Re-introducing The Old Man and the Three Things
Plus: Volume 1 of Nekias's new series: Screen Time
Welcome back to A Farewell to Takes, our quick trip around the NBA and WNBA. First, some more news about The Old Man and the Three Things: I’m excited to announce that we will now be sharing the full episode on our YouTube and all audio platforms. Check out this week’s episode with Tim Legler where we’re sharing our Week 1 reactions and takeaways. As previously mentioned, we will be bringing in Tim, Nekias, and Steve to share their thoughts and analysis every week. We want to make it THE place for NBA sickos, we hope you continue to tune in!
Thanks, as always, for reading! —JJ
Screen Time, Vol. 1: Jusuf Nurkić
Offenses have never been more lethal than they are in this era. With primary ball-handlers becoming larger, the collective shooting range expanding and teams leaning further into the importance of spacing, it’s becoming even more difficult to keep the ball out of the basket.
With the game expanding, screening has become even more important. A well-placed off-ball pick can free a movement shooter for a triple or a catch-and-drive. On-ball screens can make shifty ball-handlers even harder to deal with in pick-and-roll and open the door for dump-offs, lobs, and fruitful catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Screeners come in all sizes these days, ranging from the burly centers to mismatch-causing smalls. I can’t overstate how important guard-screening has become, especially late in games.
This season, I want to keep tabs on who is — and isn’t — getting the job done as screeners. Every week, I’ll be highlighting a handful of the most powerful or shameful screen-setters in the league.
Let’s get into volume one.
Screener of the Week: Suns Center Jusuf Nurkić
Many were curious to see how successful Jusuf Nurkić would be as a member of the Phoenix, especially in relation to him taking the place of the younger and (presumably) more upside-filled Deandre Ayton. It hasn't been perfect, but Nurk has been productive: 9.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists (2.3 turnovers) in a little over 26 minutes per contest. The Suns' offense has been over 16 points per 100 possessions better with Nurkić on the floor, though it's worth noting 66 of his 79 minutes have been tied to Kevin Durant.
Still, Nurkić has been impactful, and a lot of that has been due to his work as a screener. This is basic analysis, but is an incredibly large human being. It's hard to get around him, and even harder to work through him. That he's as nimble on his feet as he is makes him even more difficult to maneuver against, and thus an effective screening partner on and off the ball for the Suns.
He popped early in the season opener, with one particular set asking him to screen for both Devin Booker (get well soon!) and Durant in rapid succession. Even beyond that, his game film was filled with reps of him prying his guys open. So much so that I had to make a highlight compilation for him.
Before things get started tonight, wanted to give a quick hat tip to the screening masterclass we got from Jusuf Nurkic last night.
Set 31 on-ball screens last night per Second Spectrum, contact rate above 80 (!!!) on the night. Consistently pried Devin Booker & others open.
— Nekias (Nuh-KY-us) Duncan (@NekiasNBA)
Oct 25, 2023
The numbers match the eyes for Nurkić as a screener in week one. Per Second Spectrum, he generated contact on 71.4% of his on-ball picks, the highest mark among 57 players to set at least 30 of them. On off-ball screens, Nurkić connected at a 72.2% rate, 1st among bigs, and 5th overall among 58 players to set at least 20.
Keep movin' folks, big fella!
Your most efficient on-ball screening partner, in terms of points per possession? Pacers big man Jalen Smith, with Indiana generated a gaudy 1.4 PPP on trips featuring a PnR with Smith. His work with TJ McConnell (11 picks, 1.7 PPP) and Andrew Nembhard (9 picks, 1.63 PPP) were particularly fruitful. Gotta use "screening" loosely, though, because Smith rarely made contact (18.2%) this week. He jets out of there on slips, which quietly took some pressure off his guards by removing the big from the 2-on-2 affair.
In the Inverted Division, quick hat tips to Max Strus (17 picks, 1.59 PPP), Josh Green (15 picks, 1.27 PPP), Ziaire Williams (17 picks, 1.26 PPP), and the Oklahoma City Thunder as a concept. It's always fun watching guards do the dirty work.
Zach Lowe joined Episode 179 of the show for our official NBA season preview. JJ and Zach discuss the biggest questions for Tier 1 teams, the new NBA rules and its possible consequences, and so much more.
Denver keeps digging
The defending champion Denver Nuggets have started 3-0. Repeating success in this league can be a tall task, but the Nuggets have delivered early. Their opening night win over the Lakers felt like a reminder, their second win in Memphis showed they can find a way to win even when out of rhythm and their win at Oklahoma City felt like a statement that there are levels to the Western Conference.
For better or worse, over the past few years Denver has always felt like a slow starting team that eventually figures it out and improves as the season goes on. This year feels different and there was one moment during their win at OKC that proved it to me. Jamal Murray scores off a post up to put Denver up 43-31 with 8:45 left in the second quarter. The Thunder call a timeout and score on their first possession. Denver comes down to run the set they had drawn up, only they do not execute it properly. Coach Michael Malone immediately calls a timeout to re-set the expectations. The Nuggets went into the half with an 18 point lead.
We can start with the obvious on why the Nuggets are off to a great start. Nikola Jokić remains very good at basketball and is casually averaging 26.3 PPG, 13 rebounds, 7.7 assists while shooting 61.5% from the field and 45.5% from three. Say what you want about Jokić (and many do), but the ways that he scores while seeming unfazed by the defense continue to stand out. That, of course, blends into Denver’s movement and his passing and he’s still the engine.
What really stands out has been the play of Jamal Murray. Coming off a great playoff run, he appears to be off to the races right from the start. A healthier version of Jamal Murray makes the Nuggets even more dangerous. During last year’s regular season you could being to see how Murray was feeling simply by if he was driving the basketball or not. This year has felt like a much more balanced attack at all three levels and a reminder of what he can bring to the table.
Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope continue to do all of the little things on both ends of the floor to support this lineup. Michael Porter Jr is currently averaging as many rebounds (11.3) as field goal attempts. Their defense, which can typically start slow, has been locked in from the start of the season. Whether it is showing early help, rotating, closing out, the multiple efforts have been there each night. They had some key losses in the off-season but the benefit of winning is you know exactly what you need from your “others”. Peyton Watson has shown great defensive flashes and a strong cutting ability. Christian Braun has improved on both ends of the floor. Zeke Nnaji simply does his job and his ability to mix in switches helps to elevate the non Jokić lineups.
The season is long, the league is competitive, but the Nuggets have shown that winning may put you under the radar, it can also help create a buy-in to keep you at the top. —Steve
What Tommy has been listening to
The Locked On Podcast network is a useful tool in general to catch up with what's going on around the league. Nobody can watch every game, though some who contribute to this letter may try. It's a good refresher course on trends and and developments that the numbers don't necessarily show. I'm fascinated by the Pistons this year. Every player I've talked to says Monty will get them 4-6 extra wins by himself. I think people forgot how good Cade is, and they have maybe my favorite young player in the league, Jalen Duren, who is off to a monster start, putting up 23/15, 14/17 and 17/14 in his first three, while shooting insanely efficiently.
I don't know that the Pistons will be a play-in team, I'm not even sure that this 2-1 start isn't a product of teams not having film, early season unpredictability etc.. But they are going to fun and interesting to watch. Ku Khahil hosts the Locked On Pistons podcast and is a great follow for all things Detroit. Will be checking in on them occasionally throughout the season and hope to get out to a game in Detroit soon. —Tommy
Best Thing Tommy Ate Last Week: Nene's Birria at Barclays Center
I'm going to try to spotlight different arena food from around the country this year. Stadium food in general leaves a lot to be desired (to put it nicely), but there have been improvements over the years. It's fun finding diamonds in the rough. I was at the Nets/Cavs home opener this past Wednesday, so I wanted to shout out OM3's favorite taco spot: Nene’s Taquiera. The tacos/quesadilas are on point as always; though you have to be a little careful with the birria dip in arena seats, the quality is just as high as the other locations. If you have any suggestions of under the radar, great arena food, please send them my way. —Tommy
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