When we talk about the best basketball players, we often talk about the most well-rounded. But what happens when we get a bit more granular?
There is obviously a ton of value in versatility, especially when it comes to building the most complete team. Players need to be able to hold their own on both offense and defense. However, when watching the games, it is also incredibly important to know the specific traits of the top talents.
As such, we wanted to take a look at the players who stand out on specific play types within an offense. The main qualifications were that the player discussed has to be both among the leading scorers and also efficient on this particular play type.
You may already know that James Harden is the king of isolation or that Giannis Antetokounmpo is a monster in transition. But some other standouts included below may be more shocking.
Note that all stats are pulled from Synergy Sports Tech unless noted otherwise
Transition: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Productivity: 8.6 PPG
Efficiency: 1.21 PPP (68th percentile)
Each and every year, the speed of play has increased around the NBA, and the Milwaukee Bucks are one of the teams that play the fastest on offense.
With back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo at the helm, this quick style of play allows the Bucks superstar to maximize his output. He thrives when pushing the break in transition, using his incredibly long strides to attack the basket with force and momentum.
Remember, we’re talking about the same guy who can go from half-court to the rim using just one dribble. Antetokounmpo can reportedly cover 46 feet in just four steps. There is simply no one even close to as effective as he is in transition offense, more than capable of going coast-to-coast after any of his defensive stops.
Jaylen Brown: 6.2 PPG / 1.19 PPP (65th percentile)
De’Aaron Fox: 5.7 PPG / 1.19 PPP (65th percentile)
LeBron James: 5.7 PPG / 1.18 PPP (63rd percentile)
Terry Rozier: 5.5 PPG / 1.23 PPP (73rd percentile)
Isolation: James Harden
Productivity: 8.9 PPG
Efficiency: 1.07 PPP (85th percentile)
It is no secret that Brooklyn’s James Harden is an unbelievable scorer, especially considering he has won three consecutive scoring titles.
But in a league that is slowly moving away from iso-ball, he has also been the most effective one-on-one scorers ever. In fact, the Brooklyn superstar has led the league in isolation scoring during each season since 2014-15.
Since coming into the league back in 2009, Harden has averaged 8.0 points per 75 possessions in isolation. According to our research, that is nearly 2.5 points higher than LeBron James, who ranks second-best among all active players.
#Sixers' Brett Brown on #Rockets guard @JHarden13: "If you look at James Harden in an isolation environment, he may be the greatest scorer in the history of our game, I mean that. If you just go on math and metrics, it’s just … him and a defender. It’s ridiculous what he does.”
— Keith Pompey (@PompeyOnSixers) January 3, 2020
Kyrie Irving: 5.2 PPG / 1.14 PPP (92nd percentile)
Luka Doncic 5.2 PPG / 1.08 PPP (86th percentile)
Damian Lillard: 5.1 PPG / 1.08 PPP (87th percentile)
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: 4.9 PPG / 0.98 (70th percentile)
Post-up: Joel Embiid
Productivity: 9.9 PPG
Efficiency: 1.07 PPP (77th percentile)
Just as isolation scoring has faded in the NBA, so too has the post-up, which is another form of one-on-one offense. Many coaches believe that it is not an efficient play, but there are few defenders who can do anything against Joel Embiid in the post.
Even though he has acknowledged that he cannot post up as much as he would like to due to the way games are called by officials, it hasn’t even mattered when it comes to his productivity.
Sixers’ Joel Embiid after Celtics’ sweep: “A lot of people want me to be a big man, to be Shaq. But this league and this game is completely different. They call a bunch of offensive fouls all the time, you can’t elbow people. You can’t post up as much.” pic.twitter.com/E4r9l6jgJ7
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) August 23, 2020
The 27-year-old big man is nearly unguardable when he posts up on the left block, especially on face-up possessions.
Defenders simply have no idea how to handle his massive presence and often end up fouling him, sending him to the free-throw line for some easy points. In fact, Embiid is averaging more than double the mark of anyone else for free-throw attempts after post-ups.
If they don’t want to foul, opponents cannot leave just one defender to account for his massive presence. But when they send another man to double or trap him, that will leave one of Embiid’s teammates open. He can pass out of the double and find an open shooter like Seth Curry or Mike Scott, wide open on the perimeter.
Nikola Jokic: 6.0 PPG / 1.01 PPP (65th percentile)
Nikola Vucevic: 5.2 PPG / 0.94 PPP (57th percentile)
Anthony Davis: 4.6 PPG / 1.04 PPP (67th percentile)
Kristaps Porzingis: 4.0 PPG / 0.99 PPP (61st percentile)
Pick-and-roll (roll man): Richaun Holmes
Productivity: 5.3 PPG
Efficiency: 1.35 PPP (85th percentile)
So far, all of the play types have been predominantly one-man actions. They have also been fairly standard; it is not surprising to learn Giannis is great in transition or Embiid dominates the post.
But unless you watch the Sacramento Kings fairly regularly, you probably had no idea that Richaun Holmes is perhaps the league’s best scorer when rolling to the basket or occasionally slipping the screen. While that requires a good partner to set him up, which he certainly has in both De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton, the big man deserves a ton of credit as well.
Holmes is stellar at getting to and finishing at the rim and draws a ton of attention and gravity near the basket. He has the second-best overall field-goal percentage in the league thus far and he has developed one of the NBA’s most lethal signature shots with his floater.
Overall, he has flourished on high PNR’s after setting hard screens in the middle of the floor, then diving to the basket. He also has enough mobility and agility to take it the rest of the way after receiving the pass on a short roll.
It doesn’t matter if his pick is used to aid the ball handler or if he is scoring himself. His success in these actions would make him invaluable to any frontcourt.
Rudy Gobert: 5.2 PPG / 1.30 PPP (81st percentile)
Nikola Jokic: 5.2 PPG / 1.23 PPP (74th percentile)
Christian Wood: 5.0 PPG / 1.21 PPP (71st percentile)
Bam Adebayo: 4.4 PPG / 1.37 PPP (87th percentile)
Pick-and-roll (ball-handler): Luka Doncic
Productivity: 13.5 PPG
Efficiency: 1.00 PPP (83rd percentile)
There are few if any on the planet more adept at operating the pick-and-roll than Dallas Mavericks wing Luka Doncic.
The most common play in the NBA is the ball screen and one of the marks of a modern superstar is the ability to handle these actions as both a scorer and a playmaker. Doncic is a wizard on these opportunities and is unbeatable when dribbling off the pick and into a straight-line attack or by way of deceleration trickery.
Ball Screen Snake 📚 | @luka7doncic
Watch Luka patiently snake around his ball screen. Getting his primary defender behind his back.
This puts the roll defender on an island. Easy bucket.
— Shane Hennen (@Hennen_Workouts) January 16, 2020
Doncic is able to read the opposing defense at beyond an expert level. He consistently cooks his defenders when they are in down coverage, displaying his deadly crossover and an effortless jumper off the dribble.
The budding superstar currently leads the league in pull-up shooting and at this point, his stepback three-pointer is currently rivaled only by Harden. As he continues his ascent into greatness, he can be one of the most elite scorers of all time.
Trae Young: 13.8 PPG / 0.96 PPP (74th percentile)
Damian Lillard: 13.3 PPG / 1.04 PPP (86th percentile)
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: 11.0 PPG / 1.12 PPP (94th percentile)
Donovan Mitchell: 10.8 PPG / 0.96 PPP (73rd percentile)
Handoff: Stephen Curry
Productivity: 3.5 PPG
Efficiency: 1.22 PPP (90th percentile)
Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, a three-time champion and two-time MVP, has been on a scoring rampage recently. One of the many tools in his kit is the handoff.
Unlike with the pick-and-roll, handoffs start with the screener holding the ball. The screener gives the ball to the handler before eventually setting the pick. With the insane range that he has, Curry can accept a handoff from any number of places on the floor and still knock down the shot.
Digging a bit deeper, Curry has been more successful on stationary handoffs than dribble handoffs so far this season. He often runs these as pitch post actions, a favorite in the Triangle Offense, which makes sense considering that Warriors coach Steve Kerr played under Phil Jackson on the Chicago Bulls.
Overall, because he is so dynamic on these looks, Golden State can also execute some effective fake handoffs and let the screener keep the rock. These decoys give wide-open looks and an advantage for the screener as well.
That may not show up in the stat sheet but it is one of the reasons why the Warriors have had such a feared offense for so long now.
Jamal Murray: 3.3 PPG / 1.05 PPP (73rd percentile)
Duncan Robinson: 2.8 PPG / 1.02 PPP (70th percentile)
Doug McDermott: 2.5 PPG / 1.09 PPP (82nd percentile)
CJ McCollum: 2.3 PPG / 1.12 PPP (84th percentile)
Off screen: Bradley Beal
Productivity: 4.2 PPG
Efficiency: 1.06 PPP (65th percentile)
The pick-and-roll and the handoff are both examples of screening actions for an offense. While these screens are set for the ball handler, we can also look at off-ball screens, picks for someone without the rock.
One of the players who stands out most on this play is Washington’s Bradley Beal, who leads everyone in the Eastern Conference in scoring for the second year in a row.
There are few players, if any, who can execute after running off a screen more effectively than Beal does for the Wizards. During possessions when Beal comes off the screen in a straight line, like Ray Allen once did, he can create valuable space from his defender.
Bradley Beal's scoring is brought up often, there's less emphasis on HOW he scores and more how much.
One of the best off-ball movers of his generation.
Great cutter, fluid off-ball. The ability to shake his man and get the quick step back and generate space is remarkable pic.twitter.com/1UdX5e3jn5
— Mark Schindler (@MSchindlerNBA) February 23, 2021
He stays ready to shoot the ball and uses excellent footwork, using after a hop once the pass is thrown but before the catch. This allows him to either attack the defense for a drive after landing or spring back up for his jumper while in rhythm. Beal has stellar mechanics and an excellent release that is consistent each and every time he shoots the ball.
He has come a long way since, in 2015, he said he wasn’t able to fire away after a screen like Curry. These days, he is as productive and as efficient as Curry on these possessions.
Stephen Curry: 4.3 PPG / 1.05 PPP (61st percentile)
Terrence Ross: 3.7 PPG / 1.09 PPP (70th percentile)
Davis Bertans: 2.7 PPG / 1.20 PPP (80th percentile)
Duncan Robinson: 2.4 PPG / 1.37 PPP (89th percentile)
Spot-up: Marcus Morris
Productivity: 6.8 PPG
Efficiency: 1.46 PPP (99th percentile)
Clippers big man Marcus Morris is shooting a career-best 47.4 percent on his three-pointers in 2020-21, which has helped propel his team to one of the best records in the Western Conference.
But for the last several years, no matter what team he has played for, Morris has been one of the more valuable role players in the league. That is in large part because every team needs a spot-up shooter, which he provides for his squad.
Best Catch-And-Shoot 3P%, 2020-21*
1. Joe Harris ……….. 55.7 (!!)
2. Marcus Morris …. 51.3
3. Terry Rozier ……. 50.7
4. Bryn Forbes ……. 48.5
5. Patty Mills ………. 47.6
*Min. 100 3PA, 78 qualifiers pic.twitter.com/HLefJfUAp2
— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) February 27, 2021
Morris is especially good on no-dribble jumpers and he is averaging 1.49 points per possession off the catch this season, which currently ranks in the 98th percentile among all players.
Considering how close defenders have to play Kawhi Leonard and Paul George when they are on the floor, Morris has gotten a ton of unguarded looks and he has knocked them down time and time again.
Morris has a simple job on spot-up possessions: just stay where you are and be ready to shoot or drift to a better position along the perimeter.
Malik Beasley: 6.4 PPG / 1.29 PPP (95th percentile)
Lonzo Ball: 6.2 PPG / 1.15 PPP (79th percentile)
Jaylen Brown: 6.1 PPG / 1.25 PPP (91st percentile)
Jae Crowder: 5.9 PPG / 1.21 PPP (89th percentile)
Cut: Zion Williamson
Productivity: 5.0 PPG
Efficiency: 1.46 PPP (79th percentile)
We’re no longer talking about New Orleans Pelicans star Zion Williamson as a prospect who is going to be a good player one day. Now in his second year in the league, he is already a good player. Like, very good.
We have already written about the insane strides that Williamson has made on-ball as a scorer and playmaker, as he has turned into a playmaker in front of our very eyes. But he can make even the best defenders look foolish when he is playing off-ball and they take an eye off him even for a second.
Or as Nekias Duncan recently explained: “Zion is a frequent benefactor of Blade or Maggette cuts — lifting from the corner and jetting inside following a pick-and-roll.”
Williamson makes quick decisions and cuts hard for open looks under the basket. He can get behind his defender for a backdoor cut or he can make himself available by flashing towards the ball.
Whenever the Pelicans need an easy bucket, they can dump it to Williamson, who doesn’t need a screen to create an advantage before throwing down a vicious slam.
Montrezl Harrell: 4.0 PPG / 1.42 PPP (73rd percentile)
Jarrett Allen: 3.9 PPG / 1.34 PPP (61st percentile)
Richaun Holmes: 4.2 PPG / 1.28 PPP (50th percentile)
Deandre Ayton: 3.9 PPG / 1.43 PPP (75th percentile)
Putbacks: Jonas Valanciunas
Productivity: 4.5 PPG
Efficiency: 1.29 PPP (80th percentile)
While there isn’t a ton to say about putbacks after offensive rebounds, tip-ins and quick shots after an offensive rebound are still a valuable way to score at the rim.
The putback champion in 2020-21 is Memphis Grizzlies big man Jonas Valanciunas, who my colleague Frank Urbina just crowned the most underrated player at his position in the NBA.
It might not be complicated but it keeps Memphis on the board whenever he gives them this kind of hustle play.
Enes Kanter: 4.4 PPG / 1.24 PPP (72nd percentile)
Clint Capela: 4.4 PPG / 1.13 PPP (53rd percentile)
Nikola Jokic: 3.2 PPG / 1.32 PPP (84th percentile)
Zion Williamson: 3.0 PPG / 1.36 PPP (88th percentile)