Ed. note: Every now and then, we’ll publish a piece from the Patreon account of our own Jackson Frank. This week, we’re running with his series of musings from around the NBA titled “To Be Frank,” in which Jackson identifies a number of trends in the league that have piqued his interest. If you’d like to follow along with everything he publishes, subscribe to his Patreon.
Keldon Johnson’s fearless slashing
Among San Antonio’s gaggle of delightful young players is second-year wing Keldon Johnson, who seized an opportunity during the Orlando Bubble last season — averaging 14.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 1.1 steals on 77.4 percent(!!) true shooting across eight games — and has parlayed that into a breakout sophomore campaign.
Despite a recent lull (12.6 points on 51.2 percent true shooting the last five games), Johnson is still averaging 14.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.2 rebounds, and 0.9 steals on 55.9 percent true shooting this year, solidifying himself as a cornerstone of San Antonio’s future.
He’s a 6’5 wing who operates with an unflinching disposition attacking the basket. Nearly 52 percent of his field goals have come in the restricted area and while tunnel vision has plagued his efficiency to a degree (56.7 percent shooting), his strength, contortion and 6’9 wingspan make for some tip-of-the-cap finishes.
Get him downhill and he becomes a bumper car in sneakers, plowing through or wriggling around defenders to convert inside. Despite his physical approach, he’s only committed four charges this season, showcasing body control and discernment to score around the basket.
Watch him have his way on these bulldozes to the tin:
My favorite part of his approach are the times he revs up off the ball, maintaining energetic feet to prime himself for a drive on the catch. It’s a subtle tactic, but one that sets him up to better seize the advantage created by teammates.
Developing a drive-and-kick game to turn off the blinders from time to time and growing even more willing as a long-range shooter (34.6 percent from deep, .277 3-point rate this year) are the next components of Johnson’s refinement. Whether those appear remain to be seen, but either way, I’ll continue enjoying the spunky nature of his rim-running game.
Larry Nance Jr., The Midwestern Thief
Just shy of the NBA’s quarter poll, Larry Nance Jr. is a contender for a silly, makeshift, defensive triple crown. He leads the league in steals per game (2.3) and deflections per game (4.4), and ranks fifth in loose balls recovered per game (1.5). He’s the best defender on the sixth-ranked defense and a legitimate All-Defensive Team candidate.
Whenever I watch the Cavaliers, I find myself drawn to Nance on both ends, but most notably, it’s his proclivity for defensive chaos that pulls me in. The 6’7 wing wields high-level instincts and hands made for cup-stacking competitions that seem lathered in Stickum, launching his limbs onto any ball near him.
Package those traits with acute awareness and timely reaction speed, and you have a versatile defensive playmaker who excels in the passing lanes, at the nail and on the interior:
The diversity of those takeaways resonates prominently and is exactly why Nance should be a prime trade target for many teams (hello, Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics). Maybe the Cavaliers stay put and ride their plucky, live-wire group to a play-in berth. Either way, Nance is exactly the sort of role player who shouldn’t have to hang up his kicks until deep into the postseason, and much of it revolves around his malleable, joyful thievery.
Terry Rozier’s elite off-ball shooting
After an inaugural season with the Charlotte Hornets that saw him handle significant on-ball duties and feature his decision-making warts, Terry Rozier is being deployed as a dynamite off-ball shooter in his second year. He’s netting 42.7 percent of his 7.2 triples per game and 46.3 percent of his 4.8 catch-and-shoot threes, the latter of which ranks 10th among 53 players launching at least four a night.
His usage has shifted to reduce his decision-making burden, and it’s unlocking him as a scorer (career-highs of 18.8 points and 59.5 percent true shooting). Only 33.9 percent of his field goals are unassisted this year, compared to 47 percent last year, and his catch-and-shoot three frequency has jumped from 25 percent to 33.3 percent. His spot-up frequency skipped to 24.5 percent (18.8 percent last year). His pick-and-roll frequency is down to 16.4 percent (26.9 percent).
Ranking in the 82nd percentile on spot-ups and 72nd percentile off screens, the sixth-year guard is prospering in a reconstructed role. He turns on the burners to create separation around screens and is capable knocking down jumpers from a variety of challenging angles.
Watching him work as a lethal off-movement shooter is a treat. Scheming threes for him is clearly a priority, and he’s delivering this season, using quickness and footwork for space and sprinting into jumpers.
The Hornets’ stable of playmakers — LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, Devonte’ Graham and P.J. Washington — allow Rozier to be optimized and we’re seeing the dividends in a dazzling long-range exhibition over the first 17 games.
Be wary of Scary Terry, the jitterbug off-ball shooter.
Bam Adebayo’s scoring leap
Largely for reasons outside of their control (I.e.: injuries and COVID protocols), the 6-10 Miami Heat have not been good this season. Bam Adebayo, however, has been tremendous, building upon his All-Star season and playoff run a year ago, while ascending to new levels. Primarily, that ascension has arrived by way of an evolution as an individual scorer.
He’s averaging a career-high 20.7 points (15.9 in 2019-20) on 68.1 percent true shooting. Per 100 possessions, he’s at 30.8 points, zooming past last year’s career-high of 23.1. A career-low 63.8 percent of his field goals are assisted.
After just 89 isolation possessions and 52 jumpers off the dribble in 72 games last year, he’s already amassed 33 and 28, respectively, through 14 games. The efficiency has accelerated, too; he’s not just upping the volume in hopes of adding a long-term strength. He ranks in the 97th percentile in isolation (40th last year) and 94th percentile off the dribble (16th).
I don’t expect those marks to maintain the entire season, but increasing efficiency and volume in a pair of categories that generally requires self-creation is staggeringly impressive. He’s hitting mid-range step-backs, weaponizing rip-throughs, jabs and ball-handling for space, and demonstrating picturesque touch on his in-between game.
A level of comfort and skill convergence as a self-creator emerge on these buckets that lend credence to the forward-thinking viability of Adebayo’s scoring aptitude.
His rate of improvement is phenomenal. This potential development augments the value of his passing and hopes for blossoming into a genuine offensive hub. It adds a layer to his dribble hand-off prowess, too, if defenders have to worry about him stepping into a pull-up rather than solely focusing on containing Duncan Robinson, already a laborious endeavor.
How exactly he balances his traditional responsibilities with newfound talents once Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro return to the lineup is worth monitoring. But these flashes — terming it as such feels like an undersell? — for Adebayo inspire rosy daydreams of the future. And stripping away any long-term implications, they’re simply fun to witness and that’s how it always should be on the court.