Updated: Mar 17, 2021
In the second volume of P.I. Pulse’s recurring column, “The 5-Point Play,” basketball analyst Henry Ward is back to expel his musings on another round of NCAA and International standouts. In this edition, Henry outlines some of what makes Josh Giddey so peculiar, why Ziaire Williams is such a worthwhile gamble despite some obvious shortcomings, the cutting brilliance of Joel Ayayi and its importance, and more.
Here’s what’s caught our eye, lately:
Josh Giddey’s passing execution
While last year’s NBL Next Stars program was headlined by two American prospects, LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton, this year’s is led by two Australian nationals who’ve each made strong impressions at various NBA Academy events in years past. Mojave King and Josh Giddey are looking to parlay these standout performances into desirable draft projections with fruitful seasons in Australia’s premier professional league. While King has been held back a bit by limited playing time, Giddey has soared to begin the year, averaging 26 minutes per game for the Adelaide 36ers and immediately inserting himself as a leader in a line-up of seasoned veterans While he hasn’t been an exceptional scorer, averaging 9.3 points per game on 37% shooting, Giddey has earned his role through the many other avenues he uses to leave his mark on a contest, most notably as a distributor.
At 6’8”, Giddey is a stunningly good passer for his size without real self-creation chops to fully take advantage of them. For many wing initiators at this stage, the developmental need is reversed. Typically, there’s a desire to turn bigger players with a baseline level of feel and a budding scoring repertoire into more cognitively active and tactically adept passers, but Giddey is the other way around. With an exceptional mix of vision, measured decision making, and tactile skill, Giddey provides awesome flashes of true big initiator potential without the scoring gravity to render it otherworldly. With his frame, Giddey is able to see and deliver passes that smaller lead guards cannot. If he’s able to force a defense into rotation, Giddey is fantastically equipped to deliver the most sensical pass at the right time, rarely missing opportunities to hit shooters, roll men, or cutters. While one would hope to see some more consistent avenues become available to force defenses into rotation down the line, Giddey’s current ability to punish these sorts of defenses time and again is special considering his lack of advantage creation ability.
However, the facet of Giddey’s passing that stands out even more is the level of complex, clinical execution he displays. As we alluded to, for many prospects, a passing development curve usually follows in a somewhat linear, typical pattern. Often, these players are worthwhile advantage creators before they are worthwhile passers, constantly tasked with making decisions after drawing defenders to themselves, and then going on to widen their vision before finally adding the more fine, executive passing skills, such as placement and velocity. This trendline makes sense, if you think about it. Most top-level players are often the ones doing the heavy lifting offensively at a young age, and this is because they’re the ones who are the least affected by defenses. Naturally, it would make sense that these players learned to pass through their advantage creation reps, and not vice versa. It’s a fairly one-way relationship this way: advantage creation means passing windows, but passing windows does not always mean advantage creation.
Giddey is hilariously the opposite. Even though the windows are sometimes still there due to his size, and the advantage creation was likely more so there at a younger age due to his frame and athletic traits, Giddey is now at a stage where the advantage creation needs to catch up to the passing for it all to come together. This is not to knock his advantage creation (although this is an area of concern in NBA projection), but rather highlight how his passing skill is fantastic on multiple levels. Not only is he able to find windows and make the right decisions, but he’s able to do so with remarkable velocity and accuracy behind his passes. At 18 years old, most 6’8” players are not seeing what Giddey sees, let alone acting on those perceptions nearly perfectly time and time again. Special guard prospects, such as Jalen Suggs, are often vaunted, and rightfully so, for their ability to simply process passes and efforts to execute them. Giddey, on the other hand, is not only processing them, but also delivering them on a line into shooters’ pockets like they’re shot out of a rebounding machine.
Giddey is certainly a funky prospect who will be a ton of fun to track. From the rare Jordans he sports with his fashion model haircut to the infatuating maturity and feel he displays, he’s an awesome watch who will prove to be a challenging projection come draft month. While the weaknesses are apparent and cap his abilities a bit right now, it’s not hard to see a reality where things come together for him and the more macro skills catch up with the micro ones he’s already fine tuned. This kind of development curve, where an 18-year-old needs to improve in the more general parts of the game than he does in the minute, intricate details, fits perfectly in line with who Giddey is — specially unique and wholly interesting.
Joel Ayayi’s cutting
When watching Gonzaga, the connectivity their players display on both ends of the floor immediately jumps off the screen. One notable difference between the college game and the NBA is the varying reliance on sets to generate offense, with more college teams leaning on their playbooks to help create scoring opportunities than the pros. Gonzaga, while certainly experts in x’s and o’s themselves, stand out in this regard. It’s obvious to the attentive viewer that coach Mark Few and his staff have done an excellent job instilling certain principles in their players that allow them to play freely but in conjunction with one another — a balance that’s incredibly difficult to achieve at any level, especially in college where there’s such high roster turnover year to year. In coaching, the term “collective cognition” can be used to describe this phenomenon, where players are able to play off of one another in flow, rather naturally. While Gonzaga’s collective cognition has certainly helped drive their success on a team level, it has also helped first round picks Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert shine in ways other prospects more bogged down by team context have not. Beyond those two, an incredibly important cog in this machine has been junior Joel Ayayi, who’s specifically popped as a cutter so far this season.
Currently, the value of off-ball movement, and specifically cutting, seems to be a bit underrated as a skill. When conceptualizing spacing as an actionable goal for a team, whether it be in a team-building or schematic context, thoughts often go immediately to “shooting” as the driving force behind creating space without much nuance. Of course, the ability to make long range shots is what ultimately commands attention from defenders and thereby creates space, but game planning against standstill shooters becomes very easy when they don’t have the ability to punish closeouts or move off the ball to keep defenders in motion. Drawing passive attention creates one level of difficulty for a defender, but requiring constant, active attention ratchets up that difficulty to a whole new level.
In this vein, cutting is another way to create spacing, even for those who aren’t elite knockdown shooters. Ayayi, a career 34% three point shooter, is an excellent example of this. The reason shooters create spacing on offense is because defenders have to constantly tether themselves to their man while also trying to gauge help responsibilities, and failing to do so effectively either leads to a driving lane for a ball-handler or an open three for their man spotting up. Ayayi creates this same quandary without being able to shoot all that well because he punishes over-helping with timely, effective dives to the rim that force rotations by themselves.
As seen above, Ayayi has an excellent sense of space and timing which allows him to collapse a defense in precise moments to get himself points. Currently, an astounding 19.5% of his offense comes through cutting opportunities, where he averages 1.447 points per possession, placing him in the 85th percentile of all collegiate players, per Synergy Sports Technology. This cutting not only generates looks for himself, either — as stated, it has a collapsing effect on the defense which in turn generates cleaner looks for his teammates. Because of this, it’s hard to undersell such a skill at a level as impressive as Ayayi’s.
Bennedict Mathurin’s ostensive ease
For many evaluators, there’s a desired level of difficulty that would be ideal to perceive a prospect endure. While there are handfuls of talented college and international players worth considering as options to invest draft capital into, there’s only a few who have the potential to grow into translatable NBA rotation pieces. Those who do often display a certain level of ease with which they can operate at the NCAA level, and these are the players who are often the most worthwhile investments once the obvious answers are off the board. Throughout the first half of his first collegiate season, perhaps no freshman has had an easier time delivering, relative to their perceived draft slot, than Bennedict Mathurin.
Boasting eye-popping efficiency numbers, Mathurin has had an especially productive start to his NCAA career. A 6’7” guard with quick twitch explosiveness and a clean jumpshot, Mathurin is a relatively easy guy to make an elevator pitch for, considering he’s currently more often discussed as a second round flier than a bonafide first round talent. While there are definitely areas of his game that need refining in order for him to replicate this success to a worthwhile degree in the NBA, the combination of raw tools and statistical output are deserving of discussion in their own right. As it stands, Mathurin is averaging 11.7 points per game with a shooting split of 52/46/84 (FG%/3P%/FT%), which is an insane level of scoring efficiency for a freshman in a power five conference to maintain, if he’s able to. For context, only three other players on power five teams are currently across this threshold — Trey Murphy, Chris Duarte, and Corey Kispert.
What stands out most, aside from the relatively mind-boggling numbers, is the ease with which Mathurin gets his points. While it may be a red-flag to some that so many of his baskets come in such maximized opportunities, it’s also quite impressive how often he is able to free himself for easy scores. With only ~11% of his offense coming through ball screens or handoffs, Mathurin is predominantly doing his damage off the ball, using excellent footwork and fluidity to free himself on cuts or coming off of off-ball screening actions. His mix of size, shooting, and athleticism require constant attention, as he’s a rare case of someone who’s a vertical and horizontal spacer. While the “vertical spacer” tag may only make sense in the college game, it is worth noting that he’s averaging just under a dunk per game - a rare feat for someone in his archetype.
Mathurin, simply put, is another statistical anomaly whose numbers are potentially more predictive than Isaiah Jackson, whose stats we focused on last week. While Jackson’s paint dominance is still worth monitoring, it’s Mathurin whose numbers light up the board in more ways than one. The current product can be a little rough around the edges at times, but past a certain point in the draft where gambles are necessary and teams would be happy to find someone that sticks, Mathurin is a worthwhile bet as a player who fills an exceptionally valuable archetype — a guard with size, length, athleticism, and hard to teach skill that can provide scoring bursts in the short term, with the potential for much more down the line, as an 18-year-old who’s made remarkable strides over the past few years.
Ochai Agbaji’s space erasure
As we’ve already covered, an optimal, continuous goal for any offense to have in the year 2021 is proper spacing, and, inversely, this means a defense’s top priority is to often limit that space as best they can. This concept in and of itself is half the argument for pursuing wingspan in the draft, as players with spectacularly long arms often provide coaches more leeway when crafting defensive schemes with their ability to absorb more space on the court with their reach. When this reach is partnered with defensive instincts, activity level, and functional athleticism, all of a sudden you have a high-impact defender who’s capable of maintaining not only their own assignments, but others’ as well.
While Ochai Agbaji doesn’t have any kind of superhuman wingspan like those of recent draftees Devin Vassell or Mikal Bridges, he does possess a wide 6’8” reach for his 6’5” frame. More importantly to his defensive impact, though, is Agbaji’s ridiculous ability to monitor actions off the ball and time his responsibilities perfectly. For many prospects, this learning curve often occurs in the NBA, where they’re forced to not only keep their own man in check but also do everything they can to cover for others. After all, defenses are at an inherent disadvantage in basketball, and being able to hide teammates’ mistakes is one of the most basic fundamentals in the sport. Having several players on the court that can do so effectively goes a long way in preventing points, and Agbaji does this better than most at the college level this year.
Off-ball defense is one of the most valuable skills a player can bring to the table because of its compounding effect on their teammates. It’s one thing to have a high number of ball-handlers on a team or a high number of sticky on-ball defenders, even — but the skills these players provide aren’t inherently beneficial to the team product as a whole when added together. Skills like shooting, passing and off-ball defense, though, provide exponential returns when partnered on the floor together, making them exceptionally worthwhile to pursue in team-building. Agbaji fits this mold of the especially helpful role player quite well. Off the ball, Agbaji is constantly operating with his head on a swivel -- rotating to tag roll-men, erasing cutters, and mucking up passing lanes with his mix of intelligence, springiness and length. Agbaji not only sees these things happening in real time but is able to act on them almost instantly, covering for a teammate one second and contesting a shot from his man the next. On top of this, his positioning is exceptional, especially in gaps and along the baseline as a weakside helper, which makes these processes both easier on himself and harder on would-be passers.
Having someone on the floor like Agbaji, who can not only complete these actions on his lonesome but also communicate them with teammates, makes for a potent defensive attack. What stands out too, with Agbaji, is that there is no action too insignificant to make a play on. While there are some players who don’t do these things at all and others who do when absolutely necessary, Agbaji is seemingly always making sure to at least be in the right place in case he’s needed, bumping anyone who comes across his path in an action and fighting over every screen with relative ease. This level of activity, when combined with his wits and physical gifts, give Agbaji a defensive floor most players his size don’t have. When considering what kind of role he’ll play at the next level, it’s easy to see him having an immediate impact and a long career — especially when you remember he’s shooting 39% from three this year on 134 attempts.
Ziaire Williams’ Low-Hanging Developmental Fruit
Coming into the year, Ziaire Williams’ shotmaking proficiency at his size caught the eyes of evaluators, along with his noteworthy level of engagement and decision making on both ends that allowed him to exact a unique level of impact on the game. 13 games into his freshman campaign, the proficiency one would hope for hasn’t been there from the 6’8” wing, who’s currently sporting a 37/32/84 shooting split, a negative assist to turnover ratio (2.8:3.5), and a free throw rate of only 27.7%. For someone who’s projected value hinges on his ability to create scoring opportunities for themselves, these unsightly numbers are relatively discouraging. But, what if I told you it didn’t really matter?
Okay, it’s not fair to say it doesn’t matter at all. Of course, the struggle that Williams has endured transitioning from the high school to the college level is worth considering and a similarly steep learning curve is likely once he makes the jump to the league. However, once the tape gets chopped up and the expectations are tempered, we can begin to realize that Ziaire’s problems aren’t all that frightening. The things Ziaire struggles with are things he’s always been held back by, and on top of that, these issues are especially fixable in an NBA context. Rather than viewing the inefficient collegiate sample size as an enormous red flag, we can instead see it as a spotlight on the potential exponential growth Williams is yet to experience once this low-hanging developmental fruit is addressed.
Most namely, the two biggest hurdles for Williams are his frame and his handle. Weighing in at only 185 pounds, Williams is particularly skinny for his size and projected role, which limits him all over the court. Currently, he’s unable to finish with anything close to an ideal level of success, shooting only 47% around the rim in the half court on a mere 21 attempts. For a scoring wing, this is a necessary dimension that’s absence is only exacerbated by a lack of handle that can be used to gain initial advantages and get into the teeth of the defense. This gives us some evidence behind the low free throw rate and generally low field goal percentage, and accounting for the lackluster three point percentage only requires following this chain reaction one step further. If Ziaire can’t get into the lane and convert with much success, defenses can easily run him off the line and force him into tight windows of space where he’s forced to wander into uncomfortable territory. Naturally, the only on-ball attempts he can find right now are off the dribble threes. When this is the case and defenses know it, it’s hard to see a reality where the percentages are any higher.
With all of this being said, it’s important to boil these concerns down to what they are — an immature handle and inability to absorb force of any kind. These problems can be righted, of course, in regimented player development and strength and conditioning systems, just as we have seen with other prospects in recent years. While there are potentially too many cases of effective strength gain following an induction into the NBA to count, we can look to players like Jaylen Brown, Devin Booker, and Pascal Siakam as guys who have operated with a baseline level of shotmaking ability but struggled to self-create before adding subsequent handle improvements that unlocked their overall scoring package. It’s easy to see how Ziaire could fit into this group, and seeing a similar level of improvements in this area in conjunction with proper weight gain would lead to bountiful results.
After all, as mentioned, Ziaire has the more “intangible” skills down to immediately contribute at a high level once these improvements are made. He already displays a distinct sense of awareness and desire to consistently complete the right play in any given scenario, often pushing in transition to punish defenses in motion and remaining active on defense to use his length to deter off-ball actions and passes. He’s also an excellent and potentially underrated passer for his size, having displayed a knack for hitting cutters through tight windows and being able to operate some secondary pick and roll, as needed.
Some may look at Williams’ numbers in conjunction with a cursory glance at film and write him off due to the apparently raw skills he displays at this stage that cause him some rather obvious difficulties. While some are likely to be perturbed by his NCAA sample, it’s important to consider how these relatively simple to solve problems underlie so much of his current concerns, and what that means for his long-term outlook. The top of the draft is about projecting ceilings more than it is floors, and while any pick requires an astute weighing of perceptions for both, the process can be made easier when looking at likelihood of development. In the case of Ziaire, these developments seem not only likely, but especially powerful.
Make sure to check back again soon for the next installment of ‘The 5-Point Play.’