy eurosteps at the pro level. In fact, some of us expected it. Hayes can be nimble on the drive. Not many people fool defensively astute bigs like Anthony Davis and Daniel Theis, but Hayes did so as a rookie.

Going forward, New Orleans could use Hayes more frequently out of the short roll, especially if they run him next to spacers like Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and JJ Redick. If this happens, Hayes can dance his way past recovering defenders. Or, as our next subheading suggests, he may simply dunk over them.

Athleticism Making Plays That Others Cannot

Do not – I repeat – do not let Jaxson Hayes gain a full head of steam while rolling to the hoop. Never. That’s sinful. He will dunk on you and embarrass you into hiding. Better yet, he’ll employ the Ancient Roman concept of oblivion and your family will be forced to remove all monuments and mentionings of your name as to be erased from History altogether.

Okay, that was dramatic but I’m a history teacher so cut me some slack. Regardless, Hayes’ physical profile unlocks scoring chances that other players simply cannot replicate. His catch radius is wild. Take a look-see for yourself.

Hayes can throw down off one foot or two. The talented lob-tossers in New Orleans have to do nothing more than ensure their pass goes higher than where they think a defender can get it. Their talented, young big man will outjump just about anyone. This is truly a luxury to have.

Additionally, Hayes needs one dribble (if that) to glide to the rim off of pick and rolls. When defenders don’t tag him or rotate over there is trouble ahead. Hayes has long strides that allow him to dunk on just about everyone. There is a reason he took 91 percent of his shots at the rim this season.

Offseason To-Do List

Put on some weight, Mr. Hayes. That’s easy to do, however. I’m sure he can shell out for a dietician or the Pelicans will provide him a plan and chef. Some added bulk will help Jaxson bang with other bigs during his sophomore year.

After choking down three bowls of oatmeal everyday, Hayes should rewatch tape of him guarding smaller players. Take the time to learn where his footwork failed him. Fortunately, eliminating choppiness and correcting fundamentals can be learned through drills and scrimmages.

Lastly, Hayes must continue to work on his free throw shooting. Hayes is in the 100th percentile for percentage of shots he was fouled on. That stroke must be improved. As of now, however, New Orleans has a great rim runner on a cheap deal. Soak it in, Pelicans fans.

BONUS: What Are The Experts Saying?

I’d love to be basketball omnipotent but alas, I am merely a human. So, I reached out to David M. Grubb for his expert opinion. Grubb writes for SB Nation and hosts both a podcast and radio show which discuss all things Pelicans. He gave is thoughts on Hayes’ rookie season.

On What He Did Well

“The most impressive part of Jaxson Hayes’ season to this point had to be the 20-game stretch he had from early December right into the start of 2020.  Zion Williamson was still on the shelf and Jax got thrown into the fire. We knew he was athletic, but he showed a lot more during that spurt. He was able to play 20 minutes a night, and he was extremely effective around the rim and in transition. 9 pts, 1.5 blks, and 5 rebs a night was incredibly impressive for a kid who had basically two years of organized ball before he got to the NBA. He showed a soft touch on his jumper, and he can run the floor as well as any big in the league. He has good hands and he’s fearless.”

On What He Needs To Improve

“The lack of experience came back to bite him. He wasn’t a great rebounder or defender, but it got worse from January to March. Hayes was a magnet for fouls all season, and far too often he had no idea where to be defensively. He also relies on his athleticism too much. His fundamentals are way behind and like most 19-year-olds, he needs to mature. 
Bigs can take a while to develop. Especially now, because the rudimentary parts of post play just aren’t getting taught. I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen out of Jax so far, but he could be Jarrett Allen and steadily improve into a valuable rebounder and rim protector, or he could be JaVale McGee and frustrate you with his talent for more time than the Pelicans have. “

2019-20 Rookie Review: Kevin Porter Jr Truthers Are Celebrating

(Image by Tomek Kordylewski)

By Matt Esposito

Where was Kevin Porter Jr on my Big Board? Not high enough. Or, in other words, 14th. After just one season in the NBA, however, it is easy to see why KPJ needs to be bumped up on that list.

Porter did not average more than 10 points per game this year but he showed how he could become a prime time scorer. In fact, he had a 10 game stretch this year where he put up 14.8 per night (in less that 30 minutes) while hitting 48.8 percent of his triples!

How did Porter surprise us his rookie year? What does he project as going forward? What does he need to work on this offseason. Why so many questions and when will I stop asking them? Let’s use game film to break down his season before giving some expert opinions.

Initiating & Scoring Through Contact

Porter took 36 percent of his field goal attempts at the rim this year and finished in the 76th percentile once there. Many rookies get stymied at the rim because they are not used to NBA length. This makes what KPJ did considerably impressive.

So, how did he fair so well in the paint? Standing at 6-foot-6 with a frame as powerful as his overall athleticism, Porter seeks out contact. He initiates physicality wherever. In transition. In the halfcourt. Anybody can get it. See for yourself.

He almost literally went through the smaller Kemba Walker. Julius Randle found himself on the receiving end of a sly shove during a fastbreak. Did you see how he got low into Enes Kanter to create separation? These are encouraging signs from the rookie, but what else did he do well?

2-Footed Explosions

You’re right, this is an odd skill set to narrow in on. Yet, during his first pro campaign KPJ decided to take advantage of what he does best. A spectacular athlete, Porter often used his springiness to convert at the rim.

Timing jumps and knowing when to attack off of two feet is a legitimate talent. Porter often surprised defenders who were not yet aware to his dunkability. He demonstrated a knack for deceptively cutting to the rim. Then, those bunnies helped him finish the job.

Once more, we see KPJ initiating contact. Additionally, he displayed the slashing timeliness that landed him in the 91st percentile for cutting. Expect Cleveland to map out some schemes to get him more lobs or backdoor cuts in the future; his athleticism is too elite to let go to waste.

Passing Vision

According to Cleaning the Glass, Porter finished this year in the 74th percentile for assist percentage. That’s an outstanding number for a rookie wing on a struggling team. What’s more, he was better than 2/3rds of all wings in assist to usage rate, or, in non-geek terms, he was a more willing passer than the majority of his positional rivals.

KPJ flashed solid vision in college but there were questions about how he would access it in the professional rank. The video below should do the talking (writing?) for me. He uses lookaways for their functional purpose, spots teammates ditched by help defenders and deploys shot fakes to create assists,

Interestingly, KPJ performed terribly in the pick and roll. He ran 26.2 percent of is plays as a pick and roll ball handler for a meager 0.71 points per possession. That’s only in the 27th percentile, folks. Yet, it is easy to see the potential he has there. So, what could he do to progress as a secondary pick and roll playmaker?

Pull-Up Jump Shooting

The eye test and statistics tell opposite stories when examining KPJ’s jumper. Spencer Pearlman of The Stepien detailed his jump shot during his college days, “He flashed a bit of self-creation from 3 with stepbacks (4 of his off the dribble jumpers this year were stepback 3s), but the results there were erratic. He looks more comfortable from mid-range, but, again the movement + balance + comfortability + projectable jumper (and prior results) lead me to think that the shot will come in time.”

What did his pull-up game look like this season? Porter finished tied for fourth on his team for pull-up attempts per game (3.1) but hit only 28.1 percent of them. Similar to the way I ditch all decorum when mac and cheese bites are handed out at a wedding reception, KPJ can ditch his jump shot form.

Specifically, he commits two sins from time to time. The first two plays in the film below show Porter bringing the ball up on the right side of his head and then releasing closer to the left. This causes some ugly left/right misses.

Secondly, the last two clips show his low release or shot pocket. This looks like he is shortarming the ball and often results in shots falling just shy of the target. Plus, it allows lengthy defenders to block his shot or alter it.

Decision Making

Surely enough, KPJ has some defensive shortcomings but I am going to save those for our expert analysis which can be seen later in this piece. Let’s focus on one more aspect of his offensive game.

Porter must progress as a decision maker. To some extent, this is related to his pull-up shooting. He has a tendency to shoot when he should pass, or pass when he should shoot. Defenders can be seen biting on his shot fake during the pick and roll, but Porter must master this skill to make teams pay.

In a couple of sentences worth of time, you will watch examples of Porter missing open men. Perhaps his explosiveness and scoring ferocity impinge upon is decision making. KPJ can be seen going in for layups through a crowded paint and missing open kickouts, rollers or slashers because of it.

BONUS: What Are The Experts Saying?

As much as I’d like to brag about being a knowitall, I’m not! So, we reached out to a couple of Cavalier aficionados for their (much more reliable) KPJ opinions. First off is Chris Manning; a writer and podcaster who publishes for SB Nation, LockedOnCavs, Cleveland Magazine and Forbes Sports!

On His Strengths

“I think the biggest thing Porter Jr. impressed with was just over his overall feel for the game at 19. He’s still really raw, and has some parts of his game where he clearly is trying to do too much and gets himself in trouble. But he has a knack for scoring and knowing how to get his shot off, uses his athleticism in interesting ways and had games like his one against Miami where the talent is just undeniable. There’s a lot to like there. I think the biggest thing to note now is that it feels like a lot of his success now if a product of athleticism and feel and not necessarily because he knows exactly what he’s doing or how to do it in the best, most efficient way. Again: he’s 19, had two coaches, had injuries, is on a bad team and a lot was thrown his way, so that makes sense to me. “

On Improvements

“He needs to foul less on defense – he’s kind of a wild man in that sense. But I think the biggest thing is really just tuning up his game and become a more refined player. His footwork, his shot, his ball handling and most every one of his skills need some refinement. I’d also say he just needs to add to his frame – he’s fairly skinny and probably needs to add muscle if he’s going to end up being the best version of himself. I think if he can get stronger, that would allow him to handle contact better and build on a really impressive foul drawing season where he was on the fringe of the upper fourth of wings in terms of drawing fouls. Defensively. it’ll also help him handle bigger wings and stronger players that I think the team is going to ask him to defend going forward.”

One Last Thought

“A final note: The Cavs love him and are taking a lot of care to get to be the best player he can. Even now, he’s under constant care and in a structure they hope fosters growth. It’ll be really interesting to see what he looks like whenever the Cavs play basketball next because of that. “

We also reached out to an old friend and draft analyst Dalton Pence of OTGBasketball (an awesome publication I used to write for.) He supplied his thoughts on why scouts missed on Porter.

On His Draft Selection and Scouting Analysis

“Kevin Porter Jr finished as the third best prospect on my 2019 NBA Draft big board. Consistency along with lack of production and exposure hindered his stock in the eyes of many. Two things stood out to me that ultimately led to his high placing: shot creation and footwork. His ability to score in a wide variety of ways reminded me of James Harden. Although he did not see a significantly large role for the Cleveland Cavaliers this season, I truly believe that he will reach all-star level one day. Being able to create separation and offense are elite qualities, that KPJ possessed.”

Film Study: What Could The Sixers Look Like With Ben Simmons At The Four?

(Image by Tomek Kordylewski)

By Matt Esposito

I wish I had an audio clip of Diddy saying “the saga continues” because we have yet another chapter to add to the Ben Simmons narrative. Actually, there is probably an audio clip I could have hyperlinked but I’m over it. In substitution, here’s a tweet that shows Philadelphia’s intent to switch Simmons’ position.

Simple and straight to the point, wasn’t it? What is less simple, however, is deciphering what Brett Brown’s offense will look like with Ben running at the four next to Joel Embiid. Additionally, this lineup was rearranged to provide Philly with more spacing, as Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Shake Milton will surround Simmons.

For now, let’s ignore the fact that Embiid (34.8 percent), Harris (36.2 percent), and Richardson (32.7 percent) are average or below average 3-point shooters. Teams still need to close out on those dudes, anyways. Let’s also ignore the fact that a Milton-Richardson-Harris-Simmons-Embiid lineup has yet to play a single possession together. Instead, we must focus on what plays we could see happen.

Short Roll & Big-to-Big

The Miami Heat gave Philadelphia problems when they unleashed their 2-3 zone on them earlier this year. But the Sixers found a successful play that they can use against man or zone schemes.

Simmons has been used as a pick and roll roller for only 3.5 percent of possessions this year and is in the 44th percentile for that position. Yet, is passing skills are obvious and when coupled with his height they provide big-to-big opportunities.

Specifically, Simmons struck gold during the short roll. The short roll comes in an area that surrenders low value 2-pointers, which defenses often live with, especially when bigs are the ones attempting them. Yet, when Simmons operates there he is able to safely dump the ball off to Embiid; a beastly Tolkien character who seals off defenders with ease.

Simply put, Coach Brown cannot sacrifice Simmons’ passing. Using him in the short roll is elementary but could prove effective. With three shooters providing spacing, this could leave Simmons and Embiid with single man coverage and they surely will pick apart opposing defenses.

Big-to-Big Scoring Part Two

This big-to-big concept that Brett Brown wants to deploy is better explained in his words. Check out an explanatory quote from the Sixers head coach:

” …you could see sort of like that big-big relationship, high-low duck-ins, Joel would be posted, Ben would play peekaboo at a low zone on the other side of the floor, come down and trail, we throw it to Jo and a rim run guy would duck in. And I felt the partnership, the relationship. The big-big mentality of finding each other was crazily obvious.”

He should also consider using Embiid – a gifted passer in his own right – in the midrange/short roll area. Simmons is strong enough to seal defenders and receive entry passes from Embiid. They did it multiple times against the Bucks this year and hit pay dirt.

With Simmons moving to the four, there will be less of a chance that smaller point guards find themselves matched up onto him. Even with bigger players defending him, however, these sets could work. Imagine him being defended by Duncan Robinson during a possible playoff match up. This is when that play should be called.

Post Up Kickouts & Shot Attempts

The premise of moving Simmons to the four is to insert Shake Milton as a starting guard. In other words, the Sixers wanted to add more floor spacing. One could assume that they could take Simmons, the non-shooters, and move him to the post. With four shooters and on the perimeter, Simmons would have the space needed to score.

With Simmons getting the attention of help defenders, he then could opt out of a shot attempt. Instead, he could rifle a pass to an open spacer and also be in good position for an offensive rebound. Let’s see how this looks.

Still, I’m dubious of this scheme. Color me doubtful. Simmons takes about 1.5 post up shots per game this season and historically he has never taken those attempts with any significant volume. It just isn’t a major part of his game, let alone one you want to rely on in the postseason.

Plus, Simmons will likely be guarded by stockier players now; ones who are more physically equipped to thwart his post attempts. If the Sixers want to depend on Simmons to create points for them out of the block, opposing coaches may live with those results and be happy to do so. What’s more, bright coaches will find ways to send doubles. Indiana threatened to do so and still managed to defend four Sixers with essentially three players.

A Better Way To Kickout

Operating from the block may do more to freeze up Philly’s offense than unlock fruitful movement. Yet, Simmons can still draw gravity and find ways to take advantage of the help. For example, he does this while driving on the short roll (common theme) or even popping after the screen.

Keep your eyes glued to Vince “Four Decades” Carter in the first clip. He stays in the paint a second too long because Simmons’ demands it. After that, watch how he suctions in the bodies of three Boston defenders only to pass back out.

This is more encouraging stuff although it is far from perfect basketball. If help defenders commit to Ben, then he can create for others. If they stay home, then Simmons could be forced to put up a shot that he does not want to.

Final Thoughts

For all of the sexy talk we’ve heard, do not expect Simmons to function much differently from a point guard. Here’s why. Being a screener, Simmons cannot pop and shoot. He cannot shoot from the short roll midrange. He is not a rim running lob threat. Sure, he can succeed as a short roll passer. But, being a screener puts Simmons in more positions to fail than succeed.

He has also yet to prove himself a dependable post scorer. As noted earlier, he will have less chances to post smaller players, negating the opportunities to easily score. This also turns Embiid into almost nothing more than a catch and shoot player during these sets.

Furthermore, it won’t take long for Brown to realize that taking the ball out of Ben’s hands makes defenses happy. It literally limits his chances to do what he does best. And on the short roll, teams could switch and bump Simmons early to throw him off balance. The Sixers may explore this position change during scrimmages but I’m skeptical that it will last as the real season continues.

BONUS!

To hear a more in-depth conversation of this topic, visit our podcast! Zach Wilson and I provide advanced stats and discuss specific sets the Sixers could use. Skip to the 37:00 mark to dive right into it!