Category 1: Playmakers

Category 1 Fives: Two-Way Playmakers

(Skills: On-Ball Skill via Perimeter Skills/Creation/Passing/Post Scoring, Shooting/Spacing Element, Rebounding, Defense)

Outlier Two-Way Playmakers:

  1. Anthony Davis (Freshman) #1
  2. Joel Embiid (Freshman) #3

Outlier Offensive Self-Creators:

  1. DeMarcus Cousins (Freshman) #5
  2. Karl Towns (Freshman) #1

Outlier Creators For Others Who Can Score:

  1. Nikola Jokic (International) #41

Two-Way Playmakers Who Can Score:

  1. Marc Gasol (International) #48
  2. LaMarcus Aldridge (Sophomore) #2

Two-Way Playmakers:

  1. Al Horford (Junior) #3
  2. Derrick Favors (Freshman) #3

*Not included: Prime Pau Gasol, Prime Tim Duncan, Prime Kevin Garnett

Update: Playmaking either via scoring or facilitating for others is the holy grail of the five position (in conjunction with defense for the most part but outlier offensive skill can compensate), and in effort to emphasize this point I wanted to suss out different intricacies by including more specified sub-groupings. The concept of outliers is also of paramount importance here. There is a significant difference between a Horford swiss-army knife type who plays both sides of the floor, is an elite passer but who can’t really score consistently on ball versus a Jokic type who is an outlier elite passer and can also score consistently on ball.

It’s also critical to shed light on elite offensive traits that can compensate for a lesser defensive impact. Cousins and Towns both possess generational on-ball creation with rare handling ability and fluidity as scorers. Both can certainly create for others via passing, but their outlier skill is scoring. Jokic is the closest thing the five position has ever had to a primary initiator, as Denver’s offense runs through him as essentially a point-center type. Not even prime Gasol was as fluid as a ball-handler.

Defense for most all fives is still the driving force for elite value. Few fives are good enough on offense to compensate for even mediocre defense (in terms of still being elite). Davis and Embiid both are both two-way guys and have outlier ability on different ends of the floor. Davis has similar self-creation handle and scoring as Towns and Cousins, but brings more defensive value. Embiid looks to be a generational defender who can also playmake on-ball at a sub-elite level.

Gasol, Aldridge, Horford and *Favors all bring two-way playmaking value, but at a non-outlier level, again a crucial distinction. You can argue prime Gasol across multiple subcategories, but he was never quite as elite of a scorer as Cousins or Towns (lacking the same perimeter skills) or as fluid of a handler as Jokic. Aldridge can similarly be argued with Cousins and Towns as he’s the best on-ball scorer in his subcategory, but he again lacks those outlier perimeter skills on ball. Horford and Favors are more swiss-army knife types without outlier attributes, and Favors has dropped off a touch this year mostly due to injuries (I’m skeptical he’ll be the same player moving forward, ergo the asterisk).

Towns could easily move into the same grouping as Davis and Embiid. He’s suffered defensively guarding mostly 4s on the perimeter where his lack of elite foot-speed is exploited trying to track more nimble spacing threats. This is more so a current assessment tiering.

I. What Sets Them Apart

At first glance this group seems like an odd assortment of different skill-sets, but the main unifying attribute is on-ball playmaking in some fashion on offense whether scoring, shooting or spacing, and above average defense.

Cousins is perhaps the only primary initiating five in basketball, capable of supporting elite usage with high volume scoring and foul-drawing.  Cousins’ ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays on the move attacking the basket is one of the rarest skills in the game.  Cousins is also a very capable passer, even though he gets a bit wild with turnovers at times, rounding out his inside-out creating profile with  plus interior go-to post-scoring.

Aldridge has demonstrated over time the ability to run an efficient offense through him in the post, with the agility, nimbleness and skill to get around less mobile bigs and the raw power to overwhelm smaller defenders.  He’s never been an especially adept passer, but few can score like he can out of the post while generating enough gravity in the pick and pop midrange game.

Towns has a chance to be a truly generational talent, adding a unicorn range shooting skill to creation for both himself and for others.  Big men are rarely the crux of the offense in the league anymore, but Towns’ ceiling encompasses that potential, which puts him him in rarefied air.

Gasol, Horford and Jokic are all similarly legendary passers for fives who probably profile best as second options on offense (Gasol’s post game renders him the closest to primary option).  Horford and Jokic also add a stretch element beyond the arc, though Gasol counters with a ridiculously efficient midrange game.  Each can play on ball as dribblers and decision-makers.

Favors is the surprising add in this group, as his all-around game is very hard to categorize.  He’s kind of a jack of all trades, master of none, in that he’s not an elite scorer or creator, but is above average in each, throwing in plus defense. His stats and opportunity suffer being paired next to the dominant rebounding/shot-blocking Gobert, who also shrinks the court on offense not being able to play outside the restricted area.  Favors’ floor game has really improved, adding passing and floor spacing from the elbows.  The odds are his game would look a lot different playing in a more spread system as an actual 5 man, which is what he is.  He does possess underrated ability to put the ball on the floor on short rolls and playmake, either via pull up shots or passes.  People forget this guy is still 25 with an evolving skill-set.  In my opinion he is the most underrated player in basketball.

 

Overall, this category could probably be divided into 4 or 5 sub-categories with Cousins and Towns owning their own categories, Horford/Gasol/Jokic in one and both Favors and Aldridge rounding it out with their own respective groupings.  The unifying takeaway again is on ball ability either via rare self creation for the five spot (dribbling, shooting, post/isolation scoring), elite passing while maintaining a scoring presence/stretch element or just being above average in every category, all while providing defensive impact.

A.Dribbling/Touches

2015/16 Regular Season Average Dribbles Per Touch (Fives: Non-Inclusive)

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  • I always like to look at where bigs get their touches and how frequently they put the ball on the floor.
  • Context is of course paramount: Cousins, Horford, Towns, Gasol and Jokic can all grab and go in transition, with enough fluidity to handle and pass in that fashion, which is incredibly rare.  Jokic especially showed a proclivity for that as a rookie.  Aldridge mostly dribbles either around less agile bigs in post up situations or into his one dribble left shoulder dislodge move that results in a turnaround jumper.  Favors runs a lot of pick and roll as the dive man on short rolls where he can put the ball on the floor in space.
  • Cousins unsurprisingly puts the ball on the floor almost twice as much as most other fives who actually handle the ball a good amount.  He is the one 5 in the league (Towns probably gets here) with the ability to attack on straight face up situations beyond the arc at high volume.

2015/16 Regular Season Elbow Touches Per Game (Fives: Non-Inclusive)

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  • Gasol can be a sub-primary funnel running offense through him in the post with his passing, post up and midrange shooting prowess.  Memphis runs a lot of Horns action and inverts their bigs with Marc outside and ZBO in the post.
  • Favors, similar to Marc, gets a lot of elbow touches playing in a motion system that tries to maximize spacing playing two traditional fives with the ball moving a lot. Favors isn’t the most fluid handler but he can put the ball on the deck even in tight spaces.

2015/16 Regular Season Post Touches Per Game (Fives: Non-Inclusive)

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  • Gasol and Cousins are high volume post scorers with their strong frames and high skill level.
  • It’s interesting to see Towns’ lack of post touches here, which can likely be attributed to the Wolves lack of surrounding spacing and being so heavily involved in pick and pops.

B.Perimeter Scoring/Creation

2015/16 Regular Season Isolation Playtype

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  • There are very few bigs who you can just throw the ball to and who can create offense one on one.  Towns’ rookie isolation stats are unreal, as he showed excellent fluidity with the ball and ability to score in all 3 phases.  We’ll see how Towns handles more usage as his career progresses but the initial signs point to a generational all-around creator at the position.
  • Cousins’ 209 isolation possessions highlight just how heavily utilized his playmaking is.  He wasn’t efficient and really struggled at the rim, but this another metric showing how rare his ball-skills are.

2015/16 Free Throw Attempts Per 100 Possessions

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  • Cousins is by far the most proficient 5 in the league getting to the line, which is the not so secret lifeblood of his scoring prowess.  Jordan is the only other 5 who is close and that’s obviously a strategic move by opposing teams.

2015/16 Regular Season Drives Per Game (Fives)

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  • This is another absurd metric.  Cousins was 22nd in the entire league in qualified drives per game last year, which for a 5 is insane.  Okafor ranked second for qualified fives and he drove a third of the time.  There are few things as rare in the league as the 270 pound dancing bear dribbling full speed right into the teeth of the defense with way more fluidity and grace (not to mention frightening power) than any man that size should possess.

 2015/16 Regular Season Pick & Roll Man Playtype

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  • This measure captures both pick and pop and pick and roll situations, but most of these players are more pick and pop players (Favors being the exception).  Favors really thrives here as a bowling ball finisher attacking the basket, but also can score in the intermediate game.  Horford is proficient at above the break threes popping out, increasing his efficiency. Gasol is similarly adept as a pick and pop shooter but from the midrange area.

C.Shooting/Spacing + Finishing

 2015/16 Regular Season Spot Up Playtype

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  • Towns is probably already one if not the best shooting 5 in the game. Jokic, Horford and Cousins see a spike here because they are range capable bigs who shoot threes which of course is a more valuable shot.

Cousins 2015/16 Regular Season Shot Chart

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  • Cousins isn’t especially efficient at his high usage, but the versatility in his game in being able to score from every level (even threes now at a respectable 33.3% clip last year) can’t be ignored.  His finishing was especially poor last year, as via the eye test he looked to have his shot blocked more than any other big in the league.  He’s not an elite athlete and doesn’t get a ton of lift, so his finishing limitations are magnified with poor spacing.

Gasol 2015/16 Regular Season Shot Chart

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  • Gasol wasn’t his peak self last year, but his outlier positive midrange prowess was still on display. His finishing dropped by 8% last year from the 2014/15 season, hurting his efficiency.  Gasol has never been a high usage 3pt shooter despite having the profile to shoot threes, but he compensates inside the arc.

Aldridge 2015/16 Regular Season Shot Chart

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  • Aldridge is a high usage, high efficiency midrange scorer, who similar to Gasol has the profile to shoot threes but has never done so consistently.  Aldridge’s finishing at the rim was outstanding last year with his combination of skill, agility and power.

Horford 2015/16 Regular Season Shot Chart

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  • A career 34% 3pt shooter, Horford shot about his average last year at 34.4% and has evolved into a rare plus above the break 3pt shooter for a big.  His range capability allowed Atlanta to run it’s 5 out offense opening up driving lanes for their waterbug dribble-drive lead guards.  Horford also finished well in the restricted area last year, possessing underrated explosiveness.

Favors 2015/16 Regular Season Shot Chart

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  • A far less proficient shooter with no three point range yet, Favors doesn’t sport an overly appealing shooting profile.  His emerging midrange game continues to progress however, and he is adept at finishing push shots on short rolls around the foul line on the move.  Favors usually has a huge frame advantage to absorb contact attacking the basket with underrated quickness.

Towns 2015/16 Regular Season Shot Chart

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  • Towns’ shot chart for a 20 year old rookie speaks for itself at all three levels.  It’s freaking majestic.

Jokic 2015/16 Regular Season Shot Chart

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  • Jokic isn’t the same level as shooter as Towns, but he’s proficient from all three levels and similar to Horford has some promising indicators on above the break threes while throwing in average finishing ability.

D.Post Ups

2015/16 Regular Season Post Up Playtype

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  • The ability to post up and serve as an on-ball interior scoring threat is such an underrated switch-preventing commodity in the league for bigs.
  • Aldridge has always been a monster post scoring with the strength/power to go through smaller players and the agility/light-footedness to outmaneuver larger behemoths.  This metric only measures finishing, so Aldridge’s passing limitations aren’t featured.
  • Cousins is the biggest interior matchup problem in the league, and it’s interesting to see his post up frequency at 19% compared to a guy like Gasol at 40%, which is a result of playing next to another traditional/non-floor spacing 5 most of the time and limiting Cousins’ effectiveness.
  • Towns and Jokic, both tremendously skilled players with excellent footwork, thrived in the post as rookies, which differentiates them some from more pure unicorn stretch types like Porzingis and Turner who don’t have the same handling/interior scoring skill.
  • Horford being an above average finisher in the post last year is somewhat surprising, and from the eye test I wouldn’t have pegged him having better efficiency than Favors there.

E.Rebounding/Passing/Usage

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  • I grouped in passing, rebounding and usage to highlight certain aspects more efficiently so this didn’t drag out infinitely.
  • Cousins’ usage is obscene for a 5, and is a rare feat in the modern game where perimeter players dominate the ball.  Horford is not a high usage creator, instead more of a fluid ball mover and face up artist.
  • Jokic, Gasol and Horford post elite assist rates, and those three are non-coincidentally the three premiere passing 5s entering the draft (and post draft staying overseas) over the last 15 years.  Aldridge and Favors are both capable passers, but aren’t consistent there.
  • Cousins and Tows sport the two best rebounding profiles.  Favors is definitely capable but loses stats playing next to Gobert who is always around the basket.  Jokic’s offensive rebounding rate is notable.  Horford has never been a plus rebounder, and one of Atlanta’s bugaboos was always the defensive glass.

F.Defense/Rim Protection

2015/16 Regular Season Defensive RPM

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2015/16 Regular Season Defensive BPM

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2015/16 Regular Season Rim Protection FG%

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  • I just included 3 metrics to briefly cover the stats profiles last year as a defensive reference point.
  • The advanced stats really favor Jokic on D, who mostly drops back in pick and roll and wins with precision and angles similar to Gasol, who is elite there throwing in excellent backline communication.  Both have good size and length, so that combined with plus intellect compensates for a lack of lift.
  • Favors, Horford,and Towns can really defend on the perimeter.  Favors and Towns are very adept switching in pick and roll onto smaller players, possessing outstanding lateral quickness, while Horford is more capable playing at the level of the screener with plus mobility.  Aldridge is also adept mobility wise in guarding the perimeter and recovering.  He took some heat in San Antonio’s switching + running Curry off the 3pt line scheme, but just the fact he was able to stay close and force drives says a lot about LMA’s defensive ability when engaged.
  • Cousins struggles with consistent energy on defense and doesn’t have plus feet on the perimeter in space, but his elite rebounding, charge-taking ability and fast hands swiping at balls earns him at least modest defensive marks, though I’m less bullish on his D than the numbers are.
  • As for rim protection, Gasol is elite there, while Favors rounds out his multifaceted defensive arsenal in being able to protect the rim as well as guard the perimeter.  There are no outlier bad rim protectors in the group with most hovering around average with room to grow.

II. College Indicators/Translations

*Gasol was drafted in 2007 but I included his 2007/08 stats as well just to show indicators that shouldn’t be construed as a slight to decision-makers at that time.  The same goes for Jokic being drafted in 2014 in also including his 2014/15 international stats.

1.Measurements

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  • Towns, Embiid and Gasol all registered between 6’11.5″-7’1″ in size, while the former two had 7’3.5″ and 7’5″ wingspans respectively, giving each excellent positional size and solid to plus length for fives.
  • Horford is definitely undersized with a minus reach for a 5, while Favors is on the lower spectrum of average size wise but compensates with a plus wingspan and reach.  Outside of Horford, who is one of the most prominent smaller 5s of this generation, everyone else checks a plus physical tools box, and most do across the board.

2.40 Minutes Pace Adjusted

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  1. Cousins: Cousins registered outlier good, all-time scoring and rebounding marks for a 5, especially at a high D1 level.  His shooting/finishing prowess was less clean, possessing merely average 2p% and a non-stellar 60.9% from the FT line despite getting to the latter an absurd 12 times a game.  Cousins’ assist figure was solid, yet unspectacular, and his defensive numbers (especially steals) were fairly encouraging for a player who isn’t a vertical athlete. Cousins also at least attempted some threes, illuminating range potential.
  2. Aldridge: Aldridge’s numbers were mostly comprised of solid, yet unspectacular marks save for his 2p% his Sophomore year.  His scoring, efficiency and foul line % were encouraging enough to project some sort of sub-primary scoring ability, but his creation for others stats weren’t positive (his assists cut in half his second year).  He was a mixed bag defensively with below average rebounding marks to pair with solid blocks and near elite steals.  Aesthetically, Aldridge passed the positional size and smooth-shooting eye test marks, but his stats profile wasn’t filled with positive outliers.
  3. Gasol: Gasol’s stats profile was littered with positive indicators.  His scoring, 2pt%, 3pt% and above average FT% created an efficiency monster of a prospect playing in the second best league in the world.  He also threw in outlier positive assist marks with solid steal numbers.  Gasol fell in the draft due to a lack of athleticism, minus body composition and probably a combination of his poor rebounding and block numbers (though again these numbers might translate well in certain models to NCAA stats).  It’s reasonable to assume he would have gone higher after his 2007/08 season.
  4. Horford: After his freshman year Horford really kicked up his scoring and finishing acumen to very respectable levels.  His rebounding was always solid, but rose to very positive levels his junior year.  There weren’t any negative indicators his final two years, and his assist figures were outlier good.  The only thing Horford didn’t really do was shoot threes, and in conjunction with his percentages from the line it didn’t indicate he’d ever be this level of shooter.
  5. Favors: Favors’ stats outside of 2p% which was outstanding hovered around average to slightly above average across the board with no negative outlier outside of a lack of floor spacing.  He notoriously played on a team with ball dominant guards who probably didn’t give him level of usage he should have received.
  6. Towns: Outside of 2p%, which was still above average, Towns had a fantastic profile.  He was outlier good from the foul line, blocking shots and rebounding, with very good marks on assists and floor spacing potential with three point attempts.  Watching Towns at Kentucky he played with limited spacing mostly in the post, which probably helped him long-term but didn’t quite provide the full spectrum of his talents just based on the eye test.  He showed he could really shoot it and handle before his days at Kentucky, and a deeper look into his profile showed just what an elite combination of skills he provides.
  7. Jokic: Jokic had two outlier/all-time positive indicators for fives: assists and three point attempts with good percentages (he also had an outlier good steals mark).  Outside of his 2p% one season, the rest of his stats were mixed, with negative indicators in blocks and rebounds.  Jokic draws a lot of comparisons to Gasol, which is warranted given play style, and his lack of athleticism and block numbers likely led him to fall more than he should have in the draft, though again his first season after being drafted was probably his best.
  8. Embiid: People forget just what an incredible prospect Embiid was coming out. His 2pt%, rebounding and block numbers were all elite with very positive FT% on a healthy number of attempts, solid scoring, plus assists and steals sprinkled in.  There weren’t any real holes in Embiid’s game, as he even took some threes in college.  There is obviously a big question in regards to his long-term health, but the elite baseline is there.

3.Efficiency

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  1. Cousins: Cousins combined an elite FTr with solid efficiency and a barely passable A/TO mark, all of which have translated pretty much spot on.
  2. Aldridge: Sporting elite marks in shooting efficiency and foul drawing in his first year with a drop-off with added usage, Aldridge threw in below average (one outlier bad) A/TO marks, rendering him again not the cleanest prospect.
  3. Gasol: It’s hard to find a cleaner prospect than Gasol accross shooting, foul drawing and decision-making categories with an outlier positive top 7 of all time A/TO mark in 2007/08 (the year after he was drafted).
  4. Horford: Always an elite decision-maker, Horford threw in two elite foul drawing seasons and two elite shooting seasons.
  5. Favors: Outside of shooting efficiency (largely finishing), Favors had modest foul-drawing and A/TO marks, neither of which were outlier poor.
  6. Towns: Towns didn’t get to the line in elite fashion, but his TS% and A/TO marks were borderline elite.
  7. Jokic: Jokic sported the highest A/TO mark for 5s in DXs database in 14/15 (again a year after being drafted) with accompanying elite 3FGS/FGA rates.  His foul drawing was outlier bad and his shooting was above average, which for a big who took a lot of perimeter shots was actually promising.
  8. Embiid: Embiid’s shooting and foul drawing metrics were amongst the most elite numbers for fives, and his A/TO mark was above average, impressive for a big who was still learning the game.

4.Usage

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  • Only Cousins and Aldridge for domestic prospects held elite usage rates, which was reflected in their slight efficiency curb-of.  Outside of Horford and Aldridge their Freshman years as well as Gasol in 06/07, everyone posted in the realm of average usage rates with most having corresponding plus efficiency.

5.Sports-Reference All Time Indicators

Block% (Since Inception)

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DBPM (Since Inception)

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BPM (Since Inception)

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OREB% (Since Inception)

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REB% (Since Inception)

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6.Hoop-Math/Creation

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  • Both Embiid and Towns were elite finishers at the rim with near identical attempts, although more of Towns baskets were unassisted (this includes putbacks).  Towns had elite metrics in unassisted 2pt jumpers for a center with sterling efficiency, whereas Embiid had more limited but still positive indicators.

7.Skill Translation

  1. Cousins
    • Scoring Profile w/ High Usage Capability
    • Elite Foul Drawing
    • Elite Rebounding
    • Above Average Passing
    • Plus Steals
    • First Contract Translation: Starter (All-Star Yrs 5 & 6)
  2. Aldridge
    • Scoring Profile w/ High Usage Capability
    • Foul Drawing Indicators
    • Above Average Defensive Indicators
    • Average/Below Average Passing/Decision-Making
    • First Contract Translation: Starter Yrs 2-4 (All-Star Yrs 6-10)
  3. Gasol
    • Elite Passing/Decision-Making
    • Plus Shooting Profile
    • First Contract Translation: Starter, All-Star Yr 4 (AS Yr 7)
  4. Horford
    • Elite Passing/Decision-Making
    • Above Average Defensive Indicators
    • Plus Shooting/Finishing Profile
    • First Contract Translation: Starter, All-Stars Yrs 3-4 (AS Yrs 8-9)
  5. Favors
    • Plus Finishing
    • First Contract Translation: Rotation Yrs 1-3, Starter Yr 4 (Played behind Millsap/Jefferson)
  6. Towns
    • Plus Shooting With Range
    • Plus Rebounding
    • Plus Passing
    • Above Average Defense
    • First Contract Translation: Starter
  7. Jokic
    • Elite Passing/Decision-Making
    • Plus Shooting With Range
    • Above Average Defense
    • First Contract Translation: Mixed Rotation/Starter

III.Overall Takeaways

  1. Rare Archetype: This largely goes without saying, but bigs who can create offense in some fashion as on-ball players, whether it be self creation in handling + scoring or with elite passing + shooting all while defending are incredibly valuable.  There are far more 6’3″ people in the world than 7 footers, so the NBA player pool for 7 footers is already drastically lessened.  It’s hard to find coordinated and fluid athletes at that size who are skilled, which is why you’ll mostly never see these guys get out of the top 5 in drafts.
  2. Foreign Big Man Loophole/ATO?: Some might point to a potential loophole in foreign super skilled 7 footers with both Gasol and Jokic falling into the 40s, but the fact is their best seasons came after being drafted.  That being said, they did put enough on film as passers and floor-spacers to probably garner higher praise given their positional size and skill level.  Jokic specifically sported an elite A/TO mark (again top 7 in the DX database for 5s) in the year prior to getting drafted, so him falling was more unjustifiable than Gasol.  Passing and decision-making continue to be an underrated translatable commodity.
  3. Primary Initiator?: It’s rare for any big man in today’s game to consistently initiate the offense.  The rules just favor perimeter oriented players with the handcheck rule etc, and few bigs have the requisite perimeter skills to handle the ball and create consistently with high usage for themselves and for others.  The 6 best players in the league are LeBron, Curry, Durant, Paul, Leonard and Westbrook, all perimeter players.  That doesn’t mean these player archetypes aren’t valuable.  Quite the contrary.  It just means that you’re likely going to find an elite on-ball perimeter creator next to them if they’re going to win a title.

Next Up: Category 2 Fives Outlier Athleticism/Tools

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