For as much as I love to talk about schemes and tactics of team offense and defense, the game really comes down to individuals making winning plays.
Guys have to score the basketball, but the best teams and individual defenders find ways to take away strong suits of their opponents. The best scorers have counter moves to score regardless.
Let’s not skip a step here, though. In order to understand those strong suits (or have them), you have to first find out a player’s tendencies. What do they do well? What do they do frequently? What are they trying to avoid or mask in their game?
We’re keying in on three blossoming stars around the league—Pascal Siakam, Markelle Fultz and Karl-Anthony Towns—and their offensive portfolio to see how they utilize their improved skill packages and tendencies, whether due to their sheer talent or the unique deployment of their top tendency.
Pascal Siakam on the Left Block
For ages, post-up tendencies have clearly been dominated by the strong hand of individual players. Right-handed scorers gravitated towards the left block, where they get to dribble to the middle and toss up a hook shot with their strong hand, absorbing contact with their left shoulder.
But posting up is something of a lost art in today’s pace-and-space attacks.
Today, only four players currently garner more than one point per possession on left-block post-ups while having at least 50 cracks at it this year: Pascal Siakam, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Siakam is far and away the most efficient, shooting 56.8 percent on those post-up opportunities. He’s like a human Swiss Army Knife: Whatever the situation, no matter who is guarding him and where on the floor he is, there’s a move in his arsenal to score.
Anybody who has watched Siakam for an extended period knows of his affinity for spin moves. The guy twirls around like a bottle top, just spinning and spinning until he’s somehow knocked off his axis. (Defenders must get vertigo when guarding him!) Thanks to his long arms, he can spin back from the right block and still finish with his right hand, reaching across defenders or finishing over them.
Even when they know the spin back to the baseline is coming, no defender can stop it:
Of course, Siakam isn’t a one-trick pony and has developed a great arsenal of counters.
Against longer, larger defenders that could block his shot, Siakam doesn’t rush that spin move when he feels contact on the inside shoulder. Instead, he spins back, gets both feet planted and gathers to go up off two.
That balance allows him to read his man instead of trying to slink around and has afforded him finishes over string beans and shot blockers like Brandon Ingram and Rudy Gobert:
Here’s where the nuance comes in: Siakam likes to get back to his right hand to score. We spend so much time talking about being ambidextrous when developing skills, but there are ways around that by developing a strong package of footwork and counter-moves.
Pascal can still finish despite being right-hand dominant due to that excellent footwork.
If he wants to get back to his right off the spin move and doesn’t want to reach around the baseline, his next counter is a nifty up-and-under, accompanied by a believable ball fake and the ability to cut off contact with a long step-across and lowered left shoulder:
So what if teams sit on his back and his right shoulder, preventing a spin-back? Well, Siakam has a package for that too.
He starts with a nifty dream shake-esque shoulder shimmy before rising up for a soft touch hook:
Defenders aren’t dumb. They know they can’t allow a free path to the middle. Falling for the shoulder shimmy to the baseline isn’t something they’ll want to do.
It makes more sense to allow Siakam to spin back and take a fadeaway where his angle to use the glass is lessened than it does to give him his dominant hand in the middle of the lane. Guys will anticipate the shimmy and try to slide under his right shoulder, walling up and forcing Siakam to try and shoot around them by strangling his pivot foot.
Siakam is too smart and well-prepared. He’s got a middle up-and-under move predicated on guys falling for that middle hook. He’s so damn long and quick at reaching across his man’s body that he looks like he’s dough being stretched while making his move:
Sheesh. Rookie Nassir Little just got taken for a ride.
Literally every move was set up by Siakam’s spin move. Whoever has been in charge of his skill development with the Toronto Raptors deserves a lot of praise for how effective Siakam has become on the block: Counter moves and a finishing package that is sensible, built on his strengths and downright impossible to stop.
Is Siakam the second-best player in the Eastern Conference? Giannis Antetokounmpo is on another level right now, but is there anybody that can dominate a game on both ends the way this young Raptor can?
Markelle Fultz In Transition
Markelle Fultz is good, folks.
The Orlando Magic point guard has been a maniac in transition, scoring in the 95th percentile and pushing the tempo for his team all season. He’s dangerous not just because he’s long, athletic and has a great handle. Fultz goes as hard as he can towards the rim, right up the gut and at the teeth of the defense.
The dude has no fear:
Those are the flashes of the top overall pick from three years ago that made Fultz so tantalizing. Put the ball in his hands and open the court. His jumper will be the key to his stardom.
Yet, he’s still a very good player without it.
Transition defense is not easy. The balance between playing the possession (stopping the ball, protecting the rim, running guys off the 3-point line, rotating when the ball moves, etc.) and matching up in an advantageous way has no perfect method. It’s a coach’s nightmare of “figure it out” tactics where no amount of scripting, teaching and drilling can prepare for the disorganized cluster that occurs each transition opportunity.
Recognizing personnel and playing their strengths on the fly is an especially complicated calculation that must happen instantaneously.
That’s where Fultz’s motor in the open floor causes havoc. Sure, he’s incredibly gifted at getting to the rim and finishing. The residual effect is that defenses collapse and pay attention to him. Ideally, one would guard Fultz, one would help protect the rim, and the others would match up around that.
Frequently, Fultz will draw two or three guys to him in the open floor, just by virtue of how hard he pushes the pace.
From there, he can easily find kick-outs to shooters that sprint to the 3-point line, and, boy, are they getting some open looks:
These are all off defensive rebounds, not turnovers. No team should get bladed this badly off a missed shot. Imagine having this come at you while you casually jog back on defense, frustrated by your last possession’s inability to produce points.
I’d love to play with Markelle Fultz. Those are gift-wrapped 3-pointers for elite shooters. It’s no wonder the Magic score 8.2 more points over 100 possessions when he is on the floor.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Coming Off Screens to 3
Are we sure Karl-Anthony Towns isn’t the most well-rounded, polished scoring big this league has seen?
Within the Minnesota Timberwolves offense, Towns has been coming off more screens in a 5-out shape. That’s super scary considering he’s a full-time 5 now. When all five Wolves are spread around the 3-point line, Towns will be effective in all spots.
He’s a catch-and-shoot threat from the corner, he initiates offense from the top in a series of sets, and now he’s weaponized himself coming off elbow down screens.
In those 5-out situations, opposing bigs are trained to stay lane-protected at all times. They’ll go under screens, slink back to block slips and venture back to their comfort zones. That’s where Towns thrives as a guy that gets his feet set coming off a guard. He can dart to the top and catch a lazy defender napping:
Coach Ryan Saunders deserves a lot of credit for how he’s structured this offense.
Everything flows logically and is unlocked by Towns’ supreme versatility. Saunders has apparently taken tidbits of the Mike Budenholzer Milwaukee Bucks 5-out offense, chiefly this elbow screen. Brook Lopez made a killing there last year, and now Towns is doing it.
Towns is starting to read those times when his man cheats under the action. Those interior-bound defenders struggle to navigate through flares and pin-in plays when a point guard sets the screen. A switch would be the first sign of trouble, so Towns’ man just has to find a way through.
If he starts to cheat back and anticipate the screen by meeting KAT on the other side, Towns just pops back and launches a 3:
Chasing a seven-footer around screens shouldn’t be fair.
While KAT is a bully scorer on the inside, he’s become elite at shooting in the corners. The luxury provided to the offense? When he gets himself into the lane, Towns’ man will start to get anchored and relax, preparing for the one-on-one sparring of post combat. Instead, Towns will zip out to the corner off a flat screen on the baseline and either take a 3 or attack a poor closeout as if he were a guard:
What the defenders do in those clips is what’s supposed to happen when guarding a center: Either you dare him to shoot or you meet him around the screen, force him to drive and then play his lack of playmaking from the back-side.
But Towns can do it all, and that’s incredibly frightening for other teams. He has developed into a great shooting big the last couple seasons. To no be able to do it off screens and on the move makes this part of Minnesota’s offense a nightmare matchup for half of the league.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketbal-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of December 16, 2019.
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.