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Jordan Clarkson & the Reality of Regression

By: Michael Taylor
(Video By: Tom Zayas)

Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance, Jr., Brandon Ingram, and Ivica Zubac: this is the order in which Los Angeles has amassed its treasure trove of young talent. For each highlight play, there’s been frustration. For every moment a “Baby Laker” takes a step forward, lumps are taken the next. Development is unique in and of itself, as it brings excitement to those who envision what the future could hold.

The Lakers hold two blue chip prospects in D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram (three if Julius Randle is included). Early on, Zubac looks to be a considerable steal, while high-flyer Larry Nance, Jr. projects a high-end role player, and Tarik Black is banging on the door to be considered as part of the young core.

This year, all the previously mentioned Lakers have made improvements to their game in some form or fashion. Truthfully speaking, I cannot say the same for Jordan Clarkson.

For all the things Jordan Clarkson has going for him (oozes athleticism, height, & length), role stability is not one of them. As a rookie, he entered the league as a point guard, and as a sophomore he was moved to shooting guard, providing solace to Laker fans with his consistent play amid the worst season in Lakers history. 

Whatever passing chops he flashed as a rookie are now being posted on milk cartons around Los Angeles.

Even casual fans can see that Clarkson fails to make the simple read here. As he approaches the basket, Pau Gasol has fully committed to him. Tarik Black is so open that Clarkson can almost hand him the ball, yet his eyes are glued to the rim akin to that of a dog to a bone. However, stats tend to often disagree with the eye test, right? Wrong.

Statistically, his 12.6 AST% is the lowest of his career, and his 12.7 TOV% nearly matches it. This leads to a 1.11 AST/TO ratio, which is only higher than  Robinson, Black, Zubac, and Mozgov. To paint an even darker picture, that ranks 178th in the NBA, among guards. Conversely, his unwillingness to pass can lead to some terrible shot selection, which is another valid criticism of his 2016-2017 season.

The play ends in a contested step-back three which rightfully annoys Luke Walton. What’s concerning here is Clarkson’s lack of awareness, as reversing the ball would lead to an open Lou three.

There’s an underlying reason as to why Jordan Clarkson’s gunner mentality is a glaring issue. 37.0% (5.5 POSS) of his entire offense comes out of Pick and Rolls, even though he’s only generating .77 Points Per Possession on a 42.6% eFG and turning it over 16.0% of the time. For comparison’s sake, Austin Rivers runs Pick and Rolls on 33.6% of his possessions and generates .92 Points Per Possession on a 50.8% eFG while turning it over 15.7% of the time. Austin Rivers isn’t an elite player, but he’s in the 78th percentile, and Jordan Clarkson is in the 41st percentile. This helps explain why most of Clarkson’s shots (30.5%) come off 3-6 dribbles, and he’s shooting only 47.4% eFG on those shots.

All of this is a fancy way of saying that the play type he runs the most is the play type he is the least efficient at.

 

He rejects the screen from Randle and does a nice job of putting Damian Lillard on his hip. There’s a split second where Randle has a window for a pocket pass but Clarkson misses it, causing him to take a runner from a poor angle. This play is emblematic of his struggle’s all season.

Yet it is not all doom and gloom. Hope remains in the form of glimpses.

 

In the limited plays that Clarkson’s had his head up, taking what the defense gives him, he has shown promise. This turnover (credited to Clarkson) is encouraging in that he makes the correct read. As Gobert commits to Clarkson, he gives it up to Mozgov. While the pass could have been more on the numbers, it’s a pass that Mozgov needs to catch. Not only does Clarkson make the correct read, he’s smart enough to reject the lob over Gobert, which Mozgov is calling for.

As for his shooting, his TS% sits at 52.8, while the league average is around 54%. His 3 Point shooting has not improved, and weirdly enough he’s taking more corner threes than ever this season at 20.7% despite shooting a career-low 26.7%. So, as a below average shooter, what else does he bring?

Not much.

His TRB% and AST% sit at a career low (5.7 and 12.6 respectively), while his -2.47 Defensive Real-Plus-Minus sits at 79th among PGs. While his effort is lauded (T-26 in loose balls recovered per game at 1.0), it’s often negated due to defensive mistakes attributed to poor judgment and fundamentals.

This brings us to the main issue. Jordan Clarkson doesn’t do anything other than score, and even then, he usually fails to score efficiently. 

Around mid-December, Luke Walton showed Jordan Clarkson footage of the end of his 1st campaign and was quoted as saying:

“We kind of just want him to be in attack mode, but be ready to make the right play each time. Sometimes that’s a shot. Sometimes that’s a pass.”

 

For all intents and purposes, that has not yet happened, and the level at which he shoots with reckless abandon is becoming indefensible.

If there is any silver lining, it is that playing next to Lou Williams poisoned Jordan Clarkson like a cyanide pill. Pete Zayas, the OG, likens Lou to an invasive species that comes in and wrecks shop, but in doing so alters the rest of the ecosystem. The second unit was built around Lou, and it’s hard to argue its effectiveness, especially when the bench was healthy.

Jordan Clarkson is not nearly as efficient, as Lou is a sizzling 60.1 TS% and in the 94th percentile (!!!) in Pick and Rolls. Lou thrives in early offense with a lot of drag screens that free him up for jumpers. He’s adept at rejecting screens and drawing fouls, making him a highly effective scorer, and the same cannot be said for Jordan Clarkson. He doesn’t have near the natural feel for the game that D’Angelo Russell has, nor the craftiness of a 13-year prep-to-pro vet like Lou Williams. Where a more freelance/read and react offense better suits the Russell and Williams, it does not favor Clarkson’s style of play.

 


 

The Lakers are coming to a crossroads with Clarkson, and I would argue that change is coming sooner rather than later. There’s reason to believe that Jordan Clarkson can perform better with some immediate changes. He’ll start playing as the backup PG after the Lakers traded Lou Williams to Houston. Trading Lou does a few things: it frees up Russell for more minutes, and in JC’s case, liberates him by giving him the ball and removing a ball stopper from common lineups. These final games could give the Lakers a chance to see if Clarkson can rediscover some of the passing ability he flashed as a rookie.

While I’m very skeptical, I believe he can accomplish this return — to an extent. If he cannot, there should be a serious discussion about moving Clarkson to attain as much talent as possible while his stock is still reasonably high, as hard as that is to say.

At 24, there is a higher chance than fans would like to admit that this is what he is. Or rather, he is what he is going to be. You don’t often see players transform in their mid 20’s, and Clarkson is unlikely to break that mold. However, he does not have to transform as much as return to the rookie form that got him named to the 1st Team All-Rookie team. As someone who was watched Clarkson closely throughout the season, the early returns have not been promising.

Over the past twelve games, his numbers have dropped across the board. He’s posting a 50.6 TS%, 6.4 TRB%, 10.1 AST%, and 16.2 TOV%, leading to a 0.95 AST/TO ratio. As a Lakers fan, perhaps it’d be better stand with the optimist’s view of “it’s always darkest before the dawn.”

His contract is team-friendly at 4 years $50 million, which is roughly around 13.3% of the cap this season, 11.2% next season, and will likely stay around that level for the next two seasons. While his development has stagnated, he’s done it once (the end of his rookie season), so surely he could do it again. For young NBA players progress is not, and will never be, linear, but in the case of Clarkson, at 24 in his 3rd season, his time is running up. In a league where assets have never been more valuable, how he performs on the court from now to the end of the season is as important as ever.


The Professional Scorer

 

What Makes Lou Williams So Great and Why the Lakers Should Still Trade Him

By: Chuck Lee

Imagine the terror one must feel as a defender as Lou Williams gets a step on you driving hard to his left. Maybe he pulls up and hits beyond the arc. Or he can take it into the open space behind you and finish at the basket. Or worst of all, you’re going to hear a whistle sending him to the line yet again for more free throws.

Williams is having by far the most effective season of his career. Not only is he averaging his most points per game this season (the Lakers’ leading scorer at 18.6), but on a per 36 minute basis, he is scoring 27.7 points, over five points more than when he Sixth Man of the Year at Toronto. His true shooting percentage is 60.9%, also the highest mark of his career. He is one of only two Lakers this season who have a positive on court net rating, and the team is over 14 points worse off per 100 possessions when he’s not on the floor.

Despite his stellar year, Williams is likely the leading candidate among the Lakers to be traded before the trade deadline, and for a haul ranging from a lottery protected late pick to a non-star young prospect. Not to take anything away from his individual brilliance, but this is a move that the Lakers should probably make.


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Just before the Allstar break, after he dropped 29 in 24 minutes on the Kings, Sacramento coach Dave Joerger complimented him and called him “a hired-gun professional scorer.” Yes, Williams is a specialist, but one who’s reaching the peak of his craft. If you’re a regular watcher of Laker games, you know these three things about him:

1) He is a right handed player who LOVES going to his left.
2) He can somehow hit shots up to 23+ feet away through contact after the whistle blows.
3) He draws an ungodly amount of fouls.

Taking a look at his shot chart and you can see that he hits at a high volume at a league average level or above from the left side of the court.  This is an impressive feat considering that he takes so many pull up 3’s rather than the typically more efficient catch and shoot variety. Lakers broadcaster Stu Lantz calls him the “Drifter” for his ability to make shots going full speed to his left and pulling up while still drifting in that direction. In order to do that, he usually takes a quick dribble with his left hand which he gathers the ball with above his waist before shooting it with his right over his head.

Coaches teach on-ball defenders to keep the inside hand or arm either on the dribbler or poking at the ball, particularly when forcing them to the sideline. While an extended forearm making contact with the dribbler is a foul per NBA rules players don’t usually don’t get called for it if the extension isn’t so obvious, such as with repeated touches rather than continuous contact. Kobe used to take that a bit further and pin the offensive player’s own hand to his hip so that any attempt at a crossover would result in the ball popping out.

The moment Williams sees a defender’s arm extended toward or touching him he will quickly swing up his shooting right hand without the ball into the defender’s arm and then gather with his left.

This is much quicker than a two handed swing through because it’s only with one hand and without the ball.

As the foul is being called, Williams is often then still able to shoot it as the ball isn’t in the shooting hand until after it draws contact (or else it would have just popped out) for the and-one. He can even do this going to his right on occasion, where his left hand does nothing but sweep up to the guide position while he dribbles, gathers and then shoots with his right hand.

Defenders know that he’s hunting for the foul, and yet they still get caught over and over again with their hands in the cookie jar. When Williams gets a step on them and they try to slow his penetration, their instincts take over. And even when they do remember to take their hands out of there it’s still a problem because Lou will take it all the way to the basket where he’s an excellent finisher for his size.

Check out his defender trying to slide while pulling both arms away to a safe position. Williams simply uses this to his advantage by driving around him into the paint:

Throughout his career, Williams’ teams have put in specific plays that cater to his special abilities. Coaches Dwane Casey, Byron Scott, and Luke Walton all have made the A.I. or Iverson set (named after his former teammate Allen Iverson) a key part of their playbook when he’s on the floor:

After the wing to wing cut, he either just drives or receives a ball screen.  Most of the time he ends up attacking along the left sideline, with three teammates spaced out on the weakside.

Another play the Lakers run for him is what LFR calls ‘Chin Fist’, which also gets the ball going into a ball screen towards the left sideline:

Other times they will have him zipper cut from the baseline to the top of the key and then receive a ball screen there (“Zip Fist”).  These are all plays in the half court that set Williams up going to his left with the floor spaced out.  In early offense situations, he simply attacks off of drag screens.  As a scorer in all of these actions, he is deadly efficient.  He is in the 94th percentile in scoring efficiency off of ball screens at 1.06 points per possession (PPP), drawing fouls on 18.1% of these possessions, the same rate as James Harden, according to Synergy / NBA.com.


This creates a dilemma.  Williams is too good at scoring and his style too specialized for coaches to run much else while he’s on the floor.  Outside of play calls out of stoppages, the Lakers run few actions for other players when he is on the floor, such as a simple ball screen for Jordan Clarkson.  Although a capable spot up shooter, Williams spends many of his off ball possessions like this:

Yes, he is capable of hitting from 35+ feet out, and the space makes it easier for him to receive the ball and then get another screen, but often this results in the play being reset with the ball in his hands rather than creating an advantage.  If this happens then his defender can get in the way of Clarkson’s driving lane without consequence.  Clarkson, who spends much of his time on the court with Williams and is averaging only 0.76 PPP on his own pick and shoot plays (43 percentile), is 92 a percentile scorer on off-ball screens (1.22 PPP) but only uses them at 6.3% frequency out of all of his playtypes.  Their other perimeter partner for much of the season, Lakers rookie Brandon Ingram, was often reduced to either standing in the corner or bringing the ball up to set up the play and then getting out of the way.

It’s not really fair to blame Williams for Clarkson’s regression as an all around player this season or Ingram’s rookie struggles.

Their combination has worked despite its deficit of outside shooting and spacing, as the heavily played trio is in two of the Lakers’ top three lineups by net rating on the season.  But with Williams dominating the style of play, it will be difficult for the Lakers to assess what they really have among some of their young players. The thirty year old guard also does not fit into the time frame of when the Lakers’ young core hits their prime nor does he fit the style that head coach Luke Walton prefers for the team.


Williams is actually a good passer in the pick and roll when he has space.  He’s adept at pocket passes to the roll man for either the finish or the short roll, as well as hitting bigs cutting along the baseline.  What he doesn’t do is reliably skip the ball to the weak side when the defensive alignment calls for it, the kind of play that can get the ball moving and more players involved.  Many possessions with Williams on the floor result in one player bringing it up the floor, getting a screen and then shooting without a single front court pass being thrown.  Teams like the Bucks have been able to shut him down for stretches by trapping him on ball screens using mobile defenders who refused to give him space to either turn the corner or throw the pocket pass.

Coach Walton has on several occasions stated his preference for a passing and motion based offense and lengthy defenders who can switch.   He won’t be able to completely implement this with Lou taking up half of the meaningful guard shifts in the rotation.

The former Warriors assistant coach pays particular attention to the number of passes his team makes per game as an indicator of team play, but with the style that the bench plays, they’ve thrown around 292 passes per game.

This is only 10 more than with Byron Scott’s isolation driven offense and far less than the roughly 320 that his old team averaged.

The defensive end presents another challenge.  As an offensively minded 6’1 guard, Williams often fails to make rotations on help side defense, or when he does get there, is too small to make a difference.  Although the Lakers have done a decent job covering at that end with certain lineups featuring mobile big men, playing him at shooting guard results often results in situations where the lack of backcourt height can be exploited by certain teams.

Lou’s ideal role is to provide a shot of adrenaline to the bench unit, not to try to close out games by himself on a young team still struggling to find its identity.  Despite his being one of the NBA leaders in fourth quarter scoring, his efficiency has dipped in fourth quarter clutch situations where opponents are locked in defensively and where he has to go against their best lineups.  In the twenty three games that were within five points with three minutes to go, Williams has shot just 25% and his on court net rating drops to -33.3 per 100 possessions.  A contending team would do well to have him feast on opposing benches and then shift back to a more versatile five man lineup when the competition heats up.


Based on media chatter around the trade deadline, Lou is likely to be moved to a team that’s a better fit in terms of its stage of contention.  For the Lakers the case for moving goes beyond just keeping their draft pick.  Also, it will be difficult for his trade value to become higher after this season.  But in the case that he isn’t moved, Lakers fans shouldn’t be all that disappointed.  He’s putting up great production on a relatively cheap contract.  And we get a bit more time to appreciate a scoring master at his craft.

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D’Angelo Russell Rant

This was not intended to be a podcast of its own, but we had a few requests for it, so here you go. Here’s my D’Angelo Russell rant, regarding his recent struggles.

Lonzo Ball Scouting Report – Offense

Many Laker fans have clamored for D’Angelo Russell to move to SG since he was drafted, where he can tap into his natural scoring ability without the burden of running the offense. To that end, Lonzo Ball represents the “pure PG” who can facilitate this change, capable of orchestrating the action just as he did at UCLA, and thereby establishing the natural order of the Laker backcourt for the next decade.

Not so fast.

Ball is a remarkable facilitator in transition, whipping advance passes up court that are as effective as they are simple. He has unparalleled spatial intelligence for a 19 year old, and punishes the transgressions of cheating defenders with swift adjudications that put his teammates in the advantageous position of attacking opponents whose feet are not set.

Yet the requirements of the PG position go beyond the gifts that court vision and unselfishness can bestow upon others, and Ball is lacking in two critical areas: the pick & roll, and making reads out of organized sets.

The latter concerns me less than the former does. Few college offenses are nearly as sophisticated as their NBA equivalents, a fact that is exacerbated by the prevalence of zone defenses and the talent discrepancies between respective NCAA programs. College PGs get relatively little experience making the type of reads against high caliber man defenses that they need to make in the pros, so there is an inevitable learning curve that all of them experience as they transition to the NBA. Despite his considerable talents, I don’t expect Lonzo Ball to be any different in this respect. UCLA’s offense is relatively basic, and the lion’s share of his half court responsibility involves delivering the ball to shooters as they come off of pin-down screens.

The half court decisions that he is required to make don’t extend far beyond this and a couple of other simple actions. Teams have also taken to running a good deal of zone against the Bruins, which require a different set of reads from Ball which are not as directly translatable to the next level. I have little doubt that he will be able to adapt, as many less talented players have before him, but to expect him to be capable of immediately navigating NBA defenses while orchestrating an NBA offenses is unrealistic.

My pick & roll concerns have deeper roots. Prior to UCLA, he took the basketball world by storm at Chino Hills High School, with an unconventional style of play that included 70-foot outlet passes, 30-foot three point attempts, blistering pace…and very few ball screens, which is a phenomenon that has persisted during his time in Westwood. In the 5 games that I charted, he was involved in just 18 ball screens or handoffs, a remarkably low number relative to his position, generating just 13 points (0.72 PPP). The NBA game is far more pick & roll intensive than college is, and he will need to add this to his repertoire in order to fulfill his potential as a PG.

This is where Ball’s unusual shooting form will likely hurt him the most.

Ball is notoriously reticent to shoot mid range jumpers, which on its surface demonstrates an understanding of what constitutes a good shot, but the reality of the NBA is that sometimes the defense is going to succeed in protecting both the basket and the 3-point line over the course of 24 seconds. Quite often, that mid range look is all that is available, especially if a team is incapable of spacing the floor out to the 3-point line at 4 or 5 different positions. One of the means by which NBA defenses accomplish this is by soft hedging/corralling pick & rolls, with the defensive guard fighting over the screen and the big hanging back in the paint.

If Lonzo Ball has taken this type of shot in an organized game, I haven’t seen it. While there is danger in speculating about something that player doesn’t do, the individual components of his shot don’t translate toward this part of his game developing particularly well. He typically uses a step-back move to create space on his pull-up 3-point attempts, but that is not available against a soft hedge due to the back pressure from the defensive guard. Furthermore, the additional space is necessary for him due to his shooting stroke, which crosses both his body and his head on the way up, and can be bothered throughout that process as a result by the hedging/corralling big.

Ball’s workaround for this is a teardrop off of one foot. These shots are typically very low percentage, with few exceptions.

His ability to attack switches is questionable as well, as he possesses an average first step and good-but-not-great moves off of the dribble. This was the most common coverage that he faced in the games that I charted, where he was usually only capable of attacking opposing 5’s with a stepback jumper. One of the most significant differences between NCAA and NBA level talent is the mobility of the big men, so if he’s struggling to get a decent shot off against switches at UCLA, it could be very problematic in the pros.

Lonzo Ball’s difficulty against soft hedges and switches both point toward the same conclusion: the NBA is going to make him prove that he can score on them when he has the ball in his hands.

I am more bullish on him as a spot up shooter than most, and believe that the negative effects of his shooting stroke are mostly counteracted by his excellent footwork and tremendous range. His ability to hit from 30+ feet compromises the defense regardless of how they decide to defend him. If they help off of him, he’s quick to get the shot up, capable of converting at a high rate, and the defender won’t be close enough for his shooting stroke to be disadvantageous. If they stay at home on him, he has now effectively spaced the floor for teammates by taking a help defender much farther away from the basket than they would usually be.

He has some catch & shoot ability coming off of screens as well, where he uses quality footwork to quickly get into his shot, and often leans back a bit to mitigate against the contestability of his shooting stroke. Despite that fact, his success at the NBA level will likely be determined by how much space he’s able to create prior to the catch.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, Lonzo Ball’s limitations in the pick & roll, inexperience running a pro-style offense, and spot up shooting ability may lead him to begin his career as a PG in transition, but a SG in half court situations.

The Lakers are an ideal fit to mask his offensive deficiencies and accentuate his positive attributes. Ball isn’t nearly as ball dominant as you might expect from a player who is amongst the NCAA leaders in assists per game, and has a great feel for back cuts and counters off of the ball. If Luke Walton wants to go further down the path of the Golden State Warriors, who run more off-ball screens and fewer on-ball screens than nearly every other team in the league, a D’Angelo Russell/Lonzo Ball backcourt would go a long way toward achieving that. Russell’s immersive education in pick & roll play and offensive organization over the last 6 months minimizes Ball’s weaknesses and inexperience, Ball impacts the game in transition in a way that Russell never will, and both can spot up and work as a cutter while the other runs the show. Their biggest collective weakness is the ability to get to the basket off of the dribble, which certainly matters, but isn’t a fatal flaw within a Laker offense that presumably seeks to emulate the ball and player movement of the Warriors more than it’s been capable of with their existing talent.

Lonzo Ball’s effectiveness in the NBA may largely hinge on who drafts him. Much of his success at UCLA is predicated on simply making the “right play” over and over again, and getting the ball to excellent NCAA-level finishers (Leaf, Holiday, Alford, etc.) in advantageous positions, where they can exploit a closeout or mismatch through the force of their own talents. In many ways, Ball’s value is proportional to the talent that he’s surrounded by, so a team like Brooklyn, with limited talented that could desperately use a sun for their planets to orbit, could be disastrous for his career. Conversely, he could fit in seamlessly with a talented older team (Boston), which is unusual for a player his age, or become a foundational piece for a young team with a collection of weapons surrounding him. (Lakers, Phoenix, Minnesota)

But make no mistake…Ball is a genius, and I do no throw that term around lightly.

His court vision, spatial awareness, intelligence, and unselfishness draw rightful comparisons to NBA greats like Magic Johnson & Jason Kidd. He has almost single-handedly changed the culture of UCLA basketball, turning them from a group of mismatched individual talent into a cohesive and historically effective offense. Even his ability to make open 3’s from NBA range have an application in the modern game, despite his unique delivery. Yet his inexperience in running the most common of NBA plays is worrisome, and the aforementioned shooting form may very well prevent him from growing significantly in this area. This enormous polarization within his skill set makes him one of the more fascinating prospects in years, with the potential to make both his supporters and skeptics look spectacularly wrong in retrospect.

Ultimately, an NBA team will have to ask itself two questions before they draft Lonzo Ball:

  1. Can he fit into what we do, or do we need to adopt an entirely different style of play that is built around him?
  2. Can a PG be a star player if he can’t score effectively on the pick & roll?

I’m glad that my job doesn’t depend on being able to answer either of them correctly.

Coming Soon: Lonzo Ball Scouting Report – Defense

Russell’s Return

D’Angelo Russell’s return saw him put up the first double-double of his career, posting an impressive 22 points, 10 assists, & 7 rebounds with solid defense in 34 minutes of action in a 120-116 win over the Denver Nuggets. In this video, Pete Zayas takes a look at deeper look at his big game.

Ivica Zubac Scouting Report, 1/30/17

Ivica Zubac Scouting Report, 1/30/17

Ivica Zubac has taken significant steps forward over the course of the season. In this video, Pete Zayas takes a deep dive into what elements of his game have helped him emerge, and where he still needs to improve. 

Lies, Damned Lies, and Brandon Ingram’s Advanced Statistics

By: VP Sinha

What advanced stats tell us about Brandon Ingramand what Brandon Ingram tells us about advanced stats.

 

Despite the debacle in Dallas, Lakers’ prized rookie Brandon Ingram has had a very nice January, now showing consistent flashes expected from the #2 overall pick. His stat line this month sits at a healthy 11.1 ppg on 53.2% TS%, including 14-35 (40.0%) from 3, 3.9 rpg, and 2.3 apg (to 1.2 topg). Yet even factoring in his 2017 renaissance, Ingram’s stat line more than halfway through his rookie campaign is a mere 8.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists on 45.9% TS%. All-in-one “advanced” statistics reveal a ghastlier picture: 7.7 PER, -0.01 WS/48, -4.2 BPM, and -5.44 RPM (-2.59 ORPM and -2.85 DRPM) – and his RPM is dead last in the NBA by a fair amount.

In general, it’s not wise to project a rookie’s success based on general numbers that don’t capture the nuances of a player’s situation or account for development. Players improve and work on their flaws, which limits the predictive value of a rookie season. Within the last three years, we’ve seen the architect of RPM compare Julius Randle’s skill set to Anthony Bennett’s as well as 538’s Neil Paine project Andrew Wiggins’ career impact to be similar to James Posey’s.  Sometimes, common sense should simply supersede what the numbers say.

But surely these numbers mean something, right? Jahlil Okafor averaged a fairly efficient 17.5 ppg as a rookie last year, passing many “eye tests,” but many advanced stats painted him as likely the worst player in the NBA in terms of on-court impact. One year later, it would seem that the advanced stats mostly had it right. So what gives?

Well, the short answer is that the NBA’s advanced stats are useful but flawed tools that always require context.

In the case of Ingram, we can find that his poor numbers reflect both his poor performance as well as limitations of advanced stats. Let’s take a closer look on some of the key numbers.


 

Scoring Struggles

When we look for explanations for why advanced box score stats (BPM, WS/48, PER) mark Ingram as one of the worst players in the league, we should begin with Occam’s razor: are there particular statistics (such as RBD% or TO%) in which Ingram places at the bottom of the league? If so, those are probably dragging his overall box score stats down. For Ingram, it’s his efficiency at an abysmal 45.9% TS%. The rest of his box score stats are unimpressive, but they are not particularly bad. So, odds are his abysmal advanced box score stats are mostly explained by TS%, and I don’t find it particularly illustrative to look at these all-in-one stats.

As we take a closer look at Ingram’s TS%, there’s no doubt Ingram has been very poor scoring this season as a whole, and what makes his efficiency more troubling is that his usage sits at a modest 15.7% – this is not necessarily the story of somebody being asked to do too much to the detriment of his efficiency. So if the goal is simply to evaluate his performance thus far, we would state that Ingram, on account of having difficulty throwing a pea into an ocean, has been a mostly terrible player and leave it at that. All-in-one box score stats just reflect this reality.

But for Lakers fans, what matters less is how he’s performed this season and how he projects to play down the line. Can we still expect him to become a star, or even very good, offensive player? Or was Tayshaun Prince a more accurate comparison than we’d like to admit? To better answer that question, just looking at TS% is not enough. We need to know how he is struggling and whether or not we expect that to carry forward. Is he having issues scoring at the basket, is his jump shot just absent, or both? Can we expect his shortcomings to improve?

As it turns out, the scrawny teenager’s issues do not include getting to and finishing at the basket. Ingram moves like a gazelle, and he glides through the smallest seams of the defense with ease to finish at the rim. Ingram finishes at a decent 55.2% of his layups, with just 31% of them assisted. The assisted rate is crucial: though Giannis Antetokounmpo made 62.1% of his layups as a rookie, 41% of those were assisted. Ingram finishes at a pretty decent rate despite creating more layups for himself than most other players. For comparison’s sake, rookie Kawhi Leonard shot just 49.6% on layups with 37%  of those makes assisted, and this season’s LeBron James makes 70% of his layups with about 35% assisted. Ingram also has healthy free throw rate of 0.347, even if his free throw percentage leaves much to be desired (67.2%).

Though Ingram lacks the burst and explosiveness of a Giannis or LeBron to attack the rim for dunks at the same rate, he’s already a crafty driver with some serious shake off the dribble. Despite this finesse, he seeks contact in a way that belies his frame. As he gains strength and improves his athleticism, we can expect to see more plays like this assault on the hoop. Based on his year so far, Ingram projects to be a dangerous slasher and finisher at the basket in his own right.

No, it’s not finishing at the rim that is driving Ingram’s TS% down. Rather, it’s his surprising inability to shoot. The thought was that out of college, Ingram will at the very least be a legitimate 3&D guy. Yet his 3-ball, and jump shot in general, is MIA. Per NBA.com, he is shooting merely 29.7% FG% on both 2 point and 3 point jumpers, and most of his makes are assisted. His catch & shoot percentage rests at a poor 45.1% (all shooting percentages will be eFG% unless noted otherwise), and he’s worse pulling up at just 33.1%. Perhaps the most damning stat of them all — he shoots 42.3% on “open” and “wide open” shots. Prepare your eyes.

But going forward, this actually bodes well for Ingram. His shooting may never live up to his pre-draft comparison of Kevin Durant, but he has a smooth jump shot. Yellow flags about free throw percentage aside, Ingram was a great shooter in college (41% on 3s), and Coach Luke Walton consistently raves about Ingram’s lights out shooting in practice. We should be careful to draw conclusions from a small sample size, but January has Ingram shooting about as well as we’d all hoped. His catch and shoot percentage has skyrocketed to 58.1%, the sort of number you expect from a very good 3&D guy. That’ll drop some, and Ingram still should make tweaks to his jump shot to get his release point higher, but it gives us glimpses of the shooter that Ingram will grow into.

There was another scrawny, sweet-shooting forward who also struggled with his jump shot as a rookie, shooting 36.3% eFG% overall on jump shots, including 20.6% from 3. That player is now considered one of the greatest shooters in NBA history. I don’t mean to fall into the same trap as with the Durant comparisons by bringing up Dirk Nowitzki. Rather, it’s reason to remain optimistic about Ingram’s shooting ability as his jumper is tweaked and refined by NBA shooting coaches. The Mavs legend also serves as a template for the Laker rookie to learn to shoot more effectively over smaller defenders.

Meanwhile, Ingram consistently shows precocious ball handling and the ability finishing at the rim, as well as playmaking ability: it wasn’t until Dirk’s 5th season that he surpassed Ingram’s assist percentage (10.4%) by a significant amount. The degree to which Ingram’s jump shot translates will determine how just how effective he’ll be offensively, but it is comforting to know the rest of his game won’t be a huge limiting factor. The sky is still the limit for the 19 year old.


Understanding Ingram’s League Worst RPM Numbers

ESPN’s RPM is quite different than other frequently referenced stats, and it is worth investigating it specifically. The details of its construction are worthy of its own post and I won’t get into them now. But what makes RPM interesting is, after using a BPM-type stat as an initial guess of how good a player is, it doesn’t use box score numbers to make its evaluations. Rather, it considers how well the team performed with a player playing versus without him playing, adjusted for teammate quality and opposition quality. Of course, a player’s raw production plays a part in that, but if someone provides great screens, has gravity rolling to the basket, or can stretch the floor, then RPM may rate them favorably despite poor individual numbers. Last season, while some stats such as PER saw Okafor as an above average contributor, RPM rated him as the worst player in the league. For the most part, I agreed with this evaluation. Ingram has now replaced Okafor in RPM’s evaluation, and so it is perfectly valid to wonder whether there is cause for concern. To answer that question, we need to look more carefully at lineup data.

Consider the Lakers’ bench. For the first two dozen games or so, the Lakers’ strongest lineup was the full, healthy bench corps, which posted an ORTG of 108.9 and DRTG of 100.7, per NBA.com. In that unit, Ingram played alongside two attack dogs in Jordan Clarkson and Lou Williams while Larry Nance, Jr. and Tarik Black were happy to do all the dirty work. Ingram would sit behind the 3 point line, often not touching the ball for entire possessions. Some may argue he played a glue guy in this lineup, but that’s not quite true, and it is reflected in lineup data. Per NBAwowy.com, the 3-man unit including Clarkson/ Williams/ Nance has a net rating of +9.6 versus +5.4 when playing with Luol Deng instead of Ingram. If you replace Nance with Black, the 4-man lineup has a net rating of +10.4 with Deng (in a much smaller sample size) versus +5.0 with Ingram. The fact that these lineups play better with Deng undercuts the argument for Ingram being a necessary glue guy in bench lineups. Even though Ingram’s raw +/- looked good playing in this bench corps, RPM correctly ascertained it’s mostly due to his teammates rather than his own contributions. This is a good example of the considerations RPM uses to arrive at its numbers.

This reasoning explains his horrendous DRPM numbers (-2.85, ranked #432 out of 438), which may surprise people who find him a fairly advanced defender by age. Most lineups with Ingram instead of Deng are worse defensively. The rookie has the length to bother shooters and he has good defensive instincts, but he gets bullied in the post (0.90 ppp allowed, 47th percentile) and in isolation (1.08 ppp allowed, 18th percentile). Some of this can be attributed to poor help from teammates, but regardless, the experienced Deng is for now the better defender. Furthermore, the Lakers’ small ball lineups struggle defensively, so lineups where Ingram plays alongside Deng do worse defensively than those in which Deng plays next to a traditional 4. Finally, the Lakers are a terrible defensive team in general. That the team does even worse with him in most lineups speaks harshly to his defense. DRPM consolidates all of this information and reasonably concludes that Ingram is a terrible defender, even if we can see that much of that reasoning is circumstantial.

In contrast, it’s more plausible that RPM is right about Ingram being terrible offensively (-2.59 ORPM, ranked #405 out of 438). He isn’t a great offensive rebounder, he doesn’t create that much offense for teammates, and his individual scoring numbers have been terrible. Up until recently, teams were eager to sag off of him, so he wasn’t providing spacing either. Without doubt, there is truth to this fiercely negative evaluation. But another factor to be considered is Ingram’s role. Walton has accelerated the rookie’s development by giving him ballhandling duties and keeping him involved in the offense. We’ve seen Ingram improve as a playmaker, and he’s at a level where he can make sophisticated reads like this one, where Mozgov blew Ingram’s chance at recording 10 assists against the defending world champions.

But this playmaking came only after growing pains. With D’Angelo Russell injured for much of December, Walton leaned on Brandon Ingram to carry more ballhandling duties. He responded with his on court plus/minus dropping to -14 in December, despite most of his counting stats remaining steady. Take the starters, for example. With Russell, the starters post a net rating of +5.9, with an ORTG of 110.9 and DRTG of 105.0. With Ingram, that number falls to -39.9, with an ORTG of 71.4 and DRTG of 113.3. To be sure, that is partly due to a small sample size, and it probably says more about Russell than anything else. However, per 82games.com, the top three lineups in terms of minutes with Ingram as a 1 or a 2 have a net rating of -23, -43, and -34. Notably, it’s the offense that plummeted in all three cases.

The point here is that Ingram has played terribly, and the stats reflect that. Part of why he was playing terribly is because he’s a poor offensive player as a rookie. But the other fact is he was out of position and forced to do things he isn’t good at yet. These decisions will ultimately benefit the #2 overall pick down the road; we are already seeing the fruits of it this January. Ingram is boosting his assist count while lowering his turnovers, all while creating more offense for himself off the dribble. But this sort of context is not covered by RPM, which is why I don’t worry too much about its gloomy prognosis yet.


Context is King

Charles Barkley might read this article and conclude, “Aha! I told you all along. Don’t bother with analytics,” but that is not the takeaway here. Some of the best statistical rookie seasons in the last 15 years were by such luminaries as LeBron James and Chris Paul. Blanket statements are never useful. Tyreke Evans and DeJuan Blair also had strong rookie seasons. Jahlil Okafor and Anthony Bennett had poor rookie seasons, but so too did Tristan Thompson and DeMar DeRozan. It’s far more important to understand what the numbers are telling us and how much we can expect those numbers to project forward. While Brandon Ingram has certainly did not have the first two months to his career that I’d hoped for, he hasn’t left me any less optimistic about his future. His January turnaround portends what looks to be a successful career.

VP Sinha, Writer (@shaqpropogation)– VP is a crazy talented stats guy who either understands the math behind BPM, RPM, etc, or at least has us convinced that he does. We don’t know for sure, our eyes kind of glazed over halfway through. His job at Laker Film Room is to help intertwine data with the film work in a cohesive manner.

Larry Nance, Jr. Has Been Sorely Missed

By: Pete Zayas (@LakerFilmRoom)

At best, the term “role player” is a backhanded compliment, and at worst, it’s an outright insult.

It implies that a player may contribute, but only in ancillary ways that aren’t as impactful as what the main characters bring to the table. That delineation is almost invariably determined by scoring ability. Yet, in a sport where the average game has slightly less than 200 possessions, evenly distributed between offense and defense, players without the knack for putting the ball in the hoop on a regular basis can still have a significant impact. Larry Nance, Jr. is one of those players, helping the Lakers win more games with him (39.3% winning percentage) than they do without him (26.3%). And isn’t that ultimately every player’s role?


What the Numbers Say

These three data points, which are reflected by several other metrics of the same ilk, point toward a few simple truths: Larry Nance, Jr. has been the Lakers’ best defender, an efficient (if not prolific) finisher, and one of the best players on the team. A deeper dive into the lineup data reveals his enormous impact on the Lakers bench units.
Notice a pattern here? Almost without fail, the lineups that include Nance play significantly better with him than they do without him. A deeper look into the game tape makes it clear why that is the case.


What the Film Shows

Earlier this season, I took an in depth look at the simple, frenetic brilliance of the Lakers bench, which revealed a straightforward but devastating approach to the offensive end of the floor. Since neither Lou Williams nor Jordan Clarkson are prototypical PGs, Luke Walton chose to primarily stick to ball screens in early offensive situations, allowing his guards to attack without the burden of having to set up the offense. It takes a fairly specific skill set for a front court player to execute and thrive in this style of play. Not only must he be capable of setting quality screens, but he needs to be fast enough to get up court and set them before the defense is set. Furthermore, because it is considerably more difficult to get out and run after the opponent scores, he also needs to be a plus defender. Larry Nance, Jr. is the only player on the Lakers who checks off of each of these boxes, making him integral to the bench’s success.

Drag/Stepup Screens

 

Nance gets up court quickly, seeks out contact on his screens, and is adept at either rolling or popping.

Perimeter Defense

 

Nance leads the Lakers in Steal Rate, which is extremely unusual for a big. He’s capable of wreaking havoc with a quick burst and great motor.

Interior Defense

 

While he’s not a spectacular shot blocker, Nance understands his defensive rotations and moves his feet better than any other Laker big.

Passing Ability

 

Nance is an excellent passer, particularly in the short roll. Here he catches the ball around the free throw line and properly identifies the open man.

Larry Nance, Jr’s, speed, intelligence, defensive versatility, and unselfishness make him a perfect compliment to a bench corps that features aggressive scorers with deficiencies as distributors and perimeter defenders. Prior to his injury, he enhanced the productivity of every bench unit that he played significant minutes with, and there’s not any reason to believe that won’t continue to be the case. It’s good to have him back.

 


 

Pete Zayas, Editor-in-Chief – Pete is a former High School/AAU coach and life long Laker fan who decided to start Laker Film Room on a whim, and is very surprised and grateful that others have joined him for this crazy ride. He produces LFR’s video content, dabbles in writing, and co-hosts the Laker Film Room Podcast with Darius Soriano of Forum Blue & Gold.

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Ivica Zubac Has Elite Potential in the Pick & Roll

Ivica Zubac continued his transformation from lovable prospect that was more meme than man, into a legitimate 2-way player making critical contributions during a frenzied comeback in a 127-121 loss against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night. Zubac turned in one of the best pick and roll performances of any Laker this season, with an impressive display of skill and technique.

Screening Technique

While Zubac’s sheer size is impressive, he accentuates it with superb technique. Watch as he sprints to his screen and nails Will Barton, freeing up Jose Calderon for an open jumper.

Bigs are taught to “lock” the defender’s foot in by placing their own foot above it, and Zubac does exactly that with his right foot. This technique assures that contact is made. Denver likes to soft hedge on screens, with the big hanging back in the paint, relying on the guard to go over the top of the screen and provide back pressure on the pull-up jumper. By making solid contact via a quality foot-lock, Zubac assures an open jump shot for his teammate.

In this example, Kenneth Faried hedges harder on Jordan Clarkson, and Jameer Nelson is forced to take a very wide recovery angle due to a quality foot-lock by Zubac. This, along with poor help-side defense by Denver, produces a great roll lane, and Clarkson finds him for an easy dunk.

In total, Ivica Zubac created 8 quality looks for his teammates by making contact on his screens.

Ivica Zubac created 4 quality looks for himself and others with his foot-locking technique alone.

Slipping, Rolling, & Providing a Passing Angle

Just as the ball handler has reads to make as he comes off of a screen, so too does the screen setter. He must read the defense and decide his screening angle, or if he should slip the screen altogether, which is usually determined by how his defender plays the pick & roll. Traps and hard hedges are susceptible to slipped screens. Zubac demonstrated an excellent feel for this read on several possessions vs. Denver.

Watch as he slips the screen and forces Mudiay to help on him, thereby freeing up Clarkson for an open 3-point attempt.

When a guard rejects a screen, which means to not use it and dribble in the other direction instead, the screen setter’s job is to settle in the open window that is created and provide an angle for a pocket pass. Zubac scored twice off of this action, displaying soft hands in the process.

Areas Where He Can Improve on the Pick and Roll

Zubac’s biggest weakness as a pick & roll man is on the short roll. A short roll is when the screen setter rolls to around the free throw line rather than all the way to the hoop, providing the ball handler a passing angle along the way. Players will often slip screens into a short roll, as both are advantageous against aggressive pick & roll defenses. If done properly, this creates a 4-on-3 scenario in which the big must identify the open man and get him the ball, or attack if he is the open man.

On this play, Zubac short rolls and attempts to dump the ball off to Brandon Ingram, when the correct read is a skip pass to Jordan Clarkson for an open 3.

He did a better job of reading this play later in the 4th quarter, passing the ball to Nick Young for a 3-point attempt. Ideally, there would have been one more pass to Jordan Clarkson on this play, although Clarkson is up too high. Had he been at the free throw line extended, this would have been a wide open attempt for him, all due to Zubac’s read on the short roll.

Making the correct read on the short roll is largely a function of experience and repetition. 

Zubac has demonstrated 3-point range in the D-League, which would make him practically unguardable in pick & roll situations. Here is an example where he would have an open jumper available to him if he chose to pop behind the line. This would also alleviate a great deal of pressure from Laker guards, who often see extra attention paid to them as a result of teams not worrying about the Laker bigs when they are on the perimeter.

Ivica Zubac possesses a remarkable combination of size, technique, soft hands, touch, and motor, all of which are important factors in being an effective pick & roll player. His ability to make reads on the short roll will likely come with time, and if he’s able to add a dependable 3-point shot, he can become one of the best pick & roll bigs in the NBA in the coming years.

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