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 off-ball wing.
If you missed "The Blueprint: Guard Creators," check it out here.
True 3-and-D wings are probably the NBA’s largest market inefficiency. With modern NBA offenses often so reliant on high-usage creators who exert a lot of effort on offense, having players who can be a threat off the ball while also defending at a high level is invaluable. So it’s no surprise that this archetype is at the top of almost every team’s wish list and such a heavy portion of a team’s assets/resources are dedicated to this role.
The issue? There’s just not enough of these players who fit that category. First of all, the actual moniker is sort of misleading. This archetype shouldn’t be limited to shooting a passable number on spot-up threes and adequate to slightly above-average on-ball defense. We see all too often in the playoffs that these types of “one-dimensional” players fade away (see the 2018 Trail Blazers). Finding players who are able to provide such a variety of skills on both sides of the ball in a great frame is extremely difficult.
Based on my rotational parameters, I like to divide off-ball wings into three categories: glue wings, big wings, and rotational 3/D wings.
So what are the differences in each role, and how do these players provide value to championship-level teams?
3/D wings are easily the most common players, yet are still important to rounding out a rotation. Having rotation members who can provide spot minutes and either knock down 3s, play plus-defense, or work as a transition/slashing threat can shore up the middle to back of the rotation minutes that prevents the bottom from falling out on at least one end of the floor. These minutes likely get cut heavily during the playoffs, but having that type of innings eater helps teams, especially because the actual high-value wings are far and few between.
With wing creators taking over the NBA in recent years, you need someone who can slow these players down in some capacity while not turning offense into a 4 vs. 5 game. Most wing-sized players start out around 6’4” or 6’5”, and outside of unique circumstances, you cannot have them guarding the LeBrons of the world. Having a (let’s call them 6’7” to 6’9”) strong wing with the ability to hold up opposing stars in loose single coverage allows teams to enact my preferred defensive strategy against the game’s best players: make players work for their points since they will produce almost regardless but don’t let their teammates also get hot. Offensively, while there are tiers to the skill level that big wings possess (ex. OG Anunoby, Jaylen Brown, Dre Hunter, Aaron Gordon, Kyle Anderson, Larry Nance), it needs to be a facsimile of the dribble/pass/shoot archetype that glue wings possess, but likely at a lower threshold, specifically as a passer.
Finally, we have the rarest of wing types, the ones that have rocketed all types of wings up draft boards and cost a premium in acquisitions: glue wings. In short, they need to make defenses question/hesitate whether to leave them open, thus focusing on higher usage guys who are attacking. These players need to take (and make) 3s at a fairly high clip and show at least a basic proficiency to make a positive play out of advantageous situations (finish at the hoop or find an open teammate when help comes), most of which come from attacking closeouts. Additionally, the ability to shoot off movement makes players increasingly valuable, as it provides a greater likelihood of defenders staying home. Just this past Finals, we saw KCP succeed at a basic level and how much it helped the Lakers. Ideally, the wings also need to be able to guard on perimeter at a fairly high level and not be a disastrous team defender, but the opposite can work when paired with a solid set of on-ball defenders (Danny Green, Robert Covington, etc.). Whether their role is an on-ball or help defender, having a combination of size, length, and mobility are almost requirements to succeed, with a few exceptions.
Just off of his college film, Brown’s athleticism was off the charts. Combining that with the rest of his physical tools despite his small stature and his consistently positive decision-making and spatial awareness/proprioception, and I felt fairly confident that he would at least become a rotation player. A search with these results would have increased my trust due to the NBA success of seven of the nine players (and five of those names have had elongated careers).
2021 NBA Draft
Ayayi and Jones are two of my favorite sleepers in this class, and I feel certain that they can be rotation pieces. Not only do they clear my athletic thresholds on film and also present skills that I believe will translate to the NBA, but like Brown, they also have plenty of high-impact NBA players within their comparison results.
Like I mentioned with Vaudrin, Ball’s playmaking/passing and assist numbers at his size offer a great floor for NBA success. If you look at who from this list has turned into positive impact players (Shamet, Milton, and Larkin, who definitely is good enough to play in the league!), all of them were or became high-level shooters. What has put Ball into the glue wing category for me has been his defensive improvements. He may even be slightly overrated on this end of the floor at this point, but he’s absolutely over-delivered in terms of his ceiling on D, given the expectations based on his sample size coming out of UCLA, his limited hip flexibility and lack of ideal lateral fluidity.
2021 NBA Draft
To be transparent, it seems a bit tougher to assess glue wings with this app. I wanted to start with a player that I am intrigued by film-wise but according to the program, I should not be too high on. Just off the program alone, a single positive comp and Middleton likely being an outlier/coincidence isn’t great to hang a hat on. However, I feel confident playing alongside Carlik Jones inhibited his numbers and that there’s more than what might meet the eye in a prospect like Johnson.
I found it amusing that draft twitter favorite Franz Wagner yielded a list of previous darlings in Dorian Finney-Smith, Justin Anderson, Yuta Watanabe, Kenrich Williams, Jarrett Culver, and Dean Wade, among others. Irony aside, it underscores Wagner’s swing skills that make or break his NBA success. First, I will note that in my opinion, Wagner is a significantly better decision maker and passer than anyone else on the list, and personally that bumps his floor up a bit. Secondly, this list underscores how important it will be for him to shoot, not only accurately, but confidently. The two players from this list who seem poised/have stuck in the NBA shot the ball well (James Ennis and Finney-Smith), but the rest have stayed on the fringes of NBA rosters. I still trust his shooting sample from Germany (most of his issues seem related to mentality) but I will concede that he might not be the surefire prospect I once thought.
Okeke’s willingness to shoot 3s, get to the line, make rudimentary plays, provide on-ball defense, and make plays defensively (5.5% block rate!) packaged in a guy who was one of the best players on a Final Four team is a perfect archetype for a big wing. Getting compared with bigs, shooters, and athletic prospects with creation flashes (all to varying degrees of success) matches up with what I’m looking for in that role perfectly. As friend of the series PD Web said, “the modern 4 is used to clean up the mistakes/fill the holes of the rest of the lineup,” and Okeke seems to have shown those types of flashes (and maybe more) during his first season.
2021 NBA Draft
Thor is an intriguing case in this draft. Looking at the results from this query, you see prospects that generally match his archetype of an athletic forward/big hybrid with varying levels of skills, from OG Anunoby to Yuta Watanabe and Andre Roberson, even fringe guys like Wenyen Gariel, Mfiondu Kabengele, and Tony Mitchell. Taking a chance on someone with his tools and flashes of skills at his age (doesn’t turn 19 until the end of August) who was in a tough Auburn context due to their injury issues yet showed extremely intriguing numbers with a healthy team (a.k.a. when Sharife Cooper played) is someone I’m totally fine missing on.
I don’t think Isaiah Livers is getting enough recognition in the draft process. His shooting with some off the dribble and movement equity at his size is always valuable, and there is hope he can increase his effectiveness working off advantages and in a smaller NBA role than at Michigan (I thought he was decent at making quick decisions this year). I am a bit worried about what position he guards in the NBA and his off-ball impact, but believe he showed improvement when paired with a positive defender like Wagner. As long as he can hold his own, given that he’ll be a second-round pick and likely a bench piece, Livers is someone teams should look at as a potential instant rotation guy.