With the NBA constantly getting longer, faster and more athletic, it has become more difficult than ever before to move the ball and initiate offense. As defences get more and more complex, having more distributors on the floor at once has never been more important, and teams are starting to prioritize passing and shot creation in the draft.
We are also seeing the profile of elite passers changing quickly. It used to just be the little guys that would excel at passing the ball and setting up teammates, but more often we're seeing bigger players take on the role of primary initiator. This is something you will see up and down the 2021 NBA Draft class.
Here are the five best passers in the draft.
Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga
Guard, 6-foot-4, 205 lbs.
At Gonzaga, Suggs was playing next to some experienced point guards in Andrew Nembhard and Aaron Cook but still found himself shining as a distributor tasked with quarterbacking one of the most potent offenses in the NCAA.
Even as a freshman, Suggs played with poise and maturity, recognizing when passing windows opened and making sure to hit them with precision. Suggs was most impressive as a passer in transition, something that demonstrated his ability to make decisions and execute at top speed. So often you see guards getting into trouble when pushing the ball at 100 percent pace, but Suggs was more than comfortable passing at a full sprint, almost as if the game slows down for him in those moments.
In the NBA game, transition opportunities can be harder to come by than in college, but his ability to make sound judgement plays at max speed should project nicely as he moves on to figuring out the NBA game.
Josh Giddey, Adelaide 36ers (NBL)
Guard, 6-foot-8, 205 lbs.
Big playmaking wings are a hot commodity in the NBA right now, and Australian product Giddey could be the next 6-foot-8 player you see coming off of a pick-and-roll.
Giddey has an otherworldly feel for the game and an innate sense of timing, tempo and anticipation that allows him to think two steps ahead and make passes that most other players wouldn't see. Something the 18-year-old does like a seasoned veteran: use his eyes to manipulate defenders, almost like an NFL quarterback. Coming off a pick-and-roll, he'll scan the defence and look at a potential passing option, shifting the defence before he actually zips the ball into his intended target.
It's worth noting that Giddey averaged 7.5 assists in the NBL last season. As a reference point, LaMelo Ball averaged 6.8 assists in the NBL a season ago, and he stepped into the NBA and was immediately one of the best passers in the league.
Daishen Nix, G League Ignite
Guard, 6-foot-5, 210 lbs.
Nix is a big, physical guard, which allows him to get to multiple areas on the floor where he can distribute from. His wide frame and developed ball handling with either hand helps him keep his dribble alive even when in traffic and under duress, allowing him to wait out defences as they collapse towards him.
While he's able to keep a defender on his hip as he waits for the play to develop, or post up a smaller guard and initiate from there, he isn't a player that needs the ball to stick in his hands to playmake. He's more than capable of quick decisions.
Nix loves to get the ball moving with quick reads and his cross-court passes to shooters. Once he sees a help defender move, his passes are thrown at a higher speed than any other player in the draft. Playing for the G League Ignite, Nix is used to running alongside high-level talent and he thrived in the role of distributor for them last year, which may have given us a glimpse into his NBA future.
Scottie Barnes, Florida State
Forward, 6-foot-9, 230 lbs.
Modern NBA basketball has seen ball handlers get bigger and bigger, and Barnes might be the next level of that evolution, coming in at 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds while posing some of the best vision and passing technique in the class. Seeing Barnes' size, you might be thinking he's someone who passes out of the post, but that isn't the case. He's a legitimate 6-foot-9 guard who is far more likely to put the ball through his legs a few times and cross over a smaller player than go down to the block and post up.
Barnes' ball handling ability at his size and athleticism means he is constantly putting pressure on the rim. There are few athletes capable of matching up with him on the perimeter, meaning he's constantly getting to the paint on drives. Barnes is also a player teams can invert ball screens for, using a smaller guard to set the screen for him. In those situations, Barnes can pass over the smaller defender hedging out to him with ease and if the defense chooses to switch, he has a matchup ready to exploit.
Some "big guards" in the past have been more novelty and substance, but Barnes is the real deal and there will be teams salivating at the idea of running their offence through him.
Sharife Cooper, Auburn
Guard, 6-foot-0, 180 lbs.
Cooper's freshman season was abbreviated due to some eligibility concerns but once he got on the floor he immediately wowed everyone with his ability to create shots for teammates. In 12 games, he was second in the country in assists per game (8.1) and his assist rate was an extraordinary 51.5 percent (via KenPom), which led the country by a significant margin.
What makes Cooper so special as a passer, and what makes his game translatable to the NBA, is that he is exceptional at passing off of a live dribble with either hand. He can be stringing together multiple tight dribble combinations or flying off a screen, and the moment he sees the pass he needs to make, he can rifle it off with either hand before defences have the chance to recognize what's coming.
Life in the NBA has been hard for shorter guards whose games are predicated on passing, but Cooper's ability to create angles and then pass from a live dribble means he shouldn't have the issues that past guards who lacked that ability had. There is an electricity to Cooper's game - something that always keeps defences occupied and opens up opportunities for teammates.
There might be limitations to other elements of Cooper's game, but when it comes to passing the basketball, he is arguably the best in the class.
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