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.

What is Lonnie Walker’s Ceiling?

By Matt Esposito

Originally asked by VP of Basketball Operations for A.N.D Sports Entertainment, Richard Anselmo, this delectable morsel of a question was a blast to try and answer. Despite slipping out of it, Lonnie Walker came into the NBA as a lottery level talent. His athleticism, shot-creating package and measurables were evident. Yet, Walker has not totally exploded for San Antonio yet, leaving us to wonder what his ceiling could be.

Not only does Walker have the skills to become a stud, he has an outside chance of becoming the most famous Lonnie ever. The rapper Common currently holds down the top spot but it may not be for long, especially if Lonnie the hooper can take advantage of some of the gifts he came into the league with. So, what are those gifts anyway?

Let’s start with the measurables. Not many players his size are blessed with a wingspan that stands just over 6-foot-10 and a 40 inch vertical leap. Plus, he seems to have fully recovered from a right knee meniscus tear suffered during his rookie campaign. Not sold? Modern medicine and rehab practices don’t do it for ya? Check out this slam from Walker as he discards the Knicks more than their own fans do. When in Rome though, right?

To categorize Walker as merely an energetic, bouncy wing would be selling him short. Dating back to college conference play, Walker nailed 36.1 percent of his triples on 108 attempts. During his rookie year this number of attempts shrunk to 33 and incidentally, Walker hit them at a 33 percent clip. This year, however, Walker has taken 71 total 3-point attempts and is converting at a 40.8 percent rate. What’s more, he’s in the 97th percentile for above-the-break 3s, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Although Walker more frequently attempts the closer, corner 3-pointer, his better shooting percentage comes when shooting further away. This could very well prove to be an anomaly, hinting that with a larger sample we will see an inversion of these numbers. Yet, the former Hurricane shoots an easy ball by using good balance and a compact stroke. Again, the sample size isn’t very reliable yet but, Walker is still shooting 40 percent on all catch and shoot triples this season.

Let’s get back to Rich’s question: What exactly is Lonnie’s ceiling? Is it high, like the ones in homes that show off an oversized Christmas tree during the holidays? Is it a thiswascoolinthelate80s popcorn ceiling? After all, the league is saturated with long arms who have 3-point capability. If this assessment stopped here, I would predict Walker to be a serviceable, starter level wing and then spend my time thinking about more ceiling types. Yet, LW has a little somethin’ extra to bring to the table.

Walker exhibited eye-catching shot-creation moves while in college. He’s proven adept at sidestepping, stepbacking (I hate how that sounds, ew) and changing pace. Crossovers have been a specialty as well. Ask Gordon Hayward.

Or Bruno Caboclo, who was just two years away before this nasty crossover/stop-and-pop combo, but has since went back to being two years away from being two years away.

I’m not sure which one it is, but one of the Martin twins ended up on the wrong side of a highlight reel. All kidding aside, the way Walker deploys his crossover in order to decelerate is evidence of star potential.

As of now, though, he has only revealed one trick up his sleeve of separation moves: the crossover. A slo-mo video of his shaking Donovan Mitchell shows how Walker combines his handle and quick-twitch athleticism to lose defenders. But, where are those other tricks previously mentioned?

Thank god for college tape and one of my old scouting reports that was dusted off for this piece. The film below shows a high level inside-out dribble, sidestep combo, another crossover stepback, and a game winning stepback against Boston College. Although they may lay dormant until Coach Pop trusts Lonnie enough to break them out, the shot-creation skills are there.

Why doesn’t Pop trust him enough yet? Per Cleaning the Glass, Walker is in the 81st and 66th percentile for short and long midrange shot frequency, respectively. But, he ranks only in the 25th and 54th percentile for finishing those shots. His mechanics look serviceable so Walker may simply need more reps to get those percentages up. Considering San Antonio has zigged when the league has zagged, Walker’s ability to get his own shot in the midrange could be a coveted skill for the Spurs.

Offensively, Walker creates for himself, which raises his ceiling to borderline All-Star. Defensively, he has started to show better competitiveness and effort. After claiming his intention to become a “defensive gnat,” Walker has started to let his physical gifts do the work for him.

When he fights over screens and deploys his length to his advantage, good things happen and it is not difficult to discern why.

Walker’s agility is on full display here. Look at how quickly he covers ground before registering an impressive block.

It is this next block that proves more telling, however. After being caught flat footed and prepping for a screen that was never used, Walker recovered to reject the specimen known as Jaylen Brown. This flash of defensive ability is special.

What’s more, Walker has shown signs that he may be catching up to the speed of the game. He reads this pass to the corner like a pro; a feat not easy for neither young players nor veterans. Perhaps it is no coincidence that when Walker is on the court his team places in 79 percentile for opponent effective field goal percentage.

One of my earliest comparisons for Lonnie Walker was “Good JR Smith,” proving that not only was I feeling particularly assholie when I wrote that but, I might have sold Walker’s ceiling short. One of my other comparisons was Ben Gordon; a former 6th man of the year who hovered on the fence of All-Star play for fiesty Bulls teams. I feel good with that ceiling for Walker, and the Spurs should too.