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.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.