Everybody loves a good Cinderella Story. Basketball fans get overtaken with these fairy tales each March during the NCAA Tournament, seeking the next unforeseen team to make a national impact.
But with only 30 teams, endless national media coverage and a much more even playing field on a nightly basis, the NBA doesn’t create the same type of “zero to hero” drama around its teams.
Instead, we find solace in searching for that in players, the rags-to-riches stories of guys with little consideration of making the NBA who prove everyone wrong and go on to become career contributors.
Guys like Devonte Graham (Charlotte Hornets) and Duncan Robinson (Miami Heat) have already made that journey this year. Graham is receiving considerable All-Star clout despite a fairly inefficient season that warrants Most Improved Player consideration nonetheless. Robinson is suddenly among the best shooters in the world right now: He’s scalding hot as the Miami Heat log the Eastern Conference’s second-best record. Both are receiving plenty of coverage and attention for their remarkable starts.
What about some other names that may be a bit less noticeable?
There are plenty of forgotten or overlooked youngsters making a positive impact and getting the most out of their opportunities. Some were late draft picks, others were not even on a draft radar. But all four guys on this list should be signing a new NBA contract within the next year that guarantees them not only a roster spot but a role somewhere in the league.
Tremont Waters, Boston Celtics
The scuttlebutt from the NBA G-League Showcase was that Tremont Waters is better and more immediately prepared to log important minutes than most top backup point guards. Constantly steady, what makes Waters an amazing point guard is how he sees the floor and is a scorer without sacrificing a pass-first mentality. His high-level impact in the G-League has proven what he can do with extended minutes and the ball in his hands. He’s averaging 20.8 points and 8.1 assists with the Maine Red Claws.
Oh yeah, and he’s shooting 49.6 percent from 2-point range while standing at only 5’10”.
Coach Brad Stevens is no dummy. He lets his guys play to their strengths and tailors an offensive gameplan to whoever is on the floor. Despite the fact Waters isn’t with the club full-time, he’s the focal point of the offense when he’s been called up. The Celtics run double ball screens galore around him, letting him get into the lane and carve up defenses to make the right read.
Despite not being overly fast, Waters is so damn quick. He features an insane change of direction with his crossover that defenders get lost navigating those double high screens. He’s also perfect at making the right on-time pass to a shooter in the corners once he gets to the second line of the defense:
Look, Waters is a fun story. He’s the tiny underdog that is tearing it up his way. He may remind some of Isaiah Thomas due to his stature, but his play is a lot more like that of Rajon Rondo, manipulating the game with his IQ and change of speed.
It won’t be long before Waters is a mainstay with the Celtics and supplants Brad Wanamaker as the top backup in Beantown.
Ky Bowman, Golden State Warriors
An undrafted rookie out of Boston College, Ky Bowman’s game has always been predicated on scoring. Those who knew him as an ACC standout can attest to his quickness and shot-making ability.
Nonetheless, so many 6’1″ scoring guards put up high-volume numbers in college but flounder as they reach the next level. The NBA is different, with size and athleticism that is truly elite across every position. To succeed without an abundance of it is to understand your craft, play with nuance and have a high level of self-awareness.
Bowman has played in a much savvier manner than most rookies, and that’s why he’s received the opportunity to stick around with the Golden State Warriors. Bowman is turning the ball over with the lowest of frequencies, only 2.7 times per 100 possessions. At B.C., he topped four turnovers per 100 possessions in each of his three seasons. A turnaround like this rarely takes place for rookies, and Bowman is doing it on a team struggling to score.
Bowman’s exhibiting a solid playmaking ability rather than scoring for himself. Sure, he’s hitting 34.8 percent of his 3-pointers and isn’t a poor scorer by any means, but he’s earning minutes, (and potentially a full-time contract with the Warriors), by the way he facilitates off the pick-and-roll. In particular, Bowman has elevated the play of the young bigs by getting them open looks at the rim.
Most NBA teams run some form of drop coverage against the pick-and-roll, keeping their bigs closer to the rim and daring opponents to beat them with mid-range pull-ups. Despite not being an elite scorer out of ball screens, Bowman manipulates these situations well and always keeps his eyes on the big. On Christmas Day against the Houston Rockets, Bowman demonstrated textbook playmaking out of ball screens.
As soon as he saw the letters on the chest of Clint Capela, he’d immediately get rid of the ball and find his rolling big, once with a lob and once with a pocket pass:
Houston’s defense struggles due to the lack of its defenders’ size around Capela. (They routinely play multiple guards and don’t alter many shots at the rim once Capela is taken out of the play.) Other teams make up for that length and therefore do a better job of tagging the roller.
Bowman’s reads then become a bit more difficult, as his attention must go to the defender underneath the ball screen.
Here, Bowman beats the Dallas Mavericks in the pick-and-roll twice by playing with a wicked hesitation dribble. That hesitation, timed with an offensive player raising from the corner to the wing, puts the third defender in no man’s land. As the defender decides between tagging the roller and staying with his man, the point of decision-making is expedited as Bowman’s movements are designed to freeze him.
At that point, Bowman can dictate where he wants to go. And while the indecisive defender doesn’t fully commit to stopping the roller, a lob to the rim is wide open:
Once Bowman reaches 45 total days with the Warriors, his two-way contract will be expired. In order to keep him, Golden State must work to clear a roster spot, send him to the G-League for the rest of the season or waive him. A path to clearing a roster spot is not easy, especially after they already released Marquese Chriss to create a spot for Damion Lee last week.
His future may not be in Golden State, but Bowman has done enough to prove he deserves a much longer look at this level.
That said, Bowman’s long-term trajectory isn’t much higher than as a third-string point guard. He’s already quelled a lot of doubts regarding his ball security and pick-and-roll shiftiness in just a few months, however. The turnovers need to stay low, and his scoring will improve a bit—he’s a scoring guard trapped in an undersized body. If he can prove this pick-and-roll facilitation is legitimate, there’s a chance Bowman sticks around as a savvy pro.
Garrison Matthews, Washington Wizards
The rise of Garrison Matthews, an undrafted rookie from Lipscomb, is the latest in a long string of data points to show that shooting is the most important skill a youngster can possess. If you are elite at that one skill, you’ve got a shot to make it.
And this dude is just a shooter.
A four-year player at Lipscomb, Matthews made 360 career 3-pointers in college, shooting at a 40 percent clip his senior year. He wasn’t a high-level athlete, wasn’t on many NBA radars, but his shooting ability fit the build for a diamond in the rough.
Matthews has been right at home with the Washington Wizards and their ultra-aggressive shooting emphasis. He has averaged 15.8 points over a four-game stretch, going 11-for-22 from deep. The impressive part isn’t the what, but the how.
The ability to be ready to catch-and-shoot whenever spacing the floor is a paramount skill. Snipers require specialty training while filling the most important role in the modern NBA. (There are guys who are great shooters that cannot accommodate a role as a catch-and-shoot threat because of the nuances needed to master getting it off.)
Watch how Matthews moves without the ball and you’ll see he’s always ready to shoot. His butt is down as he slides around the three-point line, and there’s a brilliant knee bend and fluidity between his catch and release. That allows him to get his shot off fairly quickly. The deep range doesn’t hurt, either.
Want to see that catch-and-shoot form in its simplest form? Watch Matthews when he’s in the corner. No movement, no complication. His hips drop as the pass comes to him, his feet are ready and there is zero hesitation to launch his shot.
Just watch for how his knees are bent and his butt is down long before the pass comes. He’s always ready:
Think of specialty shooters like a kick returner in football. There are plenty of receivers, running backs, corners and other athletes that can come in and become efficient kick returners. But the ones who executed that role in college and have years of experience know the tricks of the trade and often become the most effective at the pro level.
The same is true for specialty shooters. There are plenty of guys that can make 40 percent of their catch-and-shoot attempts when wide open, but very few that come to the league with the nuance required to get their shot off and move without the ball from day one.
Matthews is one such guy. He may not cut it with the Wizards long-term as their roster is constantly in flux, but his ability to make a shot should earn him a roster spot as a specialty player cut from the same cloth as Jodie Meeks, CJ Watson or Daequan Cook.
Abdel Nader, Oklahoma City Thunder
Iowa State product Abdel Nader is one of those guys whose positive impact isn’t felt deeply in the box score but can be appreciated by those who closely nitpick defensive rotations. A former 58th overall pick by the Boston Celtics, Nader is a swiss army knife of an offensive threat who has found his assertive streak during recent weeks in Oklahoma City.
Since November 27th, Nader is averaging 7.3 points and shooting 39.7 percent from 3-point land.
To do that as a role player is great, but Nader combines it with high-IQ defense. He routinely helps out his teammates with awesome rotations and unselfish plays that have helped make the difference for an Oklahoma City Thunder squad which has gone 16-6 in the last 22 games Nader has played in.
Take the game against the Dallas Mavericks on New Year’s Eve as a prime example for how Nader impacts a game. He logged just under eight minutes and scored two points but made a large defensive impact in a clutch fourth-quarter possession by protecting Dennis Schroeder.
Any time a baseline drive occurs, the lowest opposite defender is the primary helper, also known as the “fire guy”. Their job is to rotate from the weak-side to the rim as a means of protecting the basket and preventing an easy layup. Their initial positioning is crucial: If they’re too far from the rim to rotate, they won’t get there in time and the rotation will be irrelevant. If they leave too early, the opposite corner will be wide open for a kickout.
Nader is always thinking a step ahead. An effective fire guy is one that can block shots or utilize length to at least alter the layup or close the passing lane. Little guys struggle here, which is why most dominant rim protectors are seven-footers.
Nader recognized, on one possession, an impending drive that would inevitably cause a rotation and put himself in as the fire guy over Dennis Schroder, a much smaller defender. Nader switched off-ball with Schroder to insert himself in the rotation, and the result was a turnover:
Brilliant. Plays like this earn the love of coaches and cause them to go to bat for guys with their front office. Billy Donovan is certainly rewarding Nader with more playing time because he’s becoming so reliable on the defensive end.
It may be hard to understand why guys with low box score output get the opportunities they do, but Nader certainly has earned his stripes. Hopefully, his role doesn’t fade and he continues to make enough shots to prove he’s an NBA-caliber rotation guy.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of January 12, 2020.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.