Has Donovan Mitchell stagnated?

Donovan Mitchell burst onto the NBA scene as a sprightly 20-year-old rookie with the Utah Jazz. However, his extraordinarily fluid transition from collegiate ranks to the pros was largely unforeseen. Mitchell drew ire from scouts and analysts alike for his irksome tendency to settle for inefficient, archaic mid-range jumpers as a Louisville Cardinal. Also, standing at just 6’1″, there were concerns that Donovan’s measurables may inhibit him from impacting the game as a two-guard (his natural position). As a result of the skepticism regarding Mitchell’s potential, he was selected 13th overall in 2017. As we all know, though, the Connecticut native proceeded to decisively prove the cynics wrong during his maiden season in Utah.

A rookie Mitchell led the 2017-18 Jazz in scoring with 20.5 points per game and did so on solid efficiency for a newbie. Serving as the primary scoring option with an exceedingly high usage rate (89th percentile according to Cleaning the Glass), Mitchell shot 43.7 percent from the field and 34 percent from deep. To boot, the dynamic rook finished in the 62nd percentile among combo guards in points per shot attempt. For comparison, this ranking eclipsed that of then Raptors all-star DeMar DeRozan.

Mitchell’s rookie campaign was statistically one of the greatest in modern NBA history— but his impact went deeper than the stat sheet. The Jazz were winning, and without their franchise cornerstone Gordon Hayward no less, who departed in free agency during the summer of 2017. Mitchell salvaged what was inititally anticipated to be a humdrum, insignificant season in Utah.

The green and blue won 47 games, which placed them as the fifth seed in the Western Conference. Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and the Oklahoma City Thunder were awaiting Utah in the opening round. Donovan balled out, though, and willed his team to victory, as the Jazz came out on top in the series 4-2. Mitchell compiled 28.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game on 46.2/36.4/92 shooting splits in the first playoff series of his career. Utah ended up bowing out to the Houston Rockets soon after, but the season was a colossal success regardless.

Fast forward to the present, and the jury is out on whether Mitchell’s gotten noticeably better since his spectacular rookie stint. In fact, some have gone far enough to say that he has stagnated (hence the title of this article). Does this claim have some merit to it, or is it simply hogwash? Well, in order to figure out the answer, let’s delve into Mitchell’s performance on both ends of the court this season.

Defense

Believe it or not, Mitchell was lauded as a physical, multi-faceted defender at Louisville. After all, he came up with 2.1 steals and 0.5 blocks on a nightly basis during his second and final year with the Cardinals. For his impact as an on-ball irritant, Donovan was named to the ACC All-Defensive Team as a sophomore.

Mitchell starred on the defensive end at college, though unfortunately this success has not translated to the next level. It is a commonly held belief that he has actually regressed as a defender since initially entering the league. Case in point: Mitchell’s career-worst 109 defensive rating this season. Additionally, his defensive box plus/minus of -0.5 (a calculation of a player’s defensive points contributed per 100 possessions compared to a league-average player) serves as confirmation that he has a ways to go if he wishes to regain his collegiate status as a stout deterrent.

Mitchell suffered from mental lapses on defense all too often this season. At times he looked frazzled and unsure of where to position himself. The clip below accentuates this reality. Notice how Mitchell completely loses sight of Gary Payton II on the break, who makes a smart read and sprints ahead of the pack for an uncontested layup. He should have realized that Payton was his responsibility, as teammate Mike Conley was preoccupied with the ballhandler.

Mitchell’s cognitive slip-ups were not limited to the open court. In this sequence, the Boston Celtics orchestrate their half-court attack, and once again Donovan can be found in no man’s land. He believes that he is covering Gordon Hayward, but when Jaylen Brown makes a clean catch for an open triple, only then does Mitchell realize his fatal mistake.

The opposition buried 35.9 percent of their three-pointers and 51.3 percent of their two’s when defended by Mitchell, both concerningly effective rates. It’s evident that he is currently a below-average defender in the NBA, and considering his diminutive stature for his position, Donovan is facing an uphill battle if he desires to improve significantly on this end.

Offense

On a brighter note, Mitchell, who sits 14th in the league in scoring (24.8 points), put together the best offensive season of his pro tenure. The 23-year-old achieved career-highs in shooting percentage from the field (45.3 percent), deep (36.4. percent), and the charity stripe (85.9 percent). Mitchell finally earned a spot on the all-star team, and make no mistake about it, he will participate in many more when all is said and done.

Donovan’s jumper has gradually evolved over the past few years to the extent that he’s now a lethal scorer from the outside. Mitchell is an especially accurate marksman when operating in catch and shoot situations. He took 2.9 catch and shoot treys per contest and buried 42.4 percent of them.

He gets excellent lift on his shot, as can be seen in this snippet. Here we get a view of an exceedingly rare corner three-pointer from Spida, who only launched 61 in 2019-20. It’s head-scratchingly confusing as to why he did not let loose from the corners more often. They are the shortest three an NBA player can take, and Mitchell converted on an otherworldly 50 percent of his tries from the right corner.

While Donovan deserves praise for his much-improved shooting touch, it’s at the rim where he shines the brightest. Mitchell was practically automatic up close, sinking 61.1 percent of his looks in the restricted area. Only 32.7 percent of said buckets came off of assists, meaning he has no issue creating scoring opportunities for himself. It is Mitchell’s unique combination of speed, eye-popping athleticism, and body control that cements his place among the NBA’s best finishers.

Donovan’s driving prowess is summed up in the clip above. He manages to save what was a stagnant possession by splitting the defense and slamming down a thunderous dunk in the grill of Mike Muscala.

Number 45 dismisses Frank Ntilikina, a terrific on-ball defender mind you, as if he’s a toddler. Being able to endure physical wear and tear while driving is a shared trait among upper-echelon rim attackers, and Donovan is no exception.

Mitchell has elevated his offensive game to superstar-caliber heights. He’s the whole package on this end, plain and simple. I’d be anything but astonished if he led the league in scoring one day, the youngster is that special.

Verdict

Has Mitchell’s defensive impact stagnated or even deteriorated in some aspects since his pro arrival? Absolutely. The once held belief that he’d make his mark in the NBA on the defensive side seems to be fading away. Yet, Mitchell’s seismic offensive growth over the past few seasons is why he has not stagnated in general. Donovan’s ascension into a super efficient, high-volume scorer is what should prevent Utah faithful from labeling him as unimproved.

Your 2019-2020 All “Be Patient” Team

(Image Credit – Tomek Kordylewski)

By Matt Esposito

“Love is patient, love is kind.” Yes, I repeat that classic wedding poem whenever I watch Robert Williams play. Surely enough, he makes my All “Be Patient” Team for this season. What is the criteria? Idk fam, you tell me. Essentially, there are a handful of players across the league that just need a little extra lovin’. Guys that have to bake a little longer in the oven.

Some of these players have had some off-court issues. One of them was recently trending on twitter for something I am both too old and uninterested in to figure out. Another one crashed back down to earth after his draft stock soared a bit too high. Regardless, each of these players has shown some signs of life, whether it has been at the pro level or the G-League. Let’s start with our point guard.

Guard – Dejounte Murray

After landing on the 2017-18 All-Defensive Team, Murray was forced to miss the 2018-19 season with a torn ACL. Therefore, this season was his first chance to truly take the reins as the Spurs lead point guard for an entire season.

How did he fare? Well, Murray went back to his old form on defense, unleashing that 6-foot-10 wingspan onto ball handlers the way pollen attacks my nostrils. Additionally, his shooting took a step forward. Murray canned 42.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples this year and made serious strides in the midrange, suggesting that his shooting touch is coming around. Pay attention to the bottom row in the image below, it is his most recent season.

Courtesy of Cleaning the Glass

Yet, Murray still needs become a more dependable scorer. Plus, his distribution skills are lagging. His assist and assist to usage ratio both ranked in the 33rd percentile for point guards, according to Cleaning the Glass. Murray has exhibited some flashes, however. Flash could be the appropriate word, too.

Dejounte can be a blur on the court and his handles are finally catching up to his speed. During drives to the hoop defenses are forced to help out. Murray has made progress in keeping his eyes up and spotting cutters.

With a contract extension already inked, expect Murray to take a step forward next year. Sure, it will technically be his fifth year in the Association. The Spurs could be headed for a rebuild too. Be patient, however, because the tools to be an elite defensive player and steady offensive force are there. Cheers to him and another favorite: Lonnie Walker.

Guard/Wing – Zhaire Smith

This took some convincing. I am not the world’s biggest Zhaire Smith fan. Personally, I don’t like players who fly backwards on pull-up jumpshots or have suspect shooting form in general. I’m coming around on Smith, however.

His physical attributes are positionally elite. The 20-year-old youngster is one of highest flyers in the league and darts all over the court like my dog Hopper when he has the zoomies. So, why am I asking for patience with Smith? Well, plays like this.

I repeat: why am I asking for patience with Smith? Well, plays like this. Smith has the measurables and energy to become a game changing disruptor. But like a college student discovering their sexuality coffee for the first time, Smith often plays too fast for his own good and it results in mistakes.

The Sixers would do well to clearly define his NBA role. Zhaire should be a perimeter nuisance who springs for both 3-pointers and backdoor lobs. His outside stroke has not been totally reworked but, it is showing signs of coming around. That hesitative, slingshot hitch Smith showed during his college days isn’t totally gone but similar to your attention span in this article, it’s fading. He is just too damn athletic to not make an impact and expect him to do so when the game slows down for him.

Wing/Forward – Josh Jackson

I am forrrrr reallll. Outkast’s most memorable chorus seems appropriate here. After being traded from the Suns to the Grizzlies and dealing with some issues off of the court, Jackson has started to show the potential that made him a high lottery pick.

The stoppage in play came at the most inopportune moment for Jackson. The third year player was averaging 13.5/2.1/2.6 in only 21 minutes per game for the Griz over his last ten outings. What’s more, JJ was shooting 46.3 percent from the field and canning 36.5 percent of his 5.3 3-point attempts per game during that stretch.

There have always been questions about Jackson’s shooting stroke, but it is gradually becoming less of a concern. Consider his pro percentage this season and his 38.2 3-point mark from deep during his G-League contests. We like this, very much so.

What we like more, however, is Jackson’s meteoric rise in his at-rim finishing (on a small sample, sure.) Check out his growth in at-rim finishing and how it pairs with his overall percentile rank for effective field goal percentage.

Courtesy of Cleaning the Class

It seems like someone has finally figured out that he is 6-foot-8 and freaking athletic. With Memphis, Jackson has been either going straight into the body of defenders during drives or speeding past them to the rim. Just for good measure he has sprinkled in some impressive body control.

His defense is outstanding as well. Only 28 players in league history have averaged at least one steal and half a block per game in under 20 nightly minutes. Jackson did it this year, solidifying his ability to produce on the defensive end. If he can maintain that production and both the aforementioned at-rim and perimeter efficiency, Jackson could make Memphis regret the decision to not pick up his rookie option (making Jackson an unrestricted free agent.)

Forward – Jarred Vanderbilt

Am I asking a lot of you when I suggest patience with a player who has only played 28 professional games? Yep. But it could pay massive dividends. Now that Vanderbilt has a new home in Minnesota, brighter days could be ahead.

Possessing a 7-foot-1 wingspan with the same standing reach as Anthony Davis, Vanderbilt projects as a defensive menace. He has the agility, explosiveness and mentality to one day become a true switch-5 defender.

The former top-20 recruit and second round pick might simply need time to make mistakes and put on good weight. Watch him STAT (stand stall and tough) against the behemoth Andre Drummond. Vanderbilt is beginning to trust in his own strength and length, proving he can stymie NBA giants without fouling. He can clog the lane with active hands and lead a fast break, too.

Offensively, JV offers a unique skill set for someone of his physical profile. Upon first glance, Vandy does not look like a playmaker or creator for others. But the combo forward can drop dimes during transition, deploy a crafty handle to set up teammates in the halfcourt, and create for others from the perimeter.

Why is this defensive switchblade, offensive facilitator not getting more NBA minutes? Vanderbilt cannot space the floor right now. Opposing teams can shrink the court when he is on it. We’ve seen non-shooters entirely rework their mechanics before, however. It’ll take time and a summer of 500 reps per day, but Vanderbilt can do it.

Big – Robert Williams

I had to include a Celtic, didn’t I? Timelord provides more than just the best nickname in the league. After slipping in his draft, the lottery level talent has both frustrated and excited Boston fans.

At a short glance, Williams wows with his advanced metrics. According to CTG, he is currently in the 97th percentile for block percentage and the 100th percentile for steal percentage. This is indicative of a fluid, springy shotblocker who can also hang during some switches.

William’s defensive ceiling is well known yet, many may not know of his offensive potential. The big man is a surprisingly gifted passer. He does not get flustered when trapped and can find cutters when operating away from the bucket. Usually, teams only consider Timelord to be an awesome vertical threat and this extra dimension often catches them off guard.

William’s paint deterrence is special, too. The guys over at B-Ball-Index have him as a top tier at-rim deterrent, as he prevents 1.66 of those attempts whenever he is in the game. Being in the game is the problem, however. Williams has played in only 55 career contests. The second year man has dealt with injuries to his back, groin and both of his hips. Perhaps he just needs to grow into his body and learn his limits. His upside is worth the risk, so give him time.

Inside Jayson Tatum’s Evolution Into An Elite Defensive Player

By Matt Esposito

That’s right, I said it. In the midst of his offensive leap forward, some may have not noticed how much of a pest Jayson Tatum has become. Fortunately, highlight God Tomek Kordylewski – a contributor for multiple, reputable Boston Celtics sites – nudged me to bring this development into the light. Specifically, Tomek asked me to uncover how much Tatum has improved on defense since his rookie year.

Tatum’s defensive arc throughout his three year career is not one that began at square one. Rather, he entered the league receiving praise from Brad Stevens, who expressed that the rookie was”beyond his years” and “savvy” as a defender. Despite showing enough defensive prowess to be a starter as a rookie, Tatum was not without flaws. But first, let’s look at the positives.

His first season resulted in a steal percentage in the 67th percentile, a foul percentage in the 65th percentile and an awesome block percentage landing in the 86th percentile for his position (Cleaning the Glass). Additionally, his defense rose to the occasion during the heightened intensity of an Eastern Conference Finals against LeBron James.

Yet, both his foul percentage and block percentage dropped during his sophomore campaign. Why did this regression happen? Tatum was in the midst of a positional shift; one which saw him spend more time as a power forward. Unfortunately, he was simply not physically ready to handle the responsibility of guarding bigger players.

Evidence of this could also be seen during his rookie year. During those first two seasons Celtic fans often saw JT get bullied towards the rim by more veteran, stronger players.

Now, however, he successfully battles against some of the game’s most gifted scorers. Watch him fight off Kawhi Leonard’s attempt to establish post position. Then, check out how he uses his length to contest the shot without overcommitting.

In fact, his strength and length combination is so effective that Stevens can confidently set Tatum on Anthony Davis. It may not look special, but Tatum’s ability to deny Davis paint position and force him to face up is truly impressive.

Tatum also used to struggle with fighting through screens. During his first two years he was often frustrated when bulky screen setters bumped him during the chase.

Now, however, Tatum is the one initiating the physicality. A kinder, superstar whistle (or lack thereof) certainly helps but, watch Tatum disallow the effectiveness of this screen while on route to disrupt a shot.

Early on, Tatum’s wingspan and standing reach were pegged as what could potentially be special defensive tools. Yet, there was a time he did not know how to take advantage of them with any consistency.

Today, he blends those attributes with his feel for the game to jump passing lanes and recover for weak side blocks. Only 18 forwards have ever averaged at least 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks for a season during one of their first three years in the NBA. Tatum is in good company, as that lists includes All-Defensive mainstays like Andrei Kirilenko, Shane Battier and Draymond Green.

Still, it took time to develop this skill. Although he has great lateral quickness, guards could still beat Tatum off the dribble. He did not always know how to recover by weaponizing his length, opting to bump attackers while playing a step behind instead of adjusting for a clean contest.

Today, however, teams know that Tatum is a shot-alterer. He has learned how to avoid fouling and time his block attempts. Andrew Patton of B-Ball-Index.com came up with a metric that determines how effective a player is at impacting the opposing team’s shot attempts at the rim.

Check out his single year RAD (SY RAD); a unique stat where a negative value is better than a positive one. Teams attempted 0.62 more at-rim attempts when Tatum was in the game during his rookie year. Now, they attempt a significant 0.93 less paint attempts.

courtest of B-Ball-Index.com

While Leonard takes this next attempt in the paint, it comes as he is moving away from the rim and fading backwards. Tatum’s length disrupts Leonard’s handle and Leonard is also unable to bully his way to the hoop. Lastly, the contest forces an airball. This is All-Defensive Team level play, folks.

To boot, speedy, bulldogian guards like Russell Westbrook are starting to get the picture too. Tatum absorbs Westbrook’s arm shove just enough to regain balance and reject the shot. Plays like this make it feasible to think Tatum could actually switch 1-5 one day soon.

The Celtics once more have one of the best defensive teams in the Association. This could be due to Tatum continuing his transformation into a power forward, where he now spends 63 percent of his minutes. When he’s there, Boston places in the 93rd percentile for opponents points per possession with a 51.0 effective field goal percentage.

And remember when scouts said Tatum needed to add weight? Well, we can put those criticisms to bed. This picture of his back tattoo does the talking for us. Remember how his defensive stats dropped during his sophomore year? Take a glimpse at how they rebounded (pun intended.)

courtesy of Cleaning the Glass

Going forward, expect Tatum to garner All-Defensive Team votes and receive that honor sooner rather than later. His drive to become one of the best to ever do it is more palpable than ever, and starting to show itself on the less glamorous end of the court. The rest of the league should be on notice.

BONUS! – For those wanting mor Tatum defensive highlights, check out Tomek’s video!

Assessing The Impact Of Scorers Vs. Scorers Who Are Also Facilitators

By Jesse Cinquini

Before we start things off here, shout out to Scott Levine for suggesting this fascinating topic. He has covered the Sixers and Raptors for SB Nation, and his NBA Draft pieces are always insightful reads. Scott is a criminally underrated writer who is well worth following on Twitter, especially if you’re a hoops junkie (I assume you are if you’re reading this).

What will I utilize to quantify a player’s impact exactly? Well, offensive win shares (estimated number of wins contributed by a player due to his offense) are an indicator, along with offensive box plus/minus, which calculates the number of points someone generates compared to a league-average player. Also, the era in which certain hoopers played in will be factored into my argument. For example, I will not compare the fluctuation in impact during the careers of Stephen Curry and Mitch Richmond, even though the former creates for others while the latter did not. The rules and style of play during Richmond’s time as a pro differ massively from the modern game that Curry is thriving in. I will instead analyze two stars who played during the same era: Steve Nash and Paul Pierce.

Nash served as the head of the snake in Phoenix’s seven seconds or less offense and came away with two MVPs during his time in the desert. Pierce, a ten-time all-star, spent 15 seasons with the Boston Celtics that culminated in a 2008 title for The Truth and company. From merely taking a peek at their career stats, one may be inclined to crown Pierce as the superior player. He averaged significantly more points, rebounds, and steals (surprisingly) per game than Nash did. But Pierce’s scoring prowess gradually faded with age, and the same cannot be said for Nash’s generational playmaking instincts, which is why his impact did not fluctuate as he got older.

At age 37 during the 2011-12 campaign, the point god averaged a double-double of 12.5 points and 10.7 assists with the Suns. Comparatively, Paul’s NBA career was on its last leg by the time he turned 37, as he scored only 11.9 points per game with the Washington Wizards in 2014-15. Nash also shot the ball considerably better than Pierce at this age. He connected on 53.2 percent of his field-goal attempts and 39.2 percent of his triples. This one-season sample size points to the notion that facilitating skills are less prone to disintegrate over time than scoring, but for further evidence, feast your eyes on more charts courtesy of Basketball-Reference.

Nash’s prime years (age 26-32)

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Nash’s post-prime years (age 33-39)

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The commonalities between Nash’s prime numbers and the end of his career stats are astounding and serve as definitive proof that he aged like fine wine. Notice how he averaged more assists as a seasoned vet. Also, Nash’s points per game barely took a dip over his six-year stretch from 2008-13 and his efficiency improved as well, though on a lower usage rate.

Pierce’s prime years (age 26-32)

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Pierce’s post-prime years (age 33-39)

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Unfortunately for Pierce (and for me because he’s my favorite player ever), the former Finals MVP was unable to age gracefully. While Nash was continuing to put up all-star caliber numbers deep into his 30s, Paul spent the twilight of his career as a journeyman role player with the Nets, Wizards, and Clippers.

Why is this the case? Why did Pierce conclude his time in the NBA as a shell of his former self while Nash remained productive until retirement? Well, if Nash was not the talented facilitator that he was, his sustained greatness wouldn’t have been feasible. Steve’s playmaking wizardry allowed him to star in the league well past his golden years.

Here Nash flawlessly executes the pick-and-roll with his longtime partner in crime, Amare Stoudemire. It’s a rudimentary set, but it illustrates how he was able to remain an elite floor general for nearly two decades. See, the pick-and-roll made Nash practically unguardable.

Try to contain his penetration by going under picks? If so, it was going to be a long night for you. Not only could Nash hurt you with his historically accurate jumper, but give him a line of sight and he’ll find the angle for a pin point assist to the roll man. How about trying to fight through the screen instead? Turns out you were just as susceptible to Nash’s offensive dominance. This often resulted in the opposition adjusting by switching a big onto the point guard. The defense was at Nash’s mercy at this point. He could craftily manuever himself to the cup against any slower defender, where he then had the option to either take a high percentage shot or locate an open shooter. Nash’s excellent efficency throughout his career directly correlates with the countless amount of open looks he generated for himself off the pick-and-roll.

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I’ll conclude with a side by side comparison of Nash and Pierce’s career offensive box plus/minus along with their offensive win shares, two stats that I priorly alluded to. This is the final chart of the article by the way, I promise. Nash convincingly bested Pierce in both metrics, accumulating 26.8 more offensive win shares and boasting a superior offensive box plus/minus by 1.3 points.

The impact of scorers who do not primarily create for other fluctuates more than those who do because being a great passer opens up a plethora of scoring opportunities unavailable to non-facilitators. The manner in which teams guarded Nash and Pierce were totally different, and the same can be said for scoring playmakers and players who were scorers first and foremost.

3 Reasons Memphis Has The Best Young Frontcourt In The NBA

By Matt Esposito

Among other things, the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis was known for being a religious cult center. After watching the tape on Jaren Jackson Jr and Brandon Clarke, I may just start up my own cult for these cutting-edge frontcourt players.

Although JJJ started next to Jonas Valančiūnas this season – an underated, albeit imperfect fit – the Grizzlies will likely experiment with pairing the former Michigan State stud next to Clarke. Given their complementary skill sets, measurables and athletic profiles, this could prove wise for Memphis. But what makes me so confident that this duo is the best young frontcourt tandem in the NBA? How about I give you three reasons.

I. Jaw-Dropping, Complementary Efficiency

Despite doing so in different ways, both Jackson and Clarke proved to be some of the most efficient scorers at their positions this year. According to Cleaning The Glass, Jackson is currently in the 85th percentile for total 3-point shooting this year and also places in the 84th percentile for non-corner triples.

Hitting such a high percentage on above-the-break 3-pointers solidifies JJJ’s prowess as a shooter. Other floor spacing bigs tend to begin their morphosis into a perimeter shooter by launching from the corner, as it is the shortest 3-pointer available. Jackson attempts only 10 percent of his shots there, opting to hit from further distance.

Most bigs nail their catch-and-shoot triples off of the pick and pop, which Jackson can certainly do (40.3 percent.) Having recognized this, Memphis has started to deploy him in other unique ways such as running him off of flare screens; a nightmarish scenario for opponents.

To be fair, Jackson has room for growth, as he hit a positionally subpar 65 percent of his at-rim attempts this season. Still, the volume and shooting percentage from deep is remarkable. His buddy, however, makes up for the struggles of at-rim finishing.

Somewhere, John Hollinger is crying tears of joy over Brandon Clarke’s efficiency. Courtesy of Cleaning The Glass once more, Clarke’s advanced numbers are marvelous.

drooling…

Ready for a Dad Joke? Orange you glad I put this chart in here? The biggest surprise of Clarke’s rookie year was his evolution as a 3-point shooter. Yet, he only takes one attempt per game from that range. A greater sample size is needed before definitively claiming him to be a floor stretcher.

His soft touch is evident in other ways, however. Clarke has impressed with his ability to knock down floaters among traffic. This one-hander while going away from the hoop only becomes sexier when you realize it was lofted over 7-footer Kristaps Porzingis.

Clarke’s efficiency complements Jackson’s perfectly. The former surely has a developing shooting touch but he is known for rim-running, while Jackson seems to be transitioning to relying more upon his perimeter game.

In fact, Clarke brings in an outstanding 1.48 PPP as a roll man, good enough to rank within the 94th percentile. His athleticism unlocks plays that JJJ would simply not be able to finish.

Although Clarke’s outside shooting has been a pleasant surprise, his stroke needs continued work. A larger sample size could reveal he still has a ways to go. Jackson, however, has cemented himself as one of the game’s premier shooting bigs. What’s more, Clarke’s other worldly hops help the Grizzlies maintain a strong vertical threat (more on this later) which only augments the perimeter spacing that Jackson provides.

II. Defensive Pliability & Potential

Early into their professional pairing, Jackson and Clarke have not found prolonged defensive success while sharing the court together. They’ve played 1049 possessions as a frontcourt duo and the results have been mediocre at best. Yet, their physical attributes hint that this will not always be the case. Joe Mullinax of SB Nation’s Grizzly Bear Blues provided some insight into the matter,

“Clarke struggles mightily when asked to eat those (center) minutes, and while Jaren is the center of the future for Memphis his foul issues and lack of physical strength make him ill-suited to be a “5” for prolonged stretches.

– Joe Mullinax, Grizzly Bear Blues

But there is room for optimism. Jackson’s wingspan and fundamental wherewithal are well known. Additionally, most are aware that Clarke compensates for his lack of elite length by being an explosive leaper; often rejecting shots from the weakside. Mullinax continued to suggest that,

“their switchability on the perimeter and shot blocking skill at the rim project to elite front court defense…They have time on their side, and the physical ability is tantalizing. Reps and development take time.

– Mullinax

Hopefully, their on court chemistry will grow and allow for each to showcase their defensive strengths. For instance, Jackson is at his best when dropping into coverage and contesting low-value midrange shots which he helped to force.

He also relies on his IQ to direct traffic. You can see him doing so below. He tells his teammates to stay home on the opposing shooters, knowing that his length will erase any shot attempt at the rim.

Jackson’s fundamentals let him switch onto wings for stretches at a time. Conversely, Clarke’s strong frame and pogo stick legs allow him to switch onto beefier bigs. Watch our tandem perform this act below.

Clarke is the superior perimeter defender as well. He can legitimately guard positions 1-4 due to his agility and recovery speed. Not many players have the right mixture of length and quickness to both force Eric Gordon into a drive and then block it.

Due to their physical profiles and defensive acumen, these two should be able to hold their own against any frontcourt lineup. Sure, they need more time to gel. Fortunately, these two are still on their rookie deals and should be spending plenty of time together.

III. Sneaky Ability To Create For Others

The numbers may not suggest so, but the eye test says that Jaren Jackson has some potential as a facilitator. While it is not his primary job to do so, the big man has shown flashes of driving and dishing. Not many centers can use crossover-jabs to draw the D in before firing a tidy kickout pass.

Bigs like Jackson aren’t supposed to have the dexterity and vision to make the play below. This bodes very well for his future because you simply cannot teach someone how to have a feel for the game.

To boot, Jackson can sling crosscourt bullets from the post, displaying his poise under pressure. Contrarily, Clarke creates space for others when the ball is not in his hands due to his top tier vertical spacing.

Always the lob threat off of rolls, defenses stick close to Clarke. This often permits the ball handler to get off an easy floater or at-rim attempt. Both can be seen in the film below. After watching, it’ll be apparent why the Grizzlies take a ton of shots from the short midrange floater area and why they convert in the 96th percentile from there when Clarke is on the floor.

Recap & The Competition

Not only do Clarke and JJJ have either the skills or athletic gifts to pick up each other’s slack but, those traits align seamlessly with the ideals of a modern big. Clarke is the bouncy, switchable nolayupissafe guy who opens up lanes by being a lob threat. Jackson is the defensive quarterback who can stretch the court and possibly create for others.

I’m workshopping an “RP3s” positional nickname, standing for rim-protector & 3s. Will it take off? Not likely. But Jackson has. In fact, only two players ever in league history have shot at least 38 percent from deep on over five attempts per game while blocking a minimum of 1.5 shots per game. Jackson and some Kevin Durant guy are the two.

Do other young frontcourts rival Memphis’? The jury is still out on John Collins being good enough defensively to be a small ball center, although an eventual 4/5 pairing with him and De’Andre Hunter could be solid. A Markkanen/Carter duo could be exceptional if new management in Chicago allows it to be. Turner and Sabonis? Gordon and Isaac? Jokic and MPJ? Maybe Zion and Ingram each slide over a position.

Regardless, this pairing is one to keep an eye on. At times Clarke looks like someone dipped two scoops of Kenyon Martin in Shawn Marion sprinkles. Jaren Jackson will be an multiple time All-Star, looking like an even more modern version of Chris Bosh. Not a bad group of guys to put around Ja Morant, eh?

Why Are The Knicks Not Letting Mitchell Robinson Reach His Ceiling?

By Nick Faggio

Cue the “Idk, maybe he lives in a NYC loft” jokes.

Lofty may be a good way to describe his ceiling, however. During Mitchell Robinson’s rookie campaign, he recorded a total of 161 blocks in just 66 games; a mark good enough to take 2nd place in blocks per game for the season. Not bad for a 7-footer’s first year in the Association.

A rookie who missed out on playing college ball, Robinson entered the league with only high school and AAU experience but still recorded a 9 block game versus the Magic. What’s more, it happened in what was just his 12th career outing.

When he entered the league, Robinson’s inexperience commonly got him in foul trouble. Guys with a little more meat on their bones could knock him out of position. But even with his faults, his raw ability to record 2.4 blocks per game serves as an ode to his defensive potential. The possibility of Robinson being the Knicks’ best defender since Patrick Ewing gives us fans a sense of renewed hope. All-Defensive Team selections could be a matter of when, not if. But how can Robinson get there?

Defensively, Robinson has all of the measurables to impact on the highest level. His ability to use his 7-foot-4 wingspan to close out and block three-point shots is a scary sight for opponents. Agility for someone that big is rare; suggesting the Knicks could have a future switch-5 defender. How often do you see bigs fight around screen to do this:

What’s more, Robinson shows flashes of being able to defend on the perimeter when switched onto guards. His discipline and fundamentals need more growth but Robinson’s length and leaping ability make up for it. Below, he gets put off-balance by Austin River’s smooth handle yet still has the physical attributes necessary to erase the shot.

He is also a primetime paint deterrent. According to the RAD metric at BBall-Index.com, Robinson ranks 19th in the NBA this season at limiting opponents shots at the rim. Specifically, teams take 2.11 less shots at the tin when he’s on the floor. If you want to see what this looks like visually, watch James Harden think twice in this next clip.

Just because Robinson has shown stellar defensive flashes at times does not mean his game is one dimensional. Before this season was suspended, Mitchell was shooting a ridiculous 73.2 percent from the field, on pace to break a record currently held by Wilt Chamberlain (72.7%.) Robinson’s athletic ability and huge hands allow him to convert every alley-oop finishes in fashion. Check out the way this gazelle in hooper’s clothing runs down the court before the slam.

When the Knicks get Robinson moving downhill off of screens, high percentage chances result. There may not be a lob too high for Robinson to snag. A consistent lob-thrower, however, may be the key to unlocking is potential.

Yet, Robinson has not been totally unleashed by the Knicks this season. In addition to providing a must-see twitter name, Geoffrey Campbell of Elite Sports NY stopped by to lend some thoughts on the matter. Campbell suggested that,

“…the overall hesitance in giving him 30 min plus a night stems from his ankle injuries during his rookie year, foul trouble, and the fact that he didn’t play organized basketball for an entire year prior to getting drafted.”

– Geoffrey Campbell

This comes in spite of the excellent, hyperefficient production that garners Robinson player comparisons to Marcus Camby, Tyson Chandler and even Rudy Gobert. Despite playing significantly less minutes than Gobert, Robinson is still just second to him in dunks on the season. When paired with his some of his league leading efficiency stats, these comparisons could hold weight.

Additionally, his on/off stats with New York are top tier. Cleaning the Glass provided these telling numbers and it only makes you question the Knicks even more. How could they not give more minutes to a player who produces such a lovely shade of orange?

Rookie and Second seasons

It is no wonder that New York has a greater point differential when he is on the court. Robinson does not take many field goals but his vertical spacing helps the offense run efficiently. Off of this pick and roll, watch RJ Barrett’s defender fake-and-retreat. He does so to cover Robinson, who is always a lob threat. This creates a wide open jumper for Barrett.

Campbell discussed how Robinson does not need to acquire the skill set of a Karl-Anthony Towns or Joel Embiid to be a Knicks long time center. He offered that Robinson is,

“one of the few players, that even if he doesn’t develop a post game or a reliable jump shot, will still impact winning for a long time. He’s a franchise cornerstone for sure.

– Campbell

This doesn’t mean Robinson is exempt from working on his game. He fouls too often and the game can still look too fast for him. These kinks must be ironed out and the only way to do so is to let the kid play. In a league that prioritizes taking high percentage 2-pointers and stopping teams from doing the same, Robinson’s lack of major minutes is inexcusable.

New York needs to draft, sign or trade for a point guard that can develop solid pick and roll rapport with Robinson. Perhaps they should experiment more with a Barrett-Robinson pick and roll combo. Defensively, they need to simply let him learn from his mistakes. If this happens, New York could have an All-Defensive team anchor on their hands. Until then, well, it looks like the Knicks are gonna’ Knick.

New Stat Reveals Milwaukee’s Best Paint Deterrents Are Not Who You Think They Are

By Matt Esposito

Ask me how many times I wanted to exchange sexy for new in this article title. Approximately 2.4, which is incidentally the number of blocks per game Brook Lopez is earning this season. Yet neither him, his brother nor the reigning MVP are the Bucks best paint deterrents, according to an enticing new metric.

Andrew Patton of BBall-Index created an easily decipherable, user-friendly analytic that helps shed some light on how Milwaukee has formed one of the best defensive teams ever. Specifically, a metric called RAD reveals which players most limit an opponent’s best looks.

Patton was able to simplify the analytic by writing that…

“RAD and Q-RAD are defensive statistics that attempt to measure how a player deters the offense from taking high efficiency shots. Made or missed shots do not matter in this context, only attempts.”

BBball-Index.com

In essence, the stat is used to determine how effective a player is at limiting field goal attempts at the rim. Additionally, Q-RAD factors in the success of surrendering long midrange jumpers while also accounting for at-rim attempts and high quality 3-point looks. It is a way to measure how adept players are at making opposing players take the least valuable shots.

The top 20 performers in this category feature four Bucks regulars yet, they are not the players you may think. When we consider Milwaukee’s paint deterrents, the first names that come to mind are Giannis and those dual 7-foot-6 wingspans of the Brothers Lopez. Despite those players providing wonderful rim protection, they are not the ones featured in the highest percentiles.

Rather, Pat Connaughton, George Hill, Wesley Matthews and Khris Middleton appear. They rank 5th, 8th, 10th and 16th, respectively, among all qualified players in the NBA. This is when you say “hmmm interesting” and stroke your chin beard. Connaughton’s chart will demonstrate how this metric works.

Connaughton is in the 99th percentile for limiting opponents shots at the rim. Specifically, teams take just about 3.5 less rim attempts when he is in the game, which is why the stat has a negative cal. For context, Joel Embiid leads the league with a score of about 4.87. When we think of players who make people think twice about going to the rim, behemoths like Rudy Gobert and Mr. Embiid come to mind. So what the hell are some Bucks wings, guards and forwards doing on this list?

Coach Bud and the Bucks implement a strategy that maximizes this personnel. Connaughton, Hill and Matthews all stand 6-foot-5 or shorter but boasts wingspans that measure 6-foot-9. Middleton’s extends to just shy of 7-feet. Their directive is to almost always fight over screens and funnel players towards the hoop.

There, Towering anchors like Giannis or Dem Lopez Boyz are typically waiting for them. These bigs often meet the ballhandler at a point in the paint that dissuades them from driving any closer. Instead, they often opt for awkward, low-value midrange shots. A good example of this fightover/dropback mentality can be seen below.

On the surface, this does not make terribly clear how that group of four keeps opponents away from the paint. If anything, it suggests just the opposite. Aren’t they encouraging players to go towards the paint where the protector is? Yet, sending bigs to drop back works in tandem with our deterring wings and forwards. Film of Connaughton further details how.

Arguably the best screen setter in the league, Domantas Sabonis, gives Doug McDermott a DHO. Instead of getting a closer look at the rim with a continued drive, or drawing the big before lobbing to Sabonis, McDermott pulls up for a midrange 2-pointer. Connaughton’s length and leaping ability tallies the block. But the wing deterrence from him comes before the shot.

Notice how the Bucks didn’t even have a plan in place that could allow switching. They all know to fight over the picks. The sagging big allows just enough time for Connaughton to make up lost ground. By fighting hard over the pick Connaughton lessens the chance of a stop-and-pop triple. The waiting big man leaves McBuckets with one option; to take a low-value 2-pointer.

This fightover/dropback approach takes two to tango. They work together to channel players into a spot on the court where jumpers are still difficult but yield only two points, not three. But don’t take my word for it. Instead, rely on Brian Sampson, an insightful Bucks writer who runs the Bucks Film Room account. He suggests that,

“Part of what makes Brook Lopez and the Bucks aggressive drop defense so effective is the bigs are only asked to defend the pick-and-roll attack for a limited time. “

– Brian Sampson

Next, he continued to explain the essential role Milwaukee’s non-bigs play in squeezing opponents into taking midrange shots. Plus, he delineated how important they are to the traditional rim protectors.

“Guys like Bledsoe do a great job getting skinny and fighting through the screen, applying pressure on the ball-handler to quickly make a decision. If those guards took their sweet time getting back to their man or were consistently knocked out of position by the pick, it would be a nightmarish two on one scenario for Lopez and the defense.”

– Brian Sampson

Below, the lanky Sterling Brown (who also has good RAD/Q-RAD scores) gives visual support to Sampson’s explanation as he battles with a screen before getting beat to the rim. Watch his teammates disrupt the lane and force a pass, only to have that next attempt stuffed. Teams have to be aware of all the Bucks defenders due to how their scheme insists upon them weaponizing their length and athleticism in the paint.

The clip below is perhaps an even better example. Every single Buck becomes a disruptor, whether by reaching in to try and strip the ball or going straight up for a contest. The savvy Hill reads the escape kickout pass and nabs a steal.

Don’t believe me when I say that the Bucks go crazy during closeouts? Unsure if they really form a wall of wingspan in the paint? This next clip should ease those doubts.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I do see the irony of detailing paint deterrence by showing clips of people getting stripped or blocked in the paint. But opposing players are aware of this no-fly zone around the rim. It is the reason Midrange Jesus Kawhi Leonard was stymied in the video above.

Often times opponents are persuaded out of field goal attempts at the rim or are forced out of the paint completely, like in the following video. Fadeaway 13-footers on the baseline with the shot clock winding down are not high percentage shots, folks.

Some signs your defense is awesome: Forcing TJ Warren – who loves himself some shot attempts – to kick the ball out of the paint. Making Domas not even consider going to the block; a technique he used to become an All-Star. Giving former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon no other option than to take a low percentage, wrong-footed push shot from 12 feet out. Yeah…no one even thought about going to the hoop.

Before the season was suspended, Milwaukee was on pace to finish as what some consider to be the best defensive team in league history. Their length across positions is astounding. When paired with a brilliant coaching scheme to capitalize on these physical attributes, the Bucks find themselves limiting an impressive amount of opponent attempts from the paint.

To boot, they routinely score high in Q-RAD; the metric that accounts for forcing opponents into long range 2s and their propensity to attempt high quality triples. The Bucks are either using their length to make players think twice about going to the hoop or, selling out to contest perimeter jumpers. In fact, they rank first in total disruption and 3-point disruption as well as third in rim disruption.

Still, it would be unreasonable to suggest that Los Hermanos Lopez and Giannis are of less importance when it comes to limiting at-rim attempts. Their mixture of defensive IQ and physical attributes factor into every team’s game plan. So, which players are most deserving of credit when considering paint deterrence? Make time to watch Bucks games when/if the season resumes and hand out your own rankings!

Markelle Fultz Has Resurrected His Career In The Sunshine State

By Jesse Cinquini

Markelle Fultz entered the 2017 NBA Draft perceived indisputably as the top prospect in his class. Fultz recently completed his sole season of NCAA basketball at the time, compiling per-game splits of 23.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 5.9 assists as the Washington Huskies’ floor general. Before ever stepping foot on an NBA court, the jack-of-all-trades guard was drawing comparisons to offensive juggernauts such as James Harden and D’Angelo Russell. So why were Fultz’s freshman and sophomore campaigns with the Philadelphia 76ers an unmitigated disaster?

Unfortunately, he endured a dastardly case of the injury bug as a neophyte in the league. Fultz amassed just 34 total games played and 15 starts in his two-year tenure with Philly. Even when Markelle was able to grace the hardwood in Philadelphia, he appeared a shell of his collegiate self.

Specifically, he developed a peculiar hitch in his once polished jumper and to this day the reason behind this bizarre and sudden tinkering to his shooting mechanic remains disputed. Some attribute the hitch to the result of a nagging shoulder impingement that haunted Fultz during his time in the City of Brotherly Love. Others attest that it was all in the youngster’s head and a dire lack of self-confidence was the culprit behind his shooting woes.

Whatever the case may be, while Fultz is not the franchise cornerstone that folks assumed he would be — he has proven himself to be a steady contributor and valuable cog in the Orlando Magic’s offense this season. Even though Markelle may never live up to his towering pre-draft expectations, I am proud to see my friend take advantage of the opportunity he was granted with. Disclaimer: we are not friends.

First off, Fultz’s once seemingly irreparable jump shot is now a serviceable weapon in his scoring arsenal. The difference in shot technique between his time as a Sixer and now is night and day. Notice how he no longer awkwardly double-clutches the rock in mid-air before releasing it.

Last season, Fultz might not have possessed the confidence to attempt this shot. But,  nowadays he is burying looks from the mid-range with respectable accuracy.  He connected on 42.2 percent of his jumpers between 10 feet and the 3-point line this year, according to Basketball-Reference. This is a meteoric improvement compared to his mid-range accuracy in Philadelphia. Fultz converted on a ghastly 30.4 percent of his tries from the same distance over his first two seasons.

Markelle’s natural position is point guard, but he was unable to show off his adept distributing skills until he landed in Orlando. After all, Fultz was sharing facilitating duties with Ben Simmons. Because Simmons held down the playmaking task, the 21-year-old’s passing skills were underutilized in Brett Brown’s offense.

With the Magic, Fultz has proven himself more than capable of orchestrating an offense at the highest level. He dished out a career-high 5.2 dimes per game this season and ranked in the 81st percentile among guards in assist percentage, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Markelle has formed a dynamic duo with star big man Nikola Vucevic. Fultz’s success in the pick-and-roll dates back to his college days, and he remains excellent at running simple yet effective sets.

Luckily for Markelle, Vucevic is among the league’s most lethal pick-and-roll scorers. Vuc has the unique capability to either finish with finesse at the rim or pop out all the way to the 3-point arc.

The Fultz-Vucevic duo has also revealed what scouts once pegged as top tier vision. Fultz stays patient by decelerating, only to drop a howdidthatsqueezethrough bounce pass to his buddy. These glimpses of facilitating remind us that there is untapped potential as a playmaker.

Along with Fultz’s playmaking and outside shooting, his scoring at the rim has risen to another level this season. Not to say he was ever a poor finisher in the NBA, in fact, it’s possibly the one aspect of his college game that translated to the big leagues instantly. But it’s his newfound creativity in how he gets to the cup that has transformed him into one of the NBA’s elite inside scorers.

Fultz was elite at the rim this year, as he shot 65.1 percent on 235 total attempts at the basket. Just how great of a mark is that you might be asking? Well, it eclipsed the efficiency of James HardenJayson Tatum, and Donovan Mitchell in the paint. Markelle managed to convert at the rim with superb accuracy because he is agile, crafty, and a high flier.

Here are 60 seconds of Fultz embarrassing the opposition with a bevy of gorgeous Isaiah Thomas-esque change of pace drives. Enjoy.

The third-year hooper is a star in his own role (cliche, I know).  For the first time in his pro tenure, Markelle was put in a position to flourish. Coach Steve Clifford (a perpetually underrated basketball mind) sought out to maximize Fultz’s strengths on the court, and it has paid off wonderfully.

How Can Domantas Sabonis Level Up?

By Matt Esposito

Since R. Kelly’s fall from grace, I’ve turned to other covers of his perpetually effervescent I Believe I Can Fly. I landed on a version by R&B legend James Ingram; a rabbit hole that led me to another one of his hits: Everything Must Change. Should this song have been floating in the background as I answered a question from Kory Waldron; one of the best writers currently covering the Indiana Pacers?

He wanted to know what Domantas Sabonis must do to reach that next tier of star play. Well, must everything change for the first time All-Star? Before we flesh that out, refamiliarize on what makes the Pacer’s stud so damn good.

This season, Domas is hitting 54 percent from the field while taking over 10 field goal attempts per game. Additionally, he serves out 5 nightly assists. Since the birth of the league, this feat has been accomplished only 16 times. Check out some of the good company Sabonis is with on this list.

Duplicate names/season deleted, seasons with less than 30 games played deleted

What’s more, Sabonis has blossomed into a dual threat offensively. 30 percent of his possessions come as a roll man, likely due to being in the 72nd percentile (Cleaning the Glass) for long-midrange jumpers. His pick and pop to the midrange is elite and it also allows him to create for others in the same court space that a short roller would.

Sabonis’ greatest leap this year came as a passer. For his position he places in the 98th and 91st percentiles for both assist and assist to usage ratio percentages, respectively. When short rolling from screens he is able to create magic. This no-look to Myles Turner is evidence.

When teams scheme against the league leader in screen assists, he takes advantage. Here Sabonis fakes a DHO and perfectly times a pass that begs a “Jokic of the East” comparison.

Incidentally, this clip shows Domantas making Jokic look foolish with a touch pass from the post; a demonstration of how he deploys his deceptive strength to gain deep positioning before letting his alwaysoneplayaheadedness take care of the rest. Does your team’s center even try to make plays this this?

Back to Kory’s question. Sabonis is at his peak when he has quicker, stretchier and savvier players to run with. Using Cleaning the Glass once more, I was able to discern that some of the best Pacers lineups come with Sabonis playing small ball center.

Turner and Sabonis often share the court together (both starters) but Indiana truly benefits when Sabonis is the lone big. The rotations below are all with Sabonis on the court and Turner off. Most of them come with spacers like the Holiday gang and Dougie McDermott.

Courtesy of Cleaingtheglass.com

Look at all that orange! The Pacers are performing well in Pts/Poss and eFG% while not turning the ball over. A more expansive look shows that these lineups struggle in the midrange yet, they find average results at the rim and are usually lethal from deep.

Courtesy of Cleaingtheglass.com

In a league prioritizing close 2-pointers a barrage of triples, these rotations could be the best Indiana musters. The continued return of Victor Oladipo should boost the at-rim numbers, too. Regardless, sending out Sabonis at center and surrounding him with athletic cutters and adept shooters is the key to maximizing his talent as a passer and overall player.

What’s the catch, Espo? Sabonis is nowhere near the rim protector that former block champion Myles Turner is. Historically, Sabonis has ranked towards the bottom of the NBA in opponent field goal percentage when shooting at the rim. In fact, in 2017-18 when he played 81 percent of his minutes at the 5, Domantas finished in the 9th percentile in this category. Although there has been some growth this year, it could be due to him spending less time than ever as a small ball big.

Indiana struggles offensively when Sabonis and Turner share the court together. This comes as no secret to Pacers faithful, although there is hope that a healthy Oladipo could remedy this. But if we are strictly focusing on routes Sabonis can take to reach his full potential, we have to discuss trades and personnel changes.

Fortunately for Domantas, modern executives have targeted lengthy forwards as outside-of-the-box means to protect the rim when traditional bigs cannot. Case in point: Draymond Green, Jerami Grant, and most recently, Houston’s combo of Robert Covington and PJ Tucker.

I know a certain Mr. Kory who would rather trade Sabonis than Turner, but the proof is in the pudding. Indiana’s mediocre offense needs an upgrade and the answer is on their team. The numbers back it up. Surely, their 7th overall defensive rating would take a significant dip with Domantas manning the paint. Is there a way to flip Turner into a rim protecting forward that can play alongside Sabonis?

If Houston’s “no center” experiment goes awry, which it likely will, then they could suddenly find themselves in need of a big. A Turner for RoCo and Danuel House trade works.

Indiana should consider targeting underrated paint deterrents like Maxi Kleber and Grant. Throw JaMychal Green in there too. They might need to bring in another team to make the cap work, but this could be the best way to let Sabonis do what he does best, and do it more often.

While Turner provides vertical spacing, his ability to stretch the floor with any meaningful volume is debatable. I’d rather have a four man combination of agile slashers and reliable shooters for Sabonis to create for. For this to happen, Sabonis needs the ability to defend opposing centers while simultaneously being free from rim protection duties. It is a remarkably tough challenge but, one that could transcend Sabonis from an All-Star to an All-NBA caliber player.

“How Can Mikal Bridges Make The Leap?”

By Matt Esposito

Today’s inquiry comes to you live from the desert, as @AZSportsZone of SB Nation makes me build a bridge and get over it. What am I lamenting? That a certain Suns wing doesn’t play the majority of his games on East Coast Time. But, without further ado, I bring to you our question: What does Mikal Bridges need to do to make the leap?

Let’s start with a profile. Bridges spends the majority of his time (78%) at small forward but can guard multiple positions. His 7-foot-1 wingspan is outstanding when considering he stands just shy of 6-foot-7. Bridges has bounced in and out of Phoenix’s starting lineup but whenever he’s on the court he provides a major defensive boost. To boot, he is quite literally one of the most efficient scorers at his position, although he is not considered a main offensive option by any stretch.

To start, let’s explore how Bridges is used defensively and how the Suns should maximize his potential on that end of the court. Mikal is tasked with covering more stars than a TMZ reporter. This season he picked the pocket of everybody from Kawhi Leonard to Damian Lillard and had some terrific possessions defending James Harden during iso situations. His combination of motor, length and Villanova hoops education will lift him into All-Defensive team conversations sooner rather than later.

How can the Suns unlock Bridges and ensure he gets into that elite defensive stratosphere? Phoenix should focus on surrounding him with players that allow him to capitalize on his remarkable physical traits.

As a small forward, when Bridges runs the floor during small ball lineups the Suns find tremendous success. This hints that Bridges excels when he either has a behemoth of a paint deterrent behind him (DeAndre Ayton) or a savvy center to direct the defense (Aron Baynes). Additionally, Phoenix’s switchability during these rotations unleashes Bridges to do what he does best.

The chart above divulges more nuances. During these targeted lineups Bridges has the confidence to defend bigs, switch onto quicker guards, or gamble for steals during isolation. Regardless, there is a lot of orange – the good color – when Bridges plays with multipositional defenders. The eye test supports this too.

A good writer knows when to let the film write for them. A possession versus the Orlando Magic highlights how Bridges thrives playing alongside this specific group of personnel. Notice the movement among Suns defenders. Mikal gets stuck onto All-Star 7-footer Nikola Vucevic and his length stymies him rather easily.

Versus the Grizzlies, a screen forced Bridges to defend lightning bolt Ja Morant. You can’t play defense better than what Bridges did here.

The greatest benefit of playing with switchable defenders, however, is the freedom and trust it gives Bridges to defend shot-creators on the perimeter. This 5-out set against Houston is a prime example. Most defenses would be reduced to prayer emojis in this scenario versus Harden. Amazingly, Bridges gambles for a steal and strips Harden clean. Part of this is owed to Bridges’ fundamentals and length yet, this play never happens if Bridges doesn’t trust the personnel behind him.

Need more evidence? Despite Nikola Jokic being a savant at backdoor passes, Bridges still risks defending Jamal Murray far away from the hoop in what essentially becomes another 5-out set. By now, you know the drill.

Mikal’s ascension is dependent upon the Sun’s utilization of him in rotations that take advantage of his defensive ability. He would be better served as a consistent starter among Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre and DeAndre Ayton. The formula for Bridges is clear: small ball + big man anchor = success. Now, what should he be doing offensively to take the next step forward?

“Compliment – Criticize – Compliment” is what they tell new teachers do to for students. It applies here. Bridges is one of the most efficient scorers as his position. According to Cleaning the Glass he ranks in the 91st percentile for effective field goal percentage which is largely due to being in the 94th percentile for at-rim finishing. With his long strides, athleticism and IQ, it only made sense to throw together a 0:45 second clip of his backdoor cuts.

Yet, more CTG stats make his areas for improvement apparent. I’ll let the chart do the explaining; this time keep an eye out for the blue colors.

Bridge’s rookie and second years

Due to nailing 42 percent of his triples (4.6 3PA) over his last two seasons in college, many didn’t question Bridges’ ability to stretch the floor at the pro level. Yet, the former Wildcat admittedly developed a hitch during his rookie season. Since then, he has been trying to smoothen out his release.

It seems as though Bridges is gradually nearing a return to his former shooting self. Although he is still in the bottom half for his position at corner 3s, he is making progress. However, he still struggles with above-the-break triples.

The hitch is starting to be written out of his muscle memory code but these things take time. Sometimes its so bad that it looks like his hand fumbles with the ball before the shot.

This angle shows the hitch even more clearly.

Lately, however, there have been glimpses of hope. The high release we all fell in love with is starting to be rewired. Shots like this could be a sign of brighter days ahead.

Bridges’ 3-point attempt rate shrunk from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign, hinting that faith in his perimeter shot fell as well. This is a fixable problem though, and Suns fans should expect it to be remedied.

Asking Mikal to become a facilitator or shot-creator may be unreasonable as of now. Plus, Phoenix doesn’t need him in that role. Instead, to unlock Bridges’ next level, they must run him more in small lineups. If his 3-point shot continues its revival, then this will be easier to justify.