The game slows down.
How often have we heard this about a young guard, going into year 2 or 3 in the NBA? Every young athlete who can jump out of the gym eventually learns to move away from relying solely on their athletic abilities, to using craft and skill to break down a defense and penetrate in a more methodical way. At least, that’s what the general wisdom tells us – and from NBA players too, not just the talking heads. When I heard Jalen Green talking about this in his pre-draft film session interview with ESPN’s Mike Schmitz, it warmed me to him. He gets it, I thought. He knows where he needs to get to, and he’s already working in the lab with his team in preparation for the NBA. That’s a player who studies the game.
But what if spending the first couple of years in the league playing at break-neck speed and trying to dunk on everyone is an important part of development? What if in a quest to get mature quicker, you’re skipping valuable steps that each young guard must walk, one way or another? This is not something I’ve thought about before and watching Jalen Green so far this season has broken down some of the beliefs I thought I had about rookie development. In a game where IQ is heralded as a rare and invaluable skill, is Jalen thinking too much?
Let’s dig in.
In this play, Theis sets a really good screen to get Green separation, but he just waits for the defender to recover and throws up an off-balance floater in an attempt at drawing a foul call. Certainly last year, smart pick n roll guards were able to leverage a chasing defender’s momentum from behind by stopping and drawing a foul, but the Celtics defender isn’t really chasing hard here at all, he just has his arm slightly out.
Earlier in the season, Jalen had a tendency to try to put the defender on his back, intentionally slowing down his momentum and blowing up his own drive. This is something you will see smart guard do, Chris Paul is an obvious example. But do we really want a hyper-athletic, 6’5 guy to be doing this?
This is where his issues were self-inflicted. Here’s more clips of his decision making in the pick n roll. Before his injury, he had a high tendency to snake on pick n rolls, even if it meant running into his own screener.
And the pullup long range 2 came out far too often. I’m not opposed to a good shooter pulling up in open space midcourt to punish a drop, so maybe this is being too critical. The first play below he pulls up against Rudy Gobert, a completely fine decision. But in the second he pulls up when he has a clear lane to attack downhill at Robert Williams, a poor rim protector giving up 70% at the rim, and in the 14th percentile for rim protection this year per cleaningtheglass. I’d like Jalen to attack downhill relentlessly, but others may say he should keep trying midrange shots to make sure he has it in his arsenal when needed, an argument I’m absolutely open to. But it seemed like the intention to snake came first, and the natural next move being a pullup 2 was just an automatic decision he felt he needed to make.
The decision making in these moments will need to improve, and here we see an extremely poor floater attempt from the free throw line. DeAndre Ayton was far too high to try pullup and shoot, this had to be a pass out or attempt at the rim.
There is also of course, the matter of spacing. In his first 17 games before injury, Jalen was in a starting unit with Kevin Porter Jr, Jae’Sean Tate, Daniel Theis and Christian Wood. Tate and Theis are two non-shooters. Even Porter is a career 32% shooter who defenders feel comfortable sagging off. That it was an offensive disaster was painfully obvious to all who watched. I’ve clipped some plays here which really drive home how difficult it was for Jalen to penetrate.
Firstly, when he runs a ballscreen with Daniel Theis it’s far too easy for a defense in drop coverage. They aren’t worried about the pick n pop, because even though Theis is at least an average shooter above the break, it’s on incredibly low volume. His career 33% 3-point shooting on 1.6 attempts per game isn’t scaring anyone. This means whenever Jalen attacks on a ballscreen with Theis, the defense can defend 2v1 with the guard defender and the drop big at the rim.
But it’s not all on Theis, and the off-ball players caused issues too. In this play below, we can see when Jalen makes his drive, KPJ has made an odd decision to cut into the paint – a paint that is already clogged because Houston has Alperen Sengun and Jae’Sean Tate weakside. As an aside, it’s important to note that while we all love Sengun, his value off-ball isn’t magically fixed because of his playmaking. As a secondary action, he can do stuff of course, but will still be hurting the driving game of Houston’s guards when placed off-ball in a two-big lineup.
Lastly, here’s an example of some of the poor positioning that was plaguing the Houston offense earlier in the season, something Coach Silas talked about several times as a point of necessary improvement. Houston runs a three-man weave action at the top of the key sometimes to get into motion, but here Jalen is clearly looking to drive but facing a wall of three defenders because KPJ and Christian Wood are stood right next to him.
Now we get to the good stuff, which is Jalen’s level of play since coming back from injury. It’s obvious he’s taken time to reassess his tendencies and aggression level, as well as what seems to have been an invaluable effort with John Lucas to quicken his shot release. Though this blog post is about his pick n roll decision making and driving, it should be noted that what has led to his scoring and efficiency surge upon returning has been the 3-ball. 52% of his shots have been from deep, and he’s shooting 52% on those shots. That’s going to help you rack up 20-point games pretty easily. But we’re here to talk about his finishing at the rim, and while it’s been lower volume, it’s been very encouraging.
The enhanced spacing and ditching of the old lineup has undoubtedly helped. This year, when Green is on the court with Tate and Theis, he shoots 36% from the field. Over half of his minutes pre-injury were when both were on the floor. Since coming back, over 75% of his minutes have been with just one non-shooter, whether it's shooters around Theis or Sengun, or Wood at the 5 and one of Nwaba or Tate on the wings.
The first thing I noticed watching Green these past four games has been how often he has driven without a screen. He has one of the quickest first steps in the league, against many defenders he simply doesn't need to bring a screener over to get downhill. Against aggressive on-ball defenders like Avery Bradley, he struggled, but this is to be expected as he adds to his isolation game. But earlier in the year he often passed out of 1v1 matchups with poor defenders. Now, he's licking his lips.
He's brought back the fake reversal where he goes towards a screen, but quickly changes direction and drives. He did this a couple of times at the start of the season but seemed to abandon it. I wasn't intentionally tracking this as I rewatched games, I just happened to notice it - so maybe I missed some other attempts he had, but I wouldn't be surprised if he sat down with John Wall during his layoff and brought this move back. He even does it twice in a row against Tyler Herro in the second play of this clip.
With Green in attack mode, good things are going to happen. He's fast become one of the best finishers at the rim in the league, despite his slender frame. In his first six games of the season, Green shot 46% at the rim. He was struggling mightily, something almost all young guards do when they first arrive on the scene. If we watch back some of his drives from that first outing against Minnesota, he had a tough outing.
It took just six games for Green to figure it out. That's it. In the 16 games since then, he's shooting 68% at the rim, which puts him in the 80th percentile among guards. He's added craft, he can find space between players, and he's putting a higher arc on his layups. When contact comes, he's not shying away from it. This hasn't been a recent improvement. It's not as a result of better spacing, or a big adjustment post-injury. This turnaround happened long ago, but combined now with a full-head of steam on his drives, it's going to be a very dangerous weapon.
While Jalen has been aggressive getting downhill, I've been impressed with his reads when he's passing out. Whether it's kicking to a corner shooter or squeezing a pass between traffic to the center, he's making good passes even while increasing the speed of his drives. The fact that this part of his game hasn't taken a hit is encouraging, as it would be completely understandable for the turnovers to increase if he's in head-down mode.
Rockets fans should be incredibly encouraged by Green's play in the four games since his return. The 3-point shooting will come down, and I still await to see what his percentages will even out at over hundreds of attempts. But disregarding that for a moment, we're getting what was advertised. A very athletic player who can beat many players off the dribble with his first step, finish at the rim with the potential to draw contact (as shown by his 14 free-throw attempts against Denver in 28 minutes), and leverage his driving gravity to make plays for others. He's stopped trying to snake on every pick n roll - in fact I only counted two as I watched the last four games. Pre-injury, 12% of his shots were long-range 2s, that's been slashed by a third, down to 8%. Eventually, we will see Green start to bring back more unorthodox moves to his drives. But for now, we get to enjoy him sprinting to the rim and trying to finish over every defender he comes across. Not only is that fun for us, it's helping him score in the NBA.