FOX Sports NBA Writer
Can you believe that we’ve reached the first quarter mark of the NBA season? All eyes this week will be on the In-Season Tournament, but we’re going to use this space to highlight two players doing great things and one not doing enough.
1. Jalen Brunson channeling his Steph Curry
When Jalen Brunson first entered the NBA, he was an undersized guard with an uncanny ability to finish in the paint. But that was basically it — it’s why he fell into the second round of the 2018 draft.
Then came the midrange game. And then Brunson refined his shooting stroke and turned himself into a smooth spot-up shooter. Since signing with the New York Knicks last offseason Brunson has added another skill to his game, one that’s catapulted him to another stratosphere of stardom: He’s become one of the league’s premier off-the-dribble shooters.
So far this season, Brunson has drilled 43.8% of his pull-up 3s, according to NBA Advanced Stats. That’s a nearly six-percent uptick from last season. That’s obviously impressive. What’s most impressive, though, is how many he’s launching at that efficiency. He’s taking 4.2 pull-up 3s per game, about 1.5 more than he averaged last season. Only 15 players are averaging more. None have drained a higher percentage.
This has made Brunson unguardable. He was already a maestro off the dribble, either in isolation or off a screen. His willingness to let it fly — and the danger he poses to the defense while doing so — now leaves defenses without answers.
Hug him around a screen or blanket him on the perimeter, and he can unleash his array of bobs and weaves and pivots and pumps. He’s not explosive in the classical sense, but he’s a bull with the ball and just might boast the best footwork of any guard in the league. And now if a defender sags off of him or goes under a screen, he’ll just pull-up from deep.
Brunson remains the engine of a Knicks team that is 12-7 and riding a three-game win streak. The Knicks own the league’s third-best defense and now, after a slow start, they’re up to 12th in offense. That unit has been six points per 100 possessions better in non-garbage time minutes, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s a winning formula, and one that’s built around Brunson’s excellence.
2. Do the Cavaliers have an Evan Mobley problem?
Remember a couple of years ago when it looked like Evan Mobley was on the verge of not just being a future star, but becoming the sort of dominant force who could take over the league? Well, it might be time to revise those expectations.
To be fair, Mobley is still really good. He’s one of the league’s best defensive players, a long-armed, nearly-seven-foot menace who wrecks havoc all over the court, but particularly in the paint. Defenders have finished just 54.9% of their looks at the rim with Mobley in the area, according to NBA Advanced Stats, one of the league’s better marks. The Cavs’ defense is 11.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in non-garbage time minutes, according to Cleaning the Glass.
The problem is on the other end of the floor, where Mobley just hasn’t shown the growth so many of us expected. He still can’t shoot and still won’t shoot; he’s only attempted 10 triples this season, and only hit two of them. His touch in the paint is a problem, too — he’s shooting just 36% from between 3 and 10 feet. He’s also turning the ball over more than he did in his first two NBA seasons and getting to the free-throw line less frequently.
The fact that he’s playing alongside another All-Star caliber center in Jarrett Allen only exacerbates these problems. Mobley is lining up at the 4, but doesn’t possess any of the necessary skills. It’s why lineups featuring the two bigs are only barely outsourcing opponents, despite putting up stingy defensive numbers. There are flashes of high-low chemistry every now and then. But not nearly enough.
Also, before you say that the obvious answer is for the Cavs to deal Allen, just know that lineups this season featuring Mobley as the lone big are just barely breaking even.
The Cavs are currently 11-9, but are just 20th in net rating. This, coming off that embarrassing first round playoff loss to the Knicks last season. Remember, too, that they gave up a ton for Donovan Mitchell two off-seasons ago, who can enter free agency after next season. In other words: the clock is ticking in Cleveland, and the Cavs desperately need Mobley to be better.
3. Boston’s unsung hero
The Boston Celtics’ deal sending a first round pick and a couple of players to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Derrick White prior to the 2022 trade deadline was the sort of trade that gets noticed by basketball nerds but not many others. At the time, some Celtics fans were furious at Brad Stevens for parting with a first round pick in exchange for a backup wing.
The trade turned out to be a steal, and one of the most impactful trades we’ve seen over the past half-decade. Since joining the Celtics, White has been a two-way star and is at the heart of everything the first-place Celtics do.
He’s a knockdown shooter (40.7% on 3s) who can also create offense off the bounce (14.3 points and 5.1 assists per game). To use a word coaches love these days, he’s also a connector on offense, someone who makes quick decisions, someone who keeps things moving. And his ability to set screen from the guard positions allows the Celtics to hunt mismatches and put defenses on their heels.
He also happens to be one of the league’s top perimeter defenders.
Entering their Monday night battle with the Pacers, the Celtics had been 14.1 points per 100 possessions better in non-garbage time minutes, according to Cleaning the Glass. White might not get any of the shine as Tatum and Brown, but don’t underestimate his impact.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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