Updated: Mar 17
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 himse