Giannis Antetokounmpo Goes Nuclear

The dude is 21.

Giannis Antetokounmpo – also known as the Greek Freak, for very good reasons, including his athleticism, but also because it is much easier to spell – absolutely went nuclear last night, eviscerating the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers in a 118-101 thumping.

Antetokounmpo’s 34/12/5/5/2 line (in less than 36 minutes!) looks as good as it is historical, and if you need further encouragement to be impressed with what the Freak achieved, just look at the names on this list, and look at their ages:

 greek-freak

Antetokounmpo is among the youngest players ever to have played a game like the one we saw last night, and his statline sandwiched him squarely between LeBron James (who is pretty good!) and Anthony Davis (who is also pretty good!) and otherwise on a list with five Hall-Of-Famers (Bird, Olajuwon, Barkley, Malone, Drexler), and one other future Hall-Of-Famer (Carter). That’s good company*.

Then there is the issue of the competition he did it against. Although Davis achieved his against a 0-0 Denver Nuggets squad in the season opener, the rest of these games occurred against teams with an aggregate record of 414/406. That’s barely above a .500** winning percentage. The Cavaliers are currently sitting at an .810 winning percentage and are (currently) on pace for 66-67 wins.*** So let’s put that in layman’s terms: Antetokounmpo just, as the second youngest player ever to do so, put up a statline against, by some metrics, one of the best teams to ever get this shredded.

And, again, the dude is still 21.

For those unimpressed by the numbers and the company and the age, the highlights themselves are something else. Antetokuonmpo spent his evening getting whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted:

If you need one play to summarize the video, skip to 2:12 and check out how unbelievably above the rim he appears to be on the easy finish. One of things regularly praised about Giannis is is raw athleticism. Terms like “raw athleticism” are generally basketball-speak for “isn’t actually very good at basketball, but he might be…” but what Giannis did last night is yet another step in his transition from simply being a bundle of potential to being the thing that scouts were dreaming of when he was first discovered in Greece.

That he has creative coaching certainly helps too. Jason Kidd has been using Antentokuonmpo at point guard, knowing of course that there will be struggles along the way, but recognizing that a 6’11” point guard represents a substantial tactical advantage. How, after all, can another team defend him? Teams can certainly put a big man on him, but despite being built like one, Giannis doesn’t move like a big man, and he doesn’t play like one either.

Here’s an isolated play from that last highlight reel:

That was a rebound, three dribbles, a pass fake that literally killed the man defending him, and the dunk. Giannis’s speed coupled with his gait allows him to functionally change the size of the basketball court. Adding in a pass fake is, frankly, unfair.

And, again, the dude is 21.****

*Poor Terry Cummings.

**The best of these was achieved against a 62-20 Lakers team. Go on with your bad self Clyde Drexler.

***Hot Take Prediction Alert – the Cavaliers will not win that many games.

****If all of this wasn’t sufficiently exciting – and it is absolutely sufficiently exciting – the Freak’s rise also gets Gus Johnson back into lives. Gus Johnson is great.

DeMarcus Cousins and Galactus Takes Turns Devouring Worlds

DeMarcus Cousins is, perhaps, might be basketball’s most maligned player. He is loathed by media, by former players, by former coaches, by current coaches, by owners. He has been repeatedly suspended by both his team and the league.  Meanwhile, since Cousins was drafted in 2010, the organization has Sacramento Kinged all over the place, averaging 27.3 wins per season. It has had six coaches in seven years. It has changed ownership. It almost left Sacramento.

It is tempting to describe both Cousins and the Sacramento Kings as ongoing mudslides that are for some reason occurring on a burning garbage barges.

Except there is this too:

That’s Cousins’s putting up a 36/20/4/2/1* in a (predictably) losing effort against the Washington Wizards, although perhaps the Kings can take something from knowing they pushed a not-very-good Eastern Conference team into overtime before finally succumbing. Or, no, wait, maybe that is precisely the thing to be concerned about.

Anyway, given that the man has been relentlessly criticized from his very first moments in the league – and, actually, before he ever got there – and given that much of the criticism has been premised upon what an disaster Cousins allegedly is, it is worth noting that the big only gets so much attention because of how unbelievably good he can be. Players going for 36+ points and 20+ rebounds and 4+ assists and 2+ steals just isn’t something that happens very often. With Cousins, it is tempting to believe that it is something he could achieve whenever he felt sufficiently…well…the temptation is use the word “motivated” but it has never been entirely clear that is not motivated.

It is that last part that is always the problem with Cousins, per his critics. They claim that the only thing holding Cousins back has been him as a human being, and that if only he could get past that – how, exactly one does that is never entirely clear – then the sun would finally shine on a Sacramento team that hasn’t been relevant since Chris Webber’s heyday. But it would absurd to dismiss Sacramento’s dysfunction as having contributed hugely to Cousins’s alleged imbalance. He plays for an imperfect team in an imperfect place for imperfect coaches as part of an imperfect roster. It seems an awfully big ask to demand that a player thrive in an environment that nobody anywhere would describe as being conducive to thriving. And yet he does thrive. Cousins has shown annual improvement for now going on six years. He is in the prime of his career and is an unstoppable force when he has his game going.

Which is, perhaps, why Cousins name is again coming up in trade talks. Although numerous teams have repeatedly hinted that they are not interested in emptying their pockets to get him, it also seems hard to believe that teams who need a talent bump wouldn’t be interested in a guy who, while surrounded by literally very little, averages more than 28 points and 10 rebounds a game. Surely, the thinking must go, if that is what he is capable of in a place like Sacramento, he would only get better in a place like…

Boston has long been rumored, although Brad Stevens’, the Celtics’ coach, is apparently less than enthusiastic about the possibility. Still, it seems impossible to believe that somebody, somewhere, would take a risk on getting the big man, (assuming he is actually gettable). And to add intrigue to everything, one somebody might be his former running-buddy John Wall.

Whatever happens, the man’s current trajectory is the same as Derrick Coleman’s before him – a player of enviable abilities and accompanying instabilities. Whether or not he overcomes them will end up being the difference.

*This was an Anthony Davis, as Cousins’s 63 trumped his teammates’s 60.

More On The Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis notched his fifth Anthony Davis last night in a loss to the Dallas Mavericks. For those wondering, an Anthony Davis is one when player’s summed counting stats (points/rebounds/assists/blocks/steals) exceeds the total of his four starting teammates’ counting stats. Davis’s 34/13/4/2/1 total of 54 easily topped his four teammates’…uhh, let’s say unimpressive…19/15/6/4/2 total of 46. That it took those teammates a combined 102 minutes of playing time to deliver (substantially) less than Davis did in his 40 minutes is the icing on a cake that was left in the oven under the broiler for six hours.

The New Orleans Pelicants are 1-4 in games when Davis manages to do this, suggesting that an Anthony Davis might be less about what a player is doing and more about the underwhelming contributions of the teammates around him.

One tempting conclusion is that Davis’s production is easy given how bad his teammates are. If there is nobody else worth giving the ball to, after all, it becomes much easier to collect statistics. But FiveThirtyEight’s Chris Herring showed that Davis’s production for a team as bad as the Pelicants is simply unprecedented. It isn’t that he is a great player on a bad team. It is that he is a great player on an unbelievably bad team.

This is not ideal.

For the season, Davis is (as of this morning) averaging a 49.3 summed total of his counting statistics. Last night’s other four starting Pelicants (Solomon Hill, Omer Asik, Tim Frazier, and E’Twaun Moore) collectively average 64.9. This means that in last night’s game, those four barely managed to deliver 70 percent of their average, leaving Davis’s 109 percent to whither on the vine.

It is tempting to believe that the Pelicans’ opponents might have realized that they can let Davis get his while simply defending his teammates straight-up, although that Herring article also notes that Davis is drawing more double-teams this season, and that Davis has nowhere to go when they do, owing to the team’s abysmal shooting numbers.  It is also tempting to conclude that the Pelicants, although improved slightly since Jrue Holiday’s return, are a criminally assembled team whose GM should be investigated for point-shaving.

An Anthony Davis, The Statistic

Back to the Anthony Davis itself. The idea of a single player outperforming the entirety of his starting lineup is a curious one, especially in a game like basketball, wherein so much of what one player produces relies upon his teammates. The Anthony Davis, by comparison, requires teammates to fail at doing anything, while one player (seemingly), does everything. Here are some illustrations of the phenomenon:

Quadruple-Doubles

It might be appealing to imagine that quadruple-doubles (an exceedingly rare statistical phenomenon, as they have only have happened four times in league history, and each obviously involve significant statistical output from a single player.

But no.

Alvin Robertson’s 20/11/10/10/0 line gave him 51. His four starting teammates had him beat with points alone (they scored 73 between them).

Hakeem Olajuwon’s 18/16/10/1/11 gave him a 56. His four starting teammates again had him beat on points alone (they scored 65 between them).

David Robinson’s 34/10/10/2/10 gave him a 66. His four starting teammates did not beat him on scoring (they scored 49 between them) but Dennis Rodman’s 22 rebounds put them collectively over the top.

Triple-Doubles

Triple-Doubles also imply a statistical binge, but they tend to allow a player to emphasize more within a single area. Note that the best total of the three listed above is Robinson’s 66. We can do better than that. And here we finally start to find some examples of other Anthony Davises.

But first, a few that came up short:

Shaquille O’Neal posted a 24/28/3/1/15 for a 71. His teammates got 109.

LeBron James posted a 52/9/11/0/2 for a 74. His teammates got a 76.

Needless to say, it seems as though players – generally speaking – need to put up an absolutely outrageous total to overwhelm their teammates. Or their teammates need to have really, really bad nights. That also works. Or, in the case of the next example, both.

Russell Westbrook got an Anthony Davis in 2015 after putting up a 49/15/10/3/1 for an absurd 78. His teammates managed a 27 (and should have gently put down after having been hit on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper).

Outrageous Individual Performances

Finally, there is the surest way to generate one – score an epic amount of points. It should surprise nobody that some of the NBA’s highest scoring games (in the modern age) have been enough to generate Anthony Davises.

David Robinson’s 92 in 1994 (71/14/5/0/2) was good enough against teammates’s 73.

And Kobe Bryant’s 93 in 2006 (he posted a crazy-to-look-at 81/6/2/3/1 ) was just enough against his teammates’ 91.

Conclusion

The possibility was floated earlier that getting an Anthony Davis is less about a player’s good play, and more about his teammates’ bad play. But in each of the three examples above, the players who got them put up absurdly good numbers, and only one of those three involves starting teammates apparently unaware that the game had actually begun.

Note that the three game totals necessary were a 78, a 92, and a 93. Surely, there are more of these unicorns to find. But here is the thing to consider when looking at Anthony Davis having earned five Anthony Davis’s this year:

  • Two of his totals have been eye-popping: 79 and 69 (nice).
  • Three of his totals have been…not very outrageous at all: 54, 47, and 46 (!).

Which means that what we’re seeing with Davis is two things. The first is that he is a very good player. The second is that, when things go bad with his teammates, they go bad in shockingly bad way.

 

 

Andrew Wiggins Has A Very Bad Night

Three nights ago, Andrew Wiggins put up a 5/18 shooting performance, adding four rebounds and an assist. This was not good. It was, in fact, so not good that he got included on a list of players who dared to gaze into the Abyss before realizing much too late that the Abyss gazes back. Most player who see the bleakness recoil in horror. Wiggins went the other direction on Wednesday as he decided to cannonball directly into vast empty.

His line is almost impossible to properly fathom: he managed to shoot 2/19, with zero rebounds, and zero assists. He finished having posted a -29, a statistical measure of a team’s  performance with a particular player on the floor. Wiggins’ -29 means that the Timberwolves collectively lost by 29 points during his 31 minutes of gametime. Even that does not properly encapsulate precisely how badly Wiggins played, but before we get to that, a softener: he went 9/10 from the line. That’s something, kinda.

Back to the good stuff. Wiggins’s awful statline was historically bad. Like, truly, unbelievably, bad:

  • Since 1982, 19 NBA players have shot the ball 19 (or more) times without recording a rebound or an assist. The next worst performance was Trey Burke’s.  (Burke shot 7/20 in a game his team lost by 9 points. He scored 18 points. Wiggins only had 13.)
  • Since 1982, 19 NBA players have shot the ball 19 (or more) times without recording a rebound or an assist. Wiggins made 2. The next worst shooting performance was Allen Iverson’s. (Iverson shot 6/22 [Editor’s Note: GAH!] in a loss to the Rockets, but because Iverson was the entirety of what the 76ers ever managed to put on the floor, he still finished with 32 points after getting to the line 24 times. Iverson was so good.)
  • Since 1982, Andrew Wiggins is the only player who managed to post Wednesday’s statline.

Here’s the thing though: impossibly bad nights happen to impossibly good players, and even if we acknowledge the last week – he is 9/48 over his last three games – he appears to be a super-talented young wing going through a very bad stretch. He is not a fundamentally broken player*. He is a young player who is aggressively pressing in an honest attempt to make a bad stretch go away. He is young enough to truly believe that if he just shoots enough, the shots will start falling again.

And they might.

But it is more likely that Tom Thibodeau, Wiggins’ new coach, will (hopefully) help him in the same way that he has helped other burgeoning young players (like Jimmy Butler). Thibodeau demands the world of his players, as well as all of their available energy, as well as their souls, but players have routinely thrived under his tutelage, even if they didn’t end up particularly liking him.

Also ideally taking the edge off is Wiggins knowing that there are brighter times ahead. He is joined in Minnesota by Karl-Anthony Towns, a combination of young, emerging talent that twenty general managers in the league would happily accept. Even if it means enduring historically bad shooting nights.

*His teammate Ricky Rubio might be, sadly.

The Abyss Stares Into The NBA

Shooting the basketball is a spectrum. At its very best, it appears to be an almost effortless thing, simultaneously precise and simple. At its worst, it is a sisyphean nightmare in which the only thing that is supposed to be happening simply does not.

But most of all, shooting the basketball is hard. The very best shooters in the world rarely average better than 50 percent, and overall, the average NBA player shoots less than 45 percent from the field and less than 35 percent from deep.

For the sake of charity then, let’s imagine numbers that might constitute great, good, average, tolerable, bad, and the beyond. Let’s avoid the subtleties of distance and the free-throw line. Let us focus instead raw percentages achieved from the floor.

It seems fair enough to conclude – given what we know about league averages – that anybody shooting better than 52.5 percent on a given night is shooting great, that anybody shooting above 47.5 percent is shooting good, that anybody shooting above 42.5 percent is shooting average, that anybody shooting above 37.5 percent is shooting tolerable, that anybody shooting above 32.5 percent is shooting bad. With the exception of the very top category (which accounts for everything from Great – 52.5-100), we have five point windows for each of our categories: Good – 52.5-47.5, Average – 47.5-42.5, Tolerable – 37.5-42.5, Bad – 32.5-37.5. It should be acknowledged that this list might not be fair, and that the difference between a player’s presence in any of them can be as little as a single made shot. (A player who shoots 4-10 goes from Tolerable to Good if he had only made one more.) But then there is the Abyss, the place beyond bad, the place where hope goes to die, a place of double-digit attempts and single digit makes. This is the place beneath 32.5 percent.

Last night saw players not only approaching the edge of the Abyss, but jumping in with both feet.

Robert Covington

The 76ers are a team on the brink of going all the way from garbage to awful. That’s why they’re celebrating having won two straight games for the first time in a year-and-a-half. Covington though did his best to undo the effort after going a grisly 4-13 from the field. We’ll get back to this game though, as his struggles were dwarfed by a competitor’s.

Andrew Wiggins

Wiggins is one-half of the future in Minnesota, a team still trying to figure out how to recover from the loss of Kevin Garnett (and then, to a much lesser extent, Kevin Love). Wiggins has been on a scoring tear these past few weeks too so it makes sense that he might have thought that he enjoyed an unrepentent green light to chuck until infinity. Unfortunately, infinity proved to be going 5-18 in a loss to the Boston Celtics.

John Wall

Wall is Washington’s sublime point-guard, a badly underpaid player who, at his very best, can take teams apart with his otherworldly speed. But his jump shot is an iffy proposition, and if that quickness isn’t getting him to the basket, things can south in jaw-dropping fashion. This is what happened last night, as Wall shot 6-24 from the field. Mercifully, he managed to still do all of the other Wall things that make him so valuable, and so although he wallowed in the Abyss, his team survived. Barely.

Glenn Robison III

Robinson’s Pacers were facing the rounding-into-form Warriors, a team against which mistakes cannot be made if a team wants to have any hope of success. Constant defensive pressure coupled with relentless offensive execution are the hallmarks of any team that even wants to be competitive with the Warriors. Unfortunately for the Pacers and just prior to tip-off, Robison touched the Abyss’s icy waters, as evidenced by the atrocious 3-14 he managed in a blow-out loss. At least he can rest knowing that his team likely would lost even if he hadn’t tempted fate.

Josh Richardson

Richardson’s future with the Miami Heat is bright. He is a rail-thin guard who goes out onto the court and does stuff. He is young, too, meaning that he has room to grow on a team that is in the midst of a rebuild after the championship heights it achieved with its Big Three. But his 1-11 from the field in a loss to the lowly 76ers is something else entirely. Would a semi-competent night have won the Heat the game? Not necessarily, but it certainly would have helped them to be more competitive.

Bad Russell Westbrook Comes To Town

Last night, in a loss to the underwhelming Indiana Pacers, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook shot the ball 34 times. That isn’t necessarily a problem. Lots of players have shot the ball 34 times in a single game. What is a problem are Westbrook’s 13 makes, and the fact that he only managed to total 31 points. Not many players can say that they have done that.

Let’s contextualize those numbers before getting into a broader conversation. Since 1983, 239 players have attempted 34 (or more) shots in a single basketball game. According to Basketball Reference, 235 of those players scored more points than Westbrook’s 31. That though is an apples to oranges comparison and is thus perhaps unfair. Maybe it makes more sense to compare Westbrook’s attempts to players who attempted the same number of shots, just to see if his performance was any better. And…no…oh nonot like this. For those too squeamish to look, Westbrook’s 31 points on 34 attempts ranks 71st out of 74.

That is not ideal.

There are two versions of Russell Westbrook. The first is essentially the NBA’s Incredible Hulk, an unstoppable force of awe-inspiring basketball. He plays with such ferocity that some fans have copped to fearing for the man’s safety. Even on his bad days, Westbrook cannot help but be amazing, yesterday’s performance being but one example: despite a historically awful night shooting the ball, Westbrook still managed 11reb/15ast to go along with his 31 points. Westbrook is nearly averaging a triple-double (31.7ppg/10.4ast/9.7reb) this year, teetering on the edge of a statistical holy grail that hasn’t been achieved Oscar Robertson managed it in 1961-1962.

But there is no dismissing the other Westbrook, the one who has no off-switch even when things are plainly not working, the one who has steadfastly refused to be anything other than maximum capacity Russell Westbrook, the one whose, “No, no, it is fine that I am doing this!” approach which some have claimed chased away Kevin Durant (his own denials notwithstanding).

There is nothing to be done of course. Basketball fans might hold out hope for the day that Westbrook realizes he’s having an off-night and stops shooting, but not only is he not wired that way, he wouldn’t be the player that he is if he was. Westbrook is both of the above Westbrooks, all of the time, constantly. The good comes with the bad. The constraints that might be placed upon another player do not exist in Oklahoma City, as the Thunder, rightly recognizing that they are very unlikely to be a draw for big-name free agents, has now committed entirely to letting Westbrook go full Westbrook, regardless of bad nights against awful teams like the Pacers. What else can they do, really?

And for his part, Westbrook has made it this far in his life playing exactly like this. Or at least, almost exactly like this. One of last night’s curiosities is that Westbrook only got to the foul-line five times. He has generally been a player who takes the edge off of his poor shooting nights by repeatedly getting to the line. He has averaged almost seven free-throw attempts for his career, and this season is averaging more than ten. For him to have only gotten half his average made a bad night much, much worse.

Perhaps then it is that which should be the point for any criticism: not that Westbrook had a bad night shooting the ball (he frequently does), and not that he didn’t contribute elsewhere (he obviously did), but that his inability to get to the line in a close game against poor competition likely ended up costing his team the game.

 

 

Anthony Davis Nearly Notches His Fifth Anthony Davis

The New Orleans Pelicans beat the Portland Trailblazers last night. This is cause for celebration, as the New Orleans Pelicans are an almost impossibly awful team run by a GM who may not, technically speaking, be alive. The team’s only bright spot is Anthony Davis, a player whose potential to be one of the best players in NBA history is equaled only by the potential for him to literally choke a teammate to death in the middle of the game.

Here are some things that are designed to better explain the situation in New Orleans:

  1. Imagine the most perfectly prepared steak in the entire world. Now imagine it sitting in a bowl of week-old Cream of Wheat.
  2. Imagine sitting behind the wheel of the world’s most finely tuned automobile. Now imagine that its wheels were all flat.
  3. Imagine the birth of your first child. Now imagine that it is one of five, and the other four are all terrible at basketball.

Part of what’s going on is injuries. The Pelicans’ practice facility was built on a cursed graveyard that was itself built on top of a cursed graveyard that it was itself built on top of a cursed graveyard. That’s three layers of curse and as we all know, curses work exponentially. That practice facility is cursed cubed. No matter what the Pelicans do, they cannot keep players healthy. This is not entirely the fault of the organization; injuries are a part of the game and have to be proactively dealt with.

The other part of what is going on is a terrible roster construction. Anthony Davis is surrounded by players who, even when fully healthy, are a weird assortment of skills and abilities, none seemingly designed to compliment anybody else. Tyreke Evans both refuses to distribute the ball and to acknowledge that he has a much better player on his team. Tim Frazier does distribute the ball but there are no shooters waiting to catch it. Omer Asik is a rebounder whose hands have calcified into enormous hunks of stone.

Not surprisingly, the Pelicans are 3-10, with no real indication that they are about to become the playoff contender that they were in 2014/2015. It seems quite likely that Davis – who is in New Orleans for the long haul, after signing a lengthy and lucrative contract extension with the team in 2015 – will again watch the postseason from the sidelines. This is criminal.

If all of this wasn’t convincing enough, Anthony Davis has taken to notching a statistical achievement that will be known, from here on out, as an Anthony Davis. Think here of the 5-5-5-5-5 game, sometime called a Kirilenko, after Andrei Kirilenko, a lengthy Russian who achieved three of them in his career (even though, as with most basketball things, the 5-5-5-5-5 game should be called an Olajuwon, after Hakeem Olajuwon, who managed six of them). Anyway, the 5-5-5-5-5 game involves a player getting at least five of each of the counting categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. What we can take from a 5-5-5-5-5 game is that we have a player contributing, literally, everywhere, and in all of the imaginable ways too.

The Anthony Davis is slightly different. Rather than focusing on what a single player is doing, the Anthony Davis focuses both on what that player is doing, and what his good-for-nothing starting teammates are doing. To notch an Anthony Davis, a player’s production of summed counting stats (points+rebounds+assists+steals+blocks) must be superior to his four teammates’s summed counting stats (all of their points+rebounds+assists+steals+blocks).

Last night, Davis just missed achieving an Anthony Davis. He totaled 38pts/9rbs/6ast/2stl/4blk, or 59 total. His starting teammates managed 29pts/14rbs/13ast/2stl/3blk, or 61 total. Keep in mind that Davis’s output took him 37 minutes. His teammates needed 103 combined minutes to just barely eke by him.

“That doesn’t seem great,” you’re thinking, because there is only one Anthony Davis, and there are four of his teammates, and they played almost three times as much as he did, and, in fact, a scenario in which a player notches an Anthony Davis is generally a nightmare. At least the Pelicans won.

That’s more than they can say for three of the four times this season that Davis did achieve an Anthony Davis.

In a win over the Celtics, Davis’s 47 beat his starting teammates’ 44. (His starting teammates played 86 total minutes to his 38 minutes.)

In a loss to the Lakers, Davis’s 46 beat his starting teammates’ 43. (His starting teammates played 84 total minutes to his 34 minutes.)

In a loss to the the Warriors, Davis’s 69 (nice) beat his teammates’ 65. (His starting teammates played 92 total minutes to his 40 minutes.)

And in a season-opening loss to Denver, Davis’s absolutely immaculate 79 beat his teammates’ 62. (His starting teammates played 109 minutes to his 41 minutes.)

The Anthony Davis is hardly a refined statistic. Nothing involving simple arithmetic and looking at a box-score can be. But it remains an appalling testament to what an otherworldly player can achieve when surrounded by four tackling dummies full of wet sand. It is also, unfortunately, the kind of statistic that can likely be abused if placed into the wrong hands. It is possible to imagine hot-takers screaming bloody murder about a player notching an Anthony Davis having not done enough to get his teammates involved. Such a whinge might make sense in the case of a player who dominated the ball despite being bad at what he was doing. In the actual case of Anthony Davis’s Anthony Davises though, he is shooting almost fifty percent from the field and better than eighty percent from the line. He is notching this not because he is excluding himself, in other words – he is achieving this because he is absolutely the best (and only) option on the Pelicans’ roster.

Karl-Anthony Towns Collects Joel Embiid’s Soul

Yesterday, I wrote about Kristaps Porzingis’s early returns on the development of what will be, barring injury, an essentially unstoppable move, a stepback/fadeaway that he will be able to shoot long after the rest of his body has turned into lukewarm oatmeal. Dominant though it might be, we need not pretend that all dominance is equally entertaining to watch. If it helps, think of stepback/fadeaways as a burbling stream – they will eventually wear a stone smooth, but the time it takes to do so seems interminable.

Compare that burbling stream to a crashing waterfall’s breathtaking strength. Enter Karl-Anthony Towns:

Here we have Towns, Minnesota’s budding superstar, reminding Joel Embiid who the reigning Rookie Of The Year is. That Embiid bit on a not-great fake is his own problem, but Towns’ finish was absolutely awesome. And here, like Porzingis before him and Julius Randle before that, we have yet more evidence of the incredible youth movement overtaking the NBA.

Like all young players, there are significant periods of adjustment. Towns’s shot-selection has been slightly less impressive this season. Anybody watching him rightfully wonders why a second-year player whose ferocious first season hinted at an unstoppable force around the basket has instead been seemingly settling for jumpers. This frustration crystallizes whenever Towns does anything that makes it appear as he can easily get to the basket for higher-percentage shots. After all, he has repeatedly shown the ability to take it to the tin with alacrity, and if he is given the time to get a full head of steam, watch out.

But this is at best a middling critique. For starters, the season is very young. The Timberwolves are only 11 games into an 82 game season. It is a team not only adjusting to the expectations that come along with its younger core being one-year older and one-year more experienced, but that also accompany the team’s new coach, Tom Thibodeau. Thibs is a significant upgrade for a young, developing team. He is also a man whose thirst for intensity is matched only by his thirst to run his starters into the ground, as evidenced his coaching last night. It seems entirely reasonable to accept that a team being led by a new coach might not be running fully on all cylinders at the 11-game mark.

As for Towns: he is figuring himself out. These things do not happen overnight, and if his shot-selection is to be dinged, it is at least worth considering why it is exactly that he is shooting jumpers: he was really good at doing so last year. Like, absurdly, unexpectedly good. If the midrange jumper is truly a dying art, it found life in Towns’s hands, as he shot better than 50 from between 16ft-3pt line. (DeMar DeRozan, by comparison, managed to barely shoot 37 percent from the same distance last year.)

There ought to be boundless enthusiasm for Towns and the game that he is developing. Yes, this season has started off every so slightly slower than originally expected, but he is a man poised to reign literal destruction upon the league, one up-fake biting defender at a time.

 

Kristaps Porzingis Hints At The Future

Kristaps Porzingis went for 35 points last night. His contribution led the Knicks, both in scoring, and to a 105-102 victory over the Detroit Pistons. Neither of those things matter though. Leading the Knicks in scoring is a middling achievement, owing mostly to the fact that the team’s roster is not good, and beating the Pistons is equally underwhelming, owing to that team not having its fullest possible roster.

What does matter are Porzingis’s finishes here:

A list of the most dominating moves in NBA history will almost certainly be topped by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s unguardable sky-hook, Michael Jordan’s fadeaway, and Dirk Nowitzki’s wrong-footed fadeaway. As Jordan emphasizes in this clip, the fadeaway’s goal is space. Each move starts, generally, with a player’s back to the basket, followed by some degree of turn, followed by the shot itself, all while keeping the ball as far as possible from a defender’s reach, the idea being that if a player can keep the defender away while still shooting in exactly the way that he both wants and has practiced, the shot will have the best chance of going in. It should then not be surprising to find Jabbar, Jordan, and Nowitzki are, perhaps not surprisingly, ranked 1, 4, and 6 in all-time scoring.

The thing about a reliable move – and particularly these three – is that they tend to replace explosive athleticism with rote repetition. All three of these guys could execute their moves over and over and over and seemingly unaffected by the passage of time. In other words, it isn’t by accident that all three of these players continued to contribute well into what are generally basketball’s golden years. Jabbar played until he was 42, Jordan until he was 40, and Nowitzki is still hauling himself up and down the court at age 38.

Which brings us back to Porzingis and the clip embedded above. Nothing about this post should be construed as a direct comparison between Porzingis and any of the three players listed above. Those three each achieved at a stratospheric level that Porzingis cannot even begin to currently imagine. But what we should begin to imagine is the possibility that, as a 21-year-old who is only in his second season of playing in the NBA, is beginning to develop a shot that would be – like the three mentioned above – virtually unguardable.

And here it is where it is worth noting that while Jabbar and Nowitzki were each seven-footers (7’2” and 7’0”, respectively), Porzingis is 7’3”, currently the tallest player getting run in the NBA. This means that the separation he is getting for this particular shot – one that he has only occasionally messed around with thus far in his career – is advantaged not merely by the move itself, but by his size relative to his defender’s. In other words, he will have an easier time creating that space because it will be virtually impossible for another defender to match his size. Look at the clip again – both defenders are right in his face, but nowhere near the ball. For a second example, look at his finish below:

Or better yet, try going here and pausing the video at 2:42. His defender is right with him and yet absolutely nowhere near the ball when it is being released. Then remember that this is Porzingis’s shot in its relative infancy. He is not as strong, as coordinated, and as savvy as he potentially will be.

There is no sense in pretending that a thousand different things might happen to derail Porzingis’s career. Perhaps the biggest fear, especially owing to his size, is the ever-present fear of injury, especially to his feet. One need to barely do any thinking at all to come up with a laundry list of great NBA big men who never quite delivered on their potential thanks to bodies that betrayed them. But – and this is a big, huge but – if Porzingis stays healthy, and if he keeps developing that particular move, the league had better look out, as the best defenders in the world have never shown an ability to consistently stop a shot like that.