Welcome to “The Blueprint,” a series about roster philosophy and data science in the NBA. This collection of pieces explores Aneesh Namburi’s personal ideology in modern team building while incorporating a custom Python dash app to provide statistical backing, as well as a tool for future player/role identification.
In the latest edition of 'P.I. Pulse,' as part of "The Blueprint" series, Aneesh Namburi provides an overview of one of his most valuable player archetypes: the guard creator.
If you missed "The Blueprint: Shotmaking Wings," check it out here.
I feel pretty confident in saying that potent guard creators are the most abundant high-level players in the NBA, especially when compared to wing initiators and playmaking bigs. But evaluating them as prospects can be extremely difficult, even for highly intelligent NBA front offices. For every Damian Lillard and Steph Curry, there’s a Trey Burke or Cameron Payne (ironically both have bounced back after rough starts in the NBA). The margins between average-to-good and good-to-great can be extremely thin, potentially making or breaking a GM’s tenure.
I think the easiest way to quickly determine if a prospect can be a high-level guard creator is going through a checklist, in order from most important to least:
1. Elite pull-up shooting or physical traits (rim pressure), and at the very least possesses indicators in the other area.
This gives defenses a threat that they are almost forced to eliminate, opening up the floor and almost immediately creating an advantage.
2. Pick-and-roll proficiency.
The NBA is heavily dependent on ball screens to generate offense. In addition to hitting mark #1, guards need to have an above-average handle to generate space against bigs or get defenders on their hips. From there, it is all about reading what the defense is doing in terms of help and making the correct decision, whether that be shooting or passing.
3. Off-ball skills.
Whether that be cutting or shooting, prospects should be able to contribute without the ball in their hands. No longer are guards controlling every step of the offense. Unless they are a top-15 player in the NBA, these players will likely be sharing high usage duty with another player, so finding ways to keep defensive attention while disengaged from the ball is important.
4. Defensive activity.
Some people might say that guard defense doesn’t matter because almost no matter who, wings and bigs are overpowering them in switches. I vehemently disagree. Outside of a few distinct situations, teams do not switch that often defensively. Thus having a guard who is aggressive at the point of attack and can navigate screens (taking away easy advantages and forcing the opponent to work) takes away a massive help burden from the rest of the team. And in the cases that teams decide to hide their guard to prevent switches, being able to play off-ball (disrupt passing lanes, digs/stunts, chasing cutters, etc.) is necessary in the holistic defensive ideology.
5. High-level positional strength.
Now, while switch schemes do not happen as often as one thinks, they are still prevalent in the NBA, specifically in late-game situations. In those instances, offenses will most likely hunt the weak link, often the smallest player. One way to prevent your guard from being a sieve in these situations is to have a player whose strength can offer some level of hindrance. Having guards who can stand their ground at some level prevents the necessity of an immediate double or help.
I am by no means saying that a guard will need to check all of these boxes to succeed as a starter in the NBA. However, I like to think that this is a good rough blueprint to identify the scalability of guard success at the NBA level (similar to good friend PD Web’s Heuristic). Fundamentally (in a rough sense), this type of player needs to have the ability to generate advantages offensively and use that to both score and pass, have some level of off-ball utility, and be a net neutral on defense at least most of the time. In addition to our historical examples, superstar guards Steph Curry, Dame Lillard, and Kyrie Irving all clear the benchmarks.
I wanted to start the research into someone who traditionally wouldn’t be looked at as a lead ball handler, and Zach LaVine fits that bill perfectly after his All-Star level play over the 2020-21 season. To be honest, LaVine could play as either a shotmaking wing or guard creator, and I wouldn’t quibble with you on either choice. This is an interesting query as it gives such a variety of players. You have athletic nutsos like Rawle Alkins, Robert Williams, and Tony Mitchell, and you also have high-level skill guys in Cameron Johnson, Jarred Uthoff, and Donte DiVincenzo. One could look at this and think there’s no correlation due to a lack of pattern, and again, I wouldn’t blame you. However, I see someone with “plus plus” athletic tools and compares favorably to players who developed into prospects who had real skills.
Every backup point guard with defensive prowess on the list seems to be poised for a successful NBA career. We will touch more on them in their own section, but regardless of VanVleet hitting his “ceiling” as a playmaker, shooter, and defender, older guards should be given more love in the draft.
2021 NBA Draft
If I saw Springer among these players, my initial thought would be to move him out of the guard creator category and put into the off-ball wing range (even with Shai’s inclusion, who’s one of the weirder statistical outliers in recent history for his position, I tend not to put too much stock into 1 or 2 outliers results). However, 1) understanding the limits of this program 2) looking at Tennessee’s team context, I trust Springer’s flashes of creation ability in HS and AAU. Looking at those 5 checkpoints, numbers 1, 4, and 5 get checked pretty easily, he showed proficiency attacking off advantages, and Springer’s latent skills and youth make me believe he could improve as a pick-and-roll operator.
Mann is one of the bigger upside bets in the class. He checks off the most important boxes (1 and 2) easily, and the hope is that his size and an NBA strength program gets him to at least neutral defensively. Finally, Mann has never really learned how to play off the ball (struggling as a freshman off the bench), giving some doubt what kind of player he could be if he doesn’t get a high usage. Thankfully, that secondary ball handler category blurs between a second option and low usage scorer, giving a baseline of a positive bench scorer who can turn into a starter (and secondary playmaker) with some developmental jumps.
So from the results on this search, it seems pretty certain that Sharife will be a penetration-based guard creator, with the real question being at what level he performs this role. The “hit rate” among small guards with shooting concerns is not great, but he possesses elite skills that many of his counterparts did not. While it is not shown here, Cooper’s biggest swing skill might actually be his off-ball scalability. He has never really been great without the ball in his hands, and everyone outside of Morant also struggled with that once they got to the NBA (and not coincidentally were not able to stay in the league).
*Note: I would have included Morant’s search results, but it was so similar to Cooper that I didn’t feel it was necessary. Just looking back at his pre-draft process, it was semi-reasonable to question his translatability because of how often “similar” players fail, but a look into the actual tape, where his functional athleticism and passing were the difference, separates him (similar to Sharife).
Up next in “The Blueprint” series, we’ll present the off-ball wing. You can identify/have the best creators in the world, but you need someone who takes pressure off of them on both sides of the ball. We’ll dive into this player archetype later this week.