NBA Centers Just Now Joining the 3-Point Binge

“No one tells you Rome is ending until you’re the last one standing alone in a coliseum where a city had been.” – Thomas DiSabatino

When a revolution takes place, those who once conquered the old way of life have two options: They can adapt with the times or be thrown by the wayside, dispatched of as the game (metaphorical or, in this case, literal) passes them up.

Many NBA players have been deemed expendable at the hands of such a (three-pointed) revolution. Role-playing bigs like Roy Hibbert, Kenneth Faried, Greg Monroe and Nerlens Noel are some of the names that have seen their roles greatly diminish or evaporate completely.

(A few multi-tool centers like Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, etc. are able to hold on without ranged games. But those are all former or current All-Stars who bring other skills at a superlative level to the table. And even some of them have begun tinkering…)

Those who adapt today—versus youngsters like Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid who already had shooting in their arsenals—seek to save their careers with one last change.

Perhaps, no shift has been more noticeable or meaningful than Brook Lopez, who went from a back-to-the-basket scorer to one of the league’s best long-range shooters. Such a change has placed him as the starting center on a premier Milwaukee Bucks team and led to the four-year, $52 million contract he signed in July.

The beginning of the regular season is a great time to see which players have added skills to their arsenal. For those who don’t want to be left in the Coliseum, that means stretching their range and starting to launch from deep.  Whether they are in contract years looking forward to their next payday or scrapping their way to a utility role on their current teams, here are three bigs who have noticeably increased their three-point output from ground zero this year:

Aron Baynes, Phoenix Suns

Oct 12, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Phoenix Suns center Aron Baynes (46) shares a laugh with Portland Trail Blazers center Hassan Whiteside (21) in the second half at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

First 5 Games: 12-26 (46.2 percent), 4.3 attempts per game

Career Until This Season: 25-89 (28.1 percent), 0.2 attempts per game

Aron Baynes began to sow the seeds for an expansion of his offensive toolbox last season with the Boston Celtics. He took 61 3-pointers in only 51 regular-season games, then hit 11-of-23 in the 2019 Playoffs. Most of his damage came from the corners as a spot-up option, allowing him to play with Al Horford.

Big Al would run the offense from the top of the key, the wings and guards would attack and Baynes would catch opponents napping by drilling treys.

There was always a good chance the Australian would continue to shoot threes as he found comfort behind the line back. But to predict this scalding hot start, the sheer volume he’s producing and the changes in location? You would have been mad to make such a hypothesis.

No longer relegated to the corners, he’s becoming a pick-and-pop big that stations himself near the top of the key while Ricky Rubio or other Suns slashers yo-yo with the defense. Most teams run some form drop ball screen coverage (including Phoenix), so a pick-and-pop option in the middle of the floor hurts teams that deploy such a strategy.

Now Baynes is making those instead of just being a corner spot-up guy, punishing teams that over-sink on drives with his funky but effective stroke:

He looks like the Tin Man needing grease to move his joints. W

ithout DeAndre Ayton, Baynes has been thrust into an expanded role, one where his spacing is relied upon for the first unit. The spacing that comes from knocking down these types of attempts is crucial.

Devin Booker is aided by this development as well. One overlooked facet of Booker’s game is his ability to score from the pinch post with his back to the basket. He’s got good size and feels defenders with his body in a savvy veteran way. In order for Booker, the team’s best shooter, to be useful in situations where he has an advantage inside, he needs to be surrounded by guys that can knock down an open jumper.

When Booker posts a mismatch, the most likely defender to double him would be a big, sagging off Baynes and bringing size and rebounding close to the hoop. If he continues to make shots like these, Baynes makes himself an indispensable part of the first group:

Now, a cautious word for the eternal optimists. Baynes is hot and has been for six months. But he’s also prone to some bad misses and decisions from deep. Pure shooters, with great release and command, rarely miss more than an inch laterally. Their misses are either long or short—or at least get a piece of the rim.

Some of Baynes’ bricks are pretty ugly, and draw less iron than an anemic’s blood test:

If you’re Monty Williams, you’ll live with some of those misses so long as Baynes continues to make more than a third of his attempts. What you have to reel back are the overzealous attempts, the ones where a possession shouldn’t end in his hands.

Now that he’s hitting and the scouting reports are taking note, Baynes will be rotated upon from help defenders. He has to recognize those situations and swing the ball around until it finds the open man.

Thus far, he hasn’t shown an ability or willingness to do so. Just six games in, Baynes has some pretty egregious errors in decision-making from the top. A few of these are shots he never should take:

Ignore that Baynes, somehow, banked the second one in. When Stephen Curry and Tyus Jones both rotate over to contest his attempts, Baynes must have the sense to throw a pass to their man—a likely more reliable shooter or playmaker. Once that shooting percentage starts to drop, those shots become inexcusable.

Of course, Baynes won’t be above 40 percent all season. Brook Lopez went through a chilling period late in the season after an incredible start. But Baynes should keep shooting the right ones, so long as he makes a respectable amount. Clean up the shot selection and he becomes an indispensable piece of this group while Ayton serves his suspension.

Cody Zeller, Charlotte Hornets

Oct 30, 2019; Sacramento, CA, USA; Charlotte Hornets forward Cody Zeller (40) shoots the ball against Sacramento Kings forward Richaun Holmes (22) during the first quarter at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

First 4 Games: 4-12 (33.3 percent), 2.4 attempts per game

Career Until This Season: 10-38 (26.3 percent), 0.1 attempts per game

Of the three players on this list, Cody Zeller has the smoothest and most fluid jump shot. That should be of little surprise for a player that’s taken 18.5 percent of his career attempts from long mid-range (from 16 feet to the 3-point line, according to Basketball-Reference). The potential for Zeller’s jumper dates all the way back to his college days at Indiana, and the upside was part of what scouts saw in him.

DraftExpress’s Mike Schmitz, now of ESPN, wrote way back in April 2013 about the potential of Zeller’s jump shot:

Even when open, he doesn’t always look entirely comfortable shooting from distance. With that said, it’s difficult not to feel like he has much better potential here than he was able to show playing the center position full-time for Indiana, as he shows solid shooting mechanics and touch when he did step away from the basket

The fluidity with which Zeller shoots almost makes you question why it took so long for him to start taking 3-point attempts? He took only 16 in the first five years of his career while pounding long mid-ranges. He’s well-connected from his feet to his fingertips, has a solid bend of the knees and high release, and loads up with his legs before his release:

Perhaps, Coach James Borrego and his staff have emphasized three-point shooting as a priority for Zeller’s offseason development. He took 22 last year, (more than his first five years combined), but is on pace to shoot 205 this season.

What I love about Zeller’s three-point barrage is that he’s already using his pump fake well and taking the right shots. Most teams live with unproven pick-and-pop bigs taking looks behind the arc. Instead of settling for the first attempt he gets every time, Zeller is able to use his effective shot fake to get his man to commit to closing out.

Watch here as JaVale McGee of the Los Angeles Lakers struggles with the decision of getting to Zeller or letting him shoot. One lunge is all Cody needed to drive. His few bounces force Danny Green to hop toward the block, which opens up Hornets guard Malik Monk to draw two defenders in the two-man game. The result is Zeller getting even more open than the first attempt he could have taken.

Oh yeah… and hitting a 3-pointer while stepping back and his momentum carrying him from the arc isn’t too shabby either:

The red-hot Hornets made 41.7 percent of their treys through the first five games, which was absolutely an unsustainable pace. But despite the flame-throwing, Charlotte’s offensive rating never crept above twentieth. They need three-point shooting to stay in games and produce points, which should translate to Zeller’s continued push to chuck ’em up.

So long as he continues to take the right ones, his light will remain green.

Jonas Valanciunas, Memphis Grizzlies

First 4 Games: 4-10 (40 percent), 2.0 attempts per game

Career Until This Season: 45-126 (35.7 percent), 0.3 attempts per game

Taking 3-pointers isn’t a new development for Jonas Valanciunas. He attempted one per game each of the last two seasons, (with mixed results both for the Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors). What’s different is the confidence with which he’s shooting them.

Some teams still sag off Valanciunas since his volume is not high enough to warrant pressure on the perimeter. If he’s going to be the one that beats an opponent from 3-point land, that’s a loss they’re willing to take. Most guys placed in that situation tend to hesitate and flinch at taking the multitude of open looks given by a defense. (Rajon Rondo and Ricky Rubio once struggled when dared to take jumpers, as have many others.)

Valanciunas showed zero hesitation against the Brooklyn Nets when DeAndre Jordan stood fifteen feet away and practically begged his counterpart to fire away:

Jonas went 2-of-3 during the first quarter and nailed another in the third for good measure. His shot is a two-handed push, incredibly mechanical with little fluidity, but he’s clearly been coached on how to make his jumper workable.

One such facet of that teaching has to do with his hands: Valanciunas can be seen trying to find the seams on any pass he catches, readjusting the ball in his hands so he can launch in the way he was taught.

Such a habit is built out of practice, something he’s likely been coached to do since his hands are so large. You can see how much it slows down his release, though:

There are times when Valanciunas looks less mechanical and can fire his shot off quickly, and that must become more of the norm. See here as Aron Baynes closes out to Valanciunas in the corner, but JV is undeterred by the late attempt to alter this shot. Valanciunas isn’t too slow and takes a reasonable attempt:

Look no further than his 3-point attempts per 36 minutes to understand why the development of his jumper is meaningful: Valanciunas is logging fewer minutes but shooting more threes. His 4.2 per 36 minutes is nearly three times his output from the last two seasons, so expect Taylor Jenkins and the Memphis Grizzlies to keep encouraging Big Jonas to let it fly.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of November 3, 2019.

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