There's a lot going on in the NBA on a nightly basis, so much so that coming out of the All-Star break, we wanted to shed light on some of the smaller things that seem to go unnoticed.
After all, NBA storylines go far beyond playoff races and MVP debates.
In the first edition of this column, we'll be looking at Brook Lopez's rim protection, Trae Young's passing, Buddy Hield's Steph Curry impersonation and Marcus Smart's improvements as a 3-point shooter.
Without further ado, let's get to it!
Brook Lopez's rim protection
Brook Lopez might be the most extreme blend of old school and new school at his position. On one end, he's bombing 3s at a rate we've never seen before from a player his size. On the other, he's as traditional of a rim protector as it gets.
Not known for being the fleetest of foot, Mike Budenholzer has the Milwaukee Bucks playing a drop coverage when Lopez is on the floor to keep him as close to the paint as possible. It's resulted in him blocking 2.1 shots per game, tying his career-high and putting him behind only Myles Turner (2.7) and Anthony Davis (2.5) for most in the league.
Lopez is more than just a shot blocker, too. According to NBA.com, opponents are shooting 51.5 percent when he's standing between them and the basket. Not even Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis - the three finalists for last season's Defensive Player of the Year award - have been that effective protecting the rim this season.
Knowing how difficult Lopez will make it for anyone who dares attack the paint, the Bucks can pressure teams out to the perimeter and funnel players towards his help defence underneath the hoop, where he can use his massive 7-foot-6 wingspan to protect the rim.
Time will tell how much the Bucks will be able to play Lopez in the postseason - teams like the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics will likely target him by having him chase pick-and-pop bigs like Serge Ibaka and Al Horford around - but there's something to be said about how Budenholzer has built the league's best defensive team around a centre who was once considered a liability on that end of the court.
The Bucks do have a better defensive rating with Lopez on the bench, but they're still defending at an elite level when he's out there.
Looking back on it, it's incredible Milwaukee was able to sign him in the offseason for as little as they did. If he can keep his two-way play up, Lopez will have a number of teams calling when he an unrestricted free agent again this offseason.
Trae Young's passing
Like Luka Doncic, it isn't just the amount of assists Trae Young is dishing out on a nightly basis that stands out. It's the quality of those assists.
There was one pass in particular near the start of the season that put Young's vision on full display. It came against the Miami Heat following a double pick-and-roll with Omari Spellman and Dewayne Dedmon out on the perimeter.
The Heat didn't do anything of note on the Spellman pick-and-roll - he actually slipped the screen and cut to the opposite corner - but they decided to trap Young on the Dedmon one to stop him from pulling-up for a 3-pointer.
Young had made 28.1 percent of his 3-point pull-ups entering that game, but teams like the Heat guarded him as though he was more efficient in those situations, probably because pull-ups 3s represented a quarter of his shot attempts on the season.
It bodes well for his future because Young showed in his one year Oklahoma that he has the shooting touch to become a more consistent threat off the dribble in the NBA. He'll face a lot more double teams and traps if he does, which will open opportunities for him to make passes like this:
Justise Winslow had to help off of Spellman to prevent Dedmon from getting an uncontested dunk or layup on the roll. Reading the help defence perfectly, Young whipped a pass to Spellman in the corner with his left hand instead of forcing a pass down low, setting the big man up with a wide open 3-pointer that he knocked down with ease.
Here's the possession from start to finish:
The Heat defended Young in a similar way a couple of possessions prior, only they didn't help off of the corner shooter. Young calmly passed out of the trap once again, this time setting Dedmon one pass away for a wide open catch-and-shoot jumper just inside the perimeter.
It's easy to see Steve Nash's influence on Young's game when watching him make those reads.
Buddy Hield's Stephen Curry impersonation
When the Sacramento Kings traded for Buddy Hield in 2017, a source told ESPN's Baxtor Holmes that team co-owner Vivek Ranadive thought the shooting guard had "Steph Curry potential."
That's different from believing that Hield has the potential to be the next Curry. Because as unlikely as it is that we ever see someone impact that game in the same way Curry has, Hield is close to doing something this season that we've only ever seen from two-time MVP.
Through 57 games with the Kings, Hield has knocked down a total of 195 3-pointers on 434 attempts, putting him behind only James Harden, Paul George and Curry in makes and the same group plus Kemba Walker in attempts.
That works out to be 3.4 makes on 7.6 3-point attempts per game on the season. Not only are both of those marks the highest of his career by a large margin, Hield is on the cusp of becoming the second player NBA history to shoot 45.0 percent or better on that sort of volume.
The other player to do so? You guessed it - Stephen Curry.
Similar to Curry, Hield is a bullet running off of screens, he has range that extends several feet beyond the 3-point line and he only needs a slither of space to get his shot off. He's also quietly developed into an elite shooter off the dribble.
Put it all together and the Bahamian can do stuff like this:
In addition to his 3-point shooting, Hield is finishing around the basket at the best rate of his career this season. According to NBA.com, he's shooting 63.4 percent in the restricted area, up from 59.9 percent last season and 54.2 percent in his rookie season.
Being able to both shoot and attack the basket has made Hield an absolute force in transition, where he trails only Curry's teammate Kevin Durant in scoring this season.
There are six shooting guards averaging more points per game than Hield this season, but Hield has a better True Shooting Percentage - a statistic that takes into account field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage - than all of them.
While it doesn't make him the next Curry, it does make him one of the league's best at his position.
Marcus Smart's 3-point shooting
Buddy Hield has long been known for his 3-point shooting ability.
Marcus Smart has not.
Through his first four seasons with the Boston Celtics, Smart was on a short list of players to attempt at least 1,000 3-pointers in their NBA careers and make less than 30.0 percent of them, some of the others being Corey Brewer, Jamaal Tinsley and Josh Smith.
Smart, however, is no longer on that list because of how he's shooting this season. He's taking 5.9 3-pointers per 36 minutes - the most of his career - while connecting on 35.9 percent of them.
It's the difference between him being someone teams will happily leave open on the perimeter to one they have to respect.
That's had a tremendous impact on the Celtics. With Smart on the floor this season, they've gone from scoring 107.1 points per 100 possessions to 110.8. It marks the third time in Smart's five seasons with the franchise that they've been better offensively with him in the lineup, though the differential in one of those seasons was marginal.
|Season||Smart on court||Smart off court||Differential|
It helps that more of Smart's minutes are aligned more Kyrie Irving and Al Horford - Brad Stevens moved the defensive ace into the starting lineup at the end of November - but his improvements means the Celtics don't have a glaring weakness on offence anymore. The midrange pull-ups that were once a big part of his offence are almost gone entirely and he's turned himself into a decent spot-up shooter.
Will it last? History says it might not. But if it does, the Celtics will only be scarier in the playoffs.
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