Indiana Pacers, NBA

Add passing to the list of required skills for NBA big men

Ever since he entered the league, it’s been understood that Kevin Durant is sui generis, a player who can score, rebound, and perhaps most significantly, distribute.

But even with this skill set, it is noteable to see how his assist percentage has climbed. From 12.5 percent his rookie season in Seattle, Durant’s number headed north of 20 percent by 2012-13, and so far in 2018-19, he’s at his most proficient level yet: 28.6 percent, close to team leader Steph Curry’s 31 percent.

In isolation, this is simply continued statistical proof of Kevin Durant’s astonishing career.

But taking a look around the NBA, Durant’s work to facilitate the Golden State offense isn’t just vital to what the Warriors do. It’s become the norm for power forwards, no less than the ability to shoot 3s is part of the expected skill set for centers in the league now. (The perception of Durant as a wing hangs on because of his skillset and how played early in his career but Basketball-Reference estimates that Durant has played the majority of his minutes as a power forward for each of the last three seasons).

“I don’t know if it’s mandatory, but having playmaking at multiple spots is a really big deal for us,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said during an interview last month. “It’s just harder to defend, I think, when the ball can move, and then every single guy can make a play. That’s tough to defend. I think it’s easier to defend an offense that is overly reliant on one or two players.”

I don’t think I have to convince you that the Warriors are a ridiculous offense to try and stop, but just briefly, consider how it works in practice here — a defense cannot trap Durant, nor so much as help off of Klay Thompson, giving Durant, an impossible one-on-one player to stop, precisely what space he could ever want. What follows is a direct result of knowing that Durant can and will pass his way out of a double-team.

But what is interesting, beyond Durant, is how completely this has taken hold around the league.

There’s Blake Griffin and his 24.1 assist percentage in Detroit. Domantas Sabonis is at 21.2 percent. Nikola Jokic, of course, is at 36.5 percent, leading to this Monte Morris quote comparing his game, “particularly his passing”, to that of LeBron James.

Durant’s assist percentage ranks fifth among NBA players 6-foot-9 or taller this season. While some of those on the list are simply elongated guards — Ben Simmons, for instance — there are plenty of classic bigs there as well, like Amir Johnson, Al Horford, and even a pair of Plumlees checking in north of 15 percent.

Compare this to just a few years ago, when Durant’s 21.7 percent in 2012-13 easily led the league among players that size, and just how frequent and common playing offense through bigs is brought into sharp relief.

In the same way, however, that bigs shooting 3s has moved beyond your stars into reserves — think of Spencer Hawes as an example of seeing that trend reach the masses — the same is true of Kyle O’Quinn when it comes to big man passing.

Kyle O’Quinn finished his college career at Norfolk State in 2012 with an assist percentage of 8.5 for his career. That climbed marginally in his first three years with the Orlando Magic, with O’Quinn no longer an offensive focal point, but only just, to 11.6. Over his next three years in New York, that jumped to 15.9 percent.

This year, in Indiana? 32.4 percent among the league leaders, and north of many point guards. That numbers may be a bit of small sample noise, considering he’s only played 75 minutes this season. But it’s clear that the way the Pacers are using him, and the Knicks before that, is very different than the big man role he grew up playing.

“The systems I’ve been playing with, I’ve got guys that want to score and I know that I’m not a big-time scorer,” O’Quinn said at his locker, following a game against the Knicks last month. “So I just like to give the ball to guys that get it going more than I can.”

O’Quinn laughed when I referred to him as a facilitator, and offered this correction: “The right pass. I think I’m reliable to make the right pass at the right time. Not a facilitator, but if you want to label me one, maybe somebody will like to hear that.”

For his part, O’Quinn’s coach, Nate McMillan, doesn’t see this as something extraordinary, either, but rather all part of the normal course of events for an Indiana offense with seven different rotation members north of 15 percent assist rate this season.

“The kid just knows how to play,” McMillan said of O’Quinn. “We play basketball and he has a great feel for the game. Great feel for scoring, getting himself open, and when the defense makes a mistake, he’s very capable of passing. So we are constantly trying to involve him in some weakside action with both he and [Sabonis], and those guys do a good job of reading each other.”

O’Quinn doesn’t believe this is about players acquiring a new skill so much as teams utilizing them in different ways. He didn’t spend his summers working on his passing. He said it’s always been part of what he can do. Now, though, teams are simply asking him to do it more often and providing the freedom to find offense through other means.

“Before it was all just go in to creating [for yourself],” O’Quinn said. “But now you’re going to see the big at the top of the key — going each way, having the choice to go each way. Stuff like that. I think it’s the way the NBA is — just a copycat. Once one team does it with any success, everybody else is going to start doing it.”

Next: Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and the importance of context

It does mean that for people in Kyle O’Quinn’s line of work, ball-stopping bigs who can merely rebound and defend other bigs are going to struggle to get those precious roster spots. Everyone knows teams prize shooting at every position but passing is now a prerequisite for a well-done frontcourt job, O’Quinn said, nodding at the question.

“You have to be able to create,” O’Quinn said. “You have to be able to free guys up and you have to be able to create when you get the ball.”

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