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NBA PM: Most Efficient Pick-and-Roll Guards

Jake Rauchbach looks at the NBA’s most efficient pick-and-roll guards this season.

Jake Rauchbach

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DeMar DeRozan, James Harden and Isaiah Thomas are playing at an extremely high level to start the season. DeRozan is leading the league in scoring at 34.1 points per game, while Harden is close behind him in scoring while also leading the NBA in assists with 13 per game. Thomas continues his stellar individual play in Boston, picking up where he left off last season.

When you take a deeper look into the statistics, it is evident that pick-and-roll action comprises a substantial portion of their overall offensive play types. Making the right decision whether to pass, shoot or re-angle a ball screen in order to attack the defense out of PNR is how many of these players, and others listed below, are able to gain their offensive advantage and make their mark on the game. Their effectiveness in PNRs is also a big reason why these players are doing so well.

Let’s take a look at five of the most efficient pick-and-roll guards (who have had at least 35 PNR possessions this season) and how they create opportunities for their teams off of this action.

Deron Williams, Dallas Mavericks – Average Points Per PNR Possession: 1.20

Despite the Mavericks’ tough start to the season (2-6 thus far), Williams has been one of the bright spots, averaging 15 points and 5.8 assists through five games before going down with a calf injury. Williams is leading the league in points per possession off of pick-and-roll situations at 1.2. PNRs make up more than half of Williams’ offensive play types at 51 percent, per Synergy Sports. It’s safe to say that the veteran guard leans heavily on this action to facilitate offense for teammates and himself. Out of PNR action, Williams is shooting 56.4 percent and is extremely adept using the ball screen to get to his one or two dribble pull-up, per Synergy. Out of 65 of Williams’ PNR possessions thus far, about a quarter of them have resulted in pull-up jumpers. The Mavs guard has scored 21 points off of PNR pull-ups, per Synergy. On 38 possessions passing out of the PNR, he has assisted on 57 points, which ranks him in the 99th percentile in the league, per Synergy. Most of these passes are to the benefit of Dwight Powell and Dirk Nowitzki, who are natural pop guys, or spot up jump shooters Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews. The Mavericks are hoping Williams can make it back from his lower leg injury soon in order to continue his productive play.

James Harden, Houston Rockets – Average Points Per PNR Possession: 1.197

No surprise here. Harden has found himself in PNRs a ridiculous 213 times thus far this season. Now that head coach Mike D’Antoni has teamed up with Harden in Houston to employ the similar ball-screen methods that helped make Steve Nash become so successful, Harden’s craftiness seems to be even harder to guard this season. Harden is fourth in the league in scoring, averaging 30.6 points, and first in assists with 13 per game through the first eight games of the season. D’Antoni’s offense seems to lend well to Harden’s crafty, herky jerky game, and the Rockets guard knows exactly how to gain an advantage from it. Currently, Harden ranks first in total PNR possessions and points scored off PNR action (255), per Synergy. The next closest man is Russell Westbrook, with 170 points off of PNR play. Harden relies on ball screens to free himself up for shots and is averaging 1.19 points per possession off of this type of play, per Synergy. For Harden to keep up his outstanding production thus far, he will need to continue to excel with his PNR play.

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics – Average Points Per PNR Possession: 1.185

Through their first seven games, the Celtics are struggling (3-4). However, Thomas looks to be picking up where he left off last season, averaging 25.7 points and 7.3 assists per game. Thomas has always relied on ball-screen action to imbalance the defense, and this season he ranks right behind Williams and Harden with 1.19 points per possession off of PNRs, per Synergy. Thomas has All-Star Al Horford and capable big Kelly Olynyk to work with. Often, Thomas will find Horford, Olynyk or Tyler Zeller rolling to the basket for buckets. He has several guys he finds for perimeter shots, like Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and pick-and-pop guy Jonas Jerebko. Thomas is also highly effective in PNRs, because he uses his speed and change of pace to create opportunities for himself. When coming off of ball screen action, he is shooting a lights out 53 percent from the field. Look for Thomas to continue his hot start by utilizing Brad Stevens’ high-volume, ball-screen offense.

Zach LaVine, Minnesota T’Wolves – Average Points Per PNR Possession: 1.12

The Timberwolves wing has started the season averaging 20 points and chipping in 2.3 assists per game. He also ranks fifth in PNR efficiency, averaging 1.11 points per possession, per Synergy. LaVine’s ball-screen action only makes up 29 percent of his total offensive play types, which is considerably less than Williams’ 51 percent, Harden’s 58 percent and Thomas’ 44 percent. However, LaVine is similarly effective in PNRs as these players. Through seven games, LaVine has scored 19 points on 19 PNR possessions when he keeps the ball looking to score himself and has scored 28 points on 23 possessions when finding teammates, per Synergy. LaVine has been especially good when hitting the roll guy (18 points on 13 possessions). In LaVine’s case, this has been Karl-Anthony Towns or Gorgui Dieng. Combined with his athleticism and solid shooting ability, LaVine’s strong PNR play could help him and the T-Wolves make the leap to the next level this season.

Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics – Average Points Per PNR Possession: 1.12

Bradley is the second Celtics player, along with Thomas, in the league’s top five in PNR efficiency. Through seven games, Bradley is averaging 1.12 PPP off of PNRs, per Synergy. Pick-and-roll makes up 34 percent of his offensive plays, per Synergy. Off of PNR, Bradley is adept at hitting the roll guy and is especially effective when finding shooters spotting up around the perimeter. Bradley excels at creating spot-up opportunities for teammates, such as fellow guard Marcus Smart and pick-and-pop big Jonas Jerebko. When he keeps it in PNR action, Bradley is looking to get all the way to the rim or pull up inside the arc. It will be interesting to see how Thomas and Bradley coexist this year within the same high volume PNR offense.

DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors – Average Points Per PNR Possession: 1.11

DeRozan is the league’s leading scorer and is off to a red-hot start seven games in. A career 28.1 percent three-point shooter, DeRozan is currently shooting 16.7 percent from three this season. That being said, somehow the Raptors guard has upped his offensive output by 10 points per game when compared to last season, averaging 34.1 points. A large part of this increased production is due to his highly efficient PNR play. DeRozan is averaging 1.11 points per possessions on PNR and loves to get into the lane, draw contact and finish over smaller defenders, per Synergy. His effectiveness in the mid-range has also allowed him to bolster a high PNR efficiency rating. PNRs make up 45 percent of DeRozan’s offensive play types, per Synergy. For DeRozan to continue this ultra high level of play, he will likely have to maintain his high PNR rating.

After playing four years of college basketball at Drexel University, Jake Rauchbach coached at the collegiate level, founded The MindRight Pro Program and trained numerous professional and Olympic athletes. Now, Rauchbach writes about the NBA and college basketball for Basketball Insiders and serves as the Player Performance Specialist for Temple University's men's basketball team.

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NBA DAILY: Lou Williams Stepping Up For Injured Clippers

The Clippers have been hit by injuries again, but Lou Williams is doing everything he can to keep the team afloat.

Jesse Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers have been decimated by injuries this season. Blake Griffin is sidelined until approximately February of next year. Danilo Gallinari has been sidelined for an extended period of time with a glute injury and will continue to be out of action for some time after suffering a second glute injury recently. Patrick Beverley underwent season ending microfracture surgery in November. Milos Teodosic suffered a foot injury in just the second game of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Austin Rivers just suffered a concussion and could miss some time as well.

With so many injuries, the Clippers currently find themselves in the 10th seed in the Western Conference with an 11-15 record. This isn’t what the Clippers had in mind when they brought back a solid haul of players last offseason in exchange for Chris Paul.

Competing with the top teams in the Western Conference was always going to be difficult for this Clippers team. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on the roster and added a few younger prospects to develop. However, key players like Griffin and Gallinari are injury prone and both needed to stay on the court for the Clippers to have any hope of staying in range of the West’s top teams. The Clippers lost 9 games straight in the middle of November and it looked as though they were on course to be competing for a top lottery pick in next season’s draft.

However, despite all of the injuries and setbacks, Lou Williams, along with iron man DeAndre Jordan, has picked up the slack and has done more than his fair share to keep the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive. This season, Williams is averaging 20 points, 4.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range (on 6.2 attempts per game). Williams is sporting a healthy 21.2 Player Efficiency Rating, which is a near career best rating (Williams posted a 21.4 PER last season). His True Shooting percentage (59.3) is tied with his career high rating, which Williams posted last season as well. Williams’s free throw rate has taken a dip this season, but his ability to draw timely (and often questionable) fouls has been a valuable asset to his team once again. Simply put, Williams has been particularly efficient on offense this season for the Clippers – a team that has lost its most reliable scorers and playmakers.

“We’ve had some guys go down with injuries and somebody has to step in and fill that scoring void,” Williams said after helping the Clippers defeat the Magic. “I’ve been able to do it.”

Williams has also hit plenty of big shots for the Clippers this season. Most recently, Williams knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds against the Washington Wizards that sealed the win for the Clippers. The Clippers are used to having a natural born scorer coming off the bench to act as a sparkplug as they had Jamal Crawford on the roster for the last five seasons. Similar to Crawford, Williams struggles to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball. But Williams has been more effective defensively so far this season for the Clippers than Crawford was for the majority of his time in Los Angeles. Williams isn’t going to lock down the Russell Westbrooks of the world, but he isn’t giving back the majority of the points he scores either.

In addition to his scoring, Williams is a solid playmaker and has managed to facilitate the Clippers’ offense at various points of the season. Williams isn’t exactly Chris Paul in terms of setting up his teammates for easy baskets, but he has been notably effective in this role, which is very important considering how many playmakers have falled to injury this season. Williams is now, arguably, the team’s best offensive weapon and one of its most effective floor generals. Now that we are nearly two months into the NBA season, it seems as though Williams and his teammates are starting to find a little more chemistry with one another.

“I think these guys are just starting to be more comfortable. They understand we’re going to have some injuries and guys are going to be down,” Williams said recently. “So they’re just playing with a lot of confidence. I think at first you’re kind of getting your feet wet and guys don’t want to make mistakes. Now guys are just going out there and playing as hard as they can.”

Williams will need to continue building chemistry with his teammates if they are to keep pace until players like Gallinari and Griffin make it back onto the court.

The Clippers have won six of their last 10 games and are starting to steady what had becoming a sinking ship. Smart gamblers and predictive algorithms would caution against betting on the Clippers making the playoffs this season, but they are in much better shape now than they were in the middle of November — an accomplishment that Williams deserves plenty of credit for.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 12/15/17

Spencer Davies checks in on the race for DPOY with his top six candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s mid-December and candidates for individual awards are starting to really garner attention. On Basketball Insiders, we’ve been taking a close look at players who should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year in a unique fashion.

As the numbers begin to even out and the noise lessens with larger sample sizes, the picture becomes clearer. There is no clear-cut favorite, and the return of Kawhi Leonard will likely complicate things more in the future, but right now there are six players who have stood out from the rest.

 Luc Richard Mbah a Moute

It’s a shame that a right shoulder injury is going to keep Mbah a Moute out of action for the next few weeks. He’s done everything that the Houston Rockets have asked of him and more. It’s been his versatility defensively that’s made him a headache for any opponent he’s guarded. He’s able to seamlessly switch onto assignments coming off screens and create turnovers from forcing extra pressure.

The Rockets have the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA (103.7) as it is, but when the veteran forward is on the floor, they allow just 99.8 points per 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass.

 Andre Roberson

There’s not a lot of good going on with the Oklahoma City Thunder right now, though you can pick out a bright spot when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. As a team, they are first in the league in turnover percentage and second in defensive rating. This is due in part to Roberson’s ability to force his matchups to make errant decisions with the ball, which usually results in a steal for one of his teammates.

Currently, the 26-year-old is the top guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking system and 10th in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. According to CTG, Oklahoma City is worse when Roberson isn’t playing (97.9 on/10.5 off) and his impact using those figures ranks in the 94th percentile.

 Kevin Durant

Here’s a case where the numbers don’t exactly tell the real story. The Golden State Warriors are technically a better team defensively by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Durant off the court. But when you go deeper into things, things get clarified. Let’s start simple: He’s tied for most total blocks in the league (51) and the second-most blocks per game (2.1). The Warriors have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.9.

How about we go further into individual defense? Durant is contesting nearly 13 field goals per game and only 38.4 percent of those attempts have been successful, a mark that is the second-lowest for opponent percentage among those defending at least 10 tries per game. Diving deeper, the reigning Finals MVP is stifling in the fourth quarter, yielding a league-low 30 percent conversion rate (min. three attempts) to his competition.

 Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process has gone mainstream, and for good reason. Everybody is focused on the beautiful footwork, the sensational euro steps and the dream shakes, but Embiid’s got a suit just as strong on the other side of the ball. The Philadelphia 76ers are barely on the outside looking in as a top-10 defense, and they’ve been a team improving as they’ve grown together over the course of the season. The entire trio of Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, and Embiid has been the stronghold of the Sixers’ defense, but it’s been the sophomore center who has assumed the most responsibility to anchor down the paint and take on individual challenges against quality big men.

Embiid ranks third in DRPM among those playing at least 30 minutes per game and has the highest defended field goal percentage differential (-8.7) in the NBA for players seeing at least eight attempts per game. Philadelphia is also allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions with him sitting, which is a 12-point difference that puts his impact in the 97th percentile.

 Eric Bledsoe

Since Bledsoe’s arrival, the Milwaukee Bucks have been on the upswing regarding their defensive principles. The combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo—who could be a candidate for DPOY in his own right—and the strong guard has created havoc for opposing teams. There’s a ton of pressure being applied and it’s worked well. Due to a less-than-ideal stretch a month ago, work still has to be done in order to rid the Bucks out of that bottom-10 stigma in that specific area, but they’re on their way.

Bledsoe’s reputation as an in your face, stick-like-glue defender precedes itself. He’s doing an excellent job with one-on-one matchups. Already hesitant to attack him as it is, opponents don’t try to take him much, but when they do, it doesn’t usually turn out in their favor. In isolation situations, Bledsoe is allowing just 0.44 points per possession and is tied for the second-highest turnover frequency on those plays, ranking in the 97th percentile according to NBA.com. Using CTG, the Bucks’ defensive rating dips by 13 points when he’s off the floor. That discrepancy is also highly regarded and ranks in the 98th percentile.

 Anthony Davis

Where would the New Orleans Pelicans be without Davis? There’s a special talent about The Brow that can’t really be put into words. He takes on the brunt of the defensive load and has for years now. DeMarcus Cousins started off as the physical presence of the duo on that end of the court, but it’s been Davis who has remained the most consistent force.

Answering the question posed in the first paragraph, the Pelicans are giving up 117.5 points per 100 possessions when Davis is not present. That is a ridiculous figure, and given that New Orleans isn’t the best team defensively in the first place, it shows his true importance to that group. Including Cousins, he is one of 13 players defending at least 14 field goals per game. The difference between them, however, is that he is allowing just 40.5 percent of those attempts to be successful. It’s the lowest conversion rate among that list of names. Add in the fact that he’s blocking almost two shots per game and is averaging a steal per game—that’s a convincing case for DPOY.

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Jahlil Okafor Being Slowly Incorporated By Nets

The Nets hope Jahlil Okafor can be a franchise player for them, but, of course, only when he’s ready.

Moke Hamilton

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It’s incredible that a player selected as highly in a draft and as recently as he could be considered damaged goods by his drafting team, but that’s what the Philadelphia 76ers thought of Jahlil Okafor, and the Brooklyn Nets were the beneficiaries.

Remarkably, behind the genius of general manager Sean Marks, the Nets, with Okafor, suddenly have a roster with two young building blocks in he and D’Angelo Russell. With Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll, Marks has done an incredible job of improving the talent base of the Nets despite having little assets to offer in terms of trade value.

Now, with Okafor in tow, the question everyone in Brooklyn wants to know the answer to is “When?”

After acquiring Okafor and shooting guard Nik Stauskas from the Sixers on December 7, neither of the two played in any of the club’s first three games following the trade.

The idea, said head coach Kenny Atkinson, is to bring both Okafor and Stauskas along slowly.

“I just think it’s going to take time,” Atkinson, according to New York Newsday, said Wednesday after practice.

“I can’t give you a timetable. I think we come to these decisions as a group. We’ll know when he’s ready and we’ll give you the word.”

Selected with the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, Okafor averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a rookie. Since then, a combination of the rise of Joel Embiid, his lack of defensive presence and perceived inability to play in an NBA where traditional back-to-basket centers are considered obsolete dropped his stock dramatically, to the point where he played a total of 25 minutes this season for the Sixers.

Still, it hasn’t impacted the value that Atkinson or Marks sees in him.

“I think he’s been very serious, very focused, and that’s a great start because that’s where it starts,” Atkinson said on Wednesday.

“What’s your demeanor like? What’s your work? I’m looking to get to know him more.”

It’s not every day that a coach will acquire a new player who has impact potential and seat him on the bench, but that’s exactly what Atkinson has done. What it means, though, is probably more important.

When one considers what has transpired with the Nets since their move to Brooklyn, the franchise has been renowned for attempting to take shortcuts to the top. From Gerald Wallace to Joe Johnson to even Deron Williams, the moves made by the franchise were always designed with the thought of tomorrow, not the pragmatic patience and long-sighted view that, at least to this point, Atkinson and Marks seem to have.

In most situations, a franchise which knows that its first round pick is going elsewhere would feel at least some sort of pressure to win as much as possible in the short term, especially after having the first overall pick in the prior year’s draft snatched from their grasp. As a reminder, as a part of the 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, the Nets sent the Celtics their first round picks in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 drafts, as well as the right to swap picks with them in 2017.

As fate would have it, the Nets’ pick in 2017 ended up being first overall, but, obviously, the Celtics exercised their right to swap.

Since then, the Celtics dealt the Nets’ 2018 pick to the Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving, but to the front office’s credit, the knowledge of the sins of yesterday have no impact on the brick-by-brick approach that Marks has taken in attempting to rebuild the franchise.

Okafor, unlike his prior life in Philadelphia, isn’t coming to Brooklyn with the pressure of being any sort of franchise savior on his shoulders—he simply needs to fit in, on his own time.

“They know my weaknesses and strengths and I’m working with them every day to get better,” Okafor said on Wednesday.

“They already told me what they want me to work on and like I said, I’m all in.”

Obviously, Atkinson has a plan for Okafor, and with the Nets playing three games in four nights, having another big body to provide some minutes would do the team wonders. But, for a change, there’s no haste in Brooklyn.

“Right now, I’m just getting used to the pace,” Okafor said. “That’s the main thing. Especially with me really not having played at all this year,” he said, alluding to the fact that, despite weighing in about 20 pounds lighter than he was last season, his lack of action has cause him to lose a bit of his wind.

But while he may have lost his place in the rotation and his game readiness, in Brooklyn, Okafor has found something much more valuable—a sense of belonging.

“They’re just really invested in me and that just makes me feel wanted, it makes me feel a part of this team,” he said.

With the final debit of the ill-fated 2013 trade being paid this coming summer, the Nets will turn the page on a new era that they hope Okafor and D’Angelo Russell—two players selected one pick apart—can help to lead.

Behind the scenes, Marks will continue to work diligently to acquire undervalued pieces which can, for him, hopefully become a part of a sum that’s bigger than their individual pieces.

But, of course, like Okafor’s debut with Brooklyn, it’ll take some time.

That’s okay, though. Finally, at Barclays Center, for a change, there’s pragmatic patience. For sure, this time, there’s simply no need to rush.

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