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Playing small while staying big

We all too often think and talk about small ball completely wrong.

The strategy that has revolutionized basketball over the last decade — shoutout to the 7 Seconds or Less Suns — is unfortunately named. It conjures up images of a guard-heavy lineup with wings sliding down the positional scale to man the frontcourt. When we talk about small ball, we think of pint-size (by NBA standards, at least) shooters around a 6-foot-7 Draymond Green at center.

Play small, go fast, get buckets.

The problem with that line of thinking, though, is that small ball really has little to do with size. It’s a name that labels the byproduct of the aim of a style of play. Small ball isn’t about size. It’s about skill.

Small ball is about putting as much skill on the floor as possible. It’s about maximizing shooting, playmaking and versatility of both the offensive and defensive variety. Small ball is a means to an end, with the goal being having as technical proficiency and adaptability in the lineup as possible.

Now, what do players who can shoot, switch and sprint the floor usually look like? They’re guards or 6-foot-7 wings repurposed as frontcourt players.

If you want to play with shooting, skill and versatility on the court, you go small not out of philosophy, but out of necessity.

But maybe not any more.

As the 2018 NBA draft looms next week, it’s increasingly clear that small ball is increasingly becoming supersized with as many as six of the top seven selections potentially being centers, the heavy majority of which project as so-called modern bigs.

The “unicorns” we’ve celebrated in the last half-decade — Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo — are becoming decidedly less rare. Or at least the archetype they helped create is ushering in a new generation of players who will try to replicate their success while having the size and skill combinations that make such long-term projections not entirely unreasonable.

FULL SCOUTING REPORTS: Deandre Ayton | Mo Bamba | Jaren Jackson | Marvin Bagley

A 7-footer who handles the rock, blocks shots, switches one-through-five and makes threes is no longer a guaranteed generational player, but rather a piece that unlocks the rest of the roster to maximum versatility and skill.

Those types of players don’t populate every roster and they are in the highest demand by NBA franchises, but no longer does a team need to be drafting in the top spot to have a shot at such a big.

Just look at this year’s mock drafts.

Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Marvin Bagley III, Mo Bamba and Michael Porter Jr. all project to be among the first players selected next Thursday and are all 6-foot-10 or taller with the skill sets and physical frames that allow them to anchor small ball lineups, or at least that’s what NBA franchises are hoping and banking on.

And that doesn’t even include Wendell Carter Jr.

Look at the presumptive top pick, Ayton. At 7-feet and 243 pounds with arms that look like they’ve been photoshopped to appear on the cover of a bodybuilding magazine, he’s got one of the most imposing frames that college basketball has seen in recent years. Ayton’s strength is phenomenal, but it’s his feet that make him so tantalizing.

He moves with the agility, quickness and effortlessness that belies a player that is, quite simply, a massive human being. Ayton has the size and physicality of a traditional big man. He’s a high-level rebounder, finishes at the rim and has the physical tools that allow NBA scouts to tell themselves he’ll be a better rim-protector than his block rate would indicate. His real appeal, though, is the prospect he can switch a one-five pick-and-roll, is potentially a devastating rim-runner and projects as pick-and-roll big who can pop or dive to wondrous results.

Ayton is at the top of draft boards because scouts believe that he can competently do everything Draymond Green can while inhabiting David Robinson’s body.

That’s much the same thing that has Jackson and Bagley projected in the top-five, slotted behind Ayton because they’re not quite as physically intimidating but still possess some combination of the athleticism, wingspan, agility and level of skill that has front offices dreaming of them fitting well into small ball lineups. Porter is a mystery after essentially missing all of last season, but he fits that same mold.

The outlier here is Carter. The 6-foot-10, 260-pounder is by no means a plodder, but he’s much more in the mold of a traditional big. He rebounds, protects the rim and is comfortable with his back to the basket. The question, though, is can he defend the pick-and-roll or will he be susceptible to switches that will play him off the floor? Post play is probably become somewhat underrated as it’s possible to stress defenses from the inside to create opportunities for the outside, but it’s increasingly de-emphasized.

If teams are looking to zig while the rest of the league zags, Carter would seem to be an option. If he can improve his footwork and extend his range, he could well fit into modern NBA offenses. The fact that he’s further behind in those areas, though, is why he’s generally considered the least of the best available big men.

Which brings us to Bamba.

While Ayton continues to be the conventional wisdom at 1 and Jackson’s combination of frame and skill entices front offices, the former Texas big may be the most intriguing prospect with the highest ceiling in this draft.

The 7-footer has a wingspan of 7-feet-10 inches and a standing reach of 9-feet-7.5 inches, which eclipse The Stifle Tower himself, Rudy Gobert. That height and length didn’t go unutilized in Austin as Bamba showed himself to be an elite rim protector (13.2 block percentage) and excellent rebounder (28.2 defensive rebounding percentage). Shot-blocking and rebounding translates, and Bamba measurements suggest he’ll be able to do both at the next level.

Then there’s his agility. He moves extremely well both as a rim-runner and laterally against guards. Given his length, he doesn’t have to be perfect when he’s switched on to small guards, but just stay within shouting — well, swatting — distance. Given what we saw from him last year, he seems entirely possible he’ll be capable of that going forward.

Bamba slightness and 3-point shooting percentage (27.5) along with questions about his physicality have depressed his draft stock, but those hurdles seem clearable. Bamba has what no other prospect in this class – or maybe any other – doesn’t with his size and length. Even among unicorns, Bamba stands out.

The 2018 NBA draft is revealing what we mean when we talk about small ball. To make it work, you need players that can switch and shoot. You need speed, athleticism and length. For years, those combinations came in smaller packages, but increasingly it’s becoming supersized as small ball becomes the preeminent way to play and the skills that are prized and necessary to employ it are now being taught to and honed by bigger and bigger players.

Small ball has become the bible for NBA franchises, but the label describes the book’s cover, not its substance.


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