Progress isn’t always linear. Some players opt for refinement, turning their good skills into great ones.
For example, Dwyane Wade never bothered to develop a three-ball. Instead, he focused on becoming an elite 20-feet-and-in scorer. He seemingly added something new to that bag of tricks each season. His craft in the mid-range area is a major reason why he’s still getting buckets during his 16th campaign.
Other players look to turn their weaknesses into strengths. DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond have long been maligned for their historically poor free throw shooting. They’ve both logged seasons shooting under 40 percent from the line.
Now they’re shooting 70.5 and 59.4 percent from the line, respectively. Not only were those improvements welcomed, but they were also necessary to raising each player’s impact, and thus raising the ceilings of their teams.
The following players have turned holes in their games into legitimate pluses. That improvement has raised their profile, as well as the outlook of their teams moving forward.
James Harden: Two-Way Player
Harden is in the midst of one of the most insane offensive seasons in NBA history. He leads the league in points (36.4) by 8.2. The difference between him and second-place Paul George (28.2) is nearly equal to the gap between George and 35th placed Danilo Gallinari (19.8). The Bearded One’s nearly impossible to defend on an island, and he has the passing chops to make defenses pay if they send help. At bare minimum, Harden is a top-three offensive talent. He’s the driving force for the Houston Rockets and has a pretty strong case for MVP.
What’s gone overlooked? How much of an impact he has made defensively this season.
I am not here to argue he’s an elite stopper akin to Pre-whatever-is-wrong-with-his-leg Kawhi Leonard. But I will argue that Harden is now irrefutably a positive on that end.
He ranks third in steals (2.1) and deflections (3.6). He’s also one of the NBA’s best post defenders, allowing 0.662 points per post-up. In addition to having active and quick hands, Harden is incredibly strong. Big men aren’t able to get to their spots as easily against him and are often stripped when making their move.
Harden still has his mental lapses in space—both in positioning and even getting into a stance—but he’s so much better defensively than what he’s given credit for.
Pascal Siakam: Walking Mismatch
Last season, Siakam was mostly known for two things. He was an incredibly versatile defender, consistently holding his own against smalls in space. He also missed a lot of threes. A lot of them.
The Raptors obviously gave him the green light to experiment with treys when he was open, and Siakam gladly obliged. But he shot a horrifying 22 percent from deep on 132 attempts and was only slightly better from the corners (25.7 percent).
Those reps have paid off now, however, and they’ve opened up the rest of his game.
Siakam is shooting 35.6 percent from three overall and has made 40.4 percent of his corner triples. Teams can’t give him a cushion anymore, which opens up plays like this:
Siakam had previously flashed his ball-handling ability in transition, but he’s a bonafide shot creator now. He’s averaging a career-high 17.0 points, mostly because there’s no real way to match up with him. Slower bigs can’t contain him off the bounce, while quicker ones aren’t powerful enough to hold him on the block.
The Raptors trust him as a play initiator almost as much as they trust him as a play-finisher.
John Collins: Expanding His Range
Collins is the bouncier half of the NBA’s most entertaining young duo. He and Trae Young have started to take the league by storm, one alley-oop at a time.
Athleticism and “high motor” are words that best define Collins.
He outruns, out-jumps and overpowers enemy 5s in Atlanta’s go-go offense. He cleans up errant misses before his counterparts have time to diagnose what’s happening. Collins is currently one of nine players averaging at least 19 points (19.4) and 9.0 rebounds (9.6), and he’s doing it in less than 30 minutes per game.
What’s stood out most about Collins’ season? The addition of the three-ball. 19 percent of his shots have come from beyond the arc, and he’s converting them at a 35.8 percent clip. He’s drilled 46.7 percent of his corner threes, per Basketball-Reference.
Collins doesn’t project as a guy that can defend (good) 5s with regularity. He just isn’t that kind of rim protector. He’s mobile enough to hang with 4s, but that alignment would make it tough for the Hawks to find a stretchier frontcourt partner that fits with him.
But that’s what makes Collins’ development as a shooter so important: If he becomes a reliable threat from outside, the Hawks can slot a more traditional rim protector up front without cramping their offense.
Brook Lopez: Full-Time Sniper
Shooting threes isn’t a new development for Lopez. He took 712 treys in the two seasons prior to this one, making them at a reasonable 34.6 percent clip. His 36.2 three-point rate during that time frame was comparable to Dirk Nowitzki’s (38.0).
Just the threat of him roaming the perimeter opened up driving lanes for his teammates. The Milwaukee Bucks recognized his gravity and signed him this summer, hoping to space the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It’s safe to say that bet has paid off.
The Bucks are scoring nearly 114 points per 100 possessions with Lopez spacing the floor. He is almost strictly a shooter now, and three-pointers make up an absurd 66 percent of his total shots.
Not only is he taking more threes than ever, he’s taking them from further out. He’s 36-of-87 (38.7 percent) on threes from 28 feet or further this season. Among 20 players that have taken at least 40 shots from that range, only two of them—Eric Gordon (39.6 percent) and Lowry (39.1 percent)—have been more efficient.
Lopez obviously raises the ceiling of Milwaukee’s offense. The real questions come on the other end.
While he’s mostly fine in Mike Budenholzer’s “Drop” scheme, Lopez struggles to close out against stretchier centers like himself. Depending on the matchup, his minutes could be limited.
But for now, Lopez’s transformation from post brute to three-point bomber should be commended.
Stats are accurate through games played on March 31st