Three in the Key: Scottie Barnes, Evan Fournier, Jakob Poeltl

Three in the Key: Scottie Barnes, Evan Fournier, Jakob Poeltl

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Three in the Key: Scottie Barnes, Evan Fournier, Jakob Poeltl

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As part of a new series at HoopsHype, we’re breaking down three interesting topics we’ve seen happening around the NBA over this past week.

While the name of this column is derived from basketball’s three-second violation rule, our aim is going to be a bit different. The goal of this recurring exercise is for us to observe a few subjects happening around the league and then explain the key to why it’s happening and what makes it interesting.

Expect to see more updates with HoopsHype’s “Three in the Key” as the season progresses. Until then, here are our three highlights from the season thus far:

Scottie Barnes

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

THE KEY: His self-creation is far better than expected

Toronto Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes is averaging 17.7 points and 8.3 rebounds through his first six games in the NBA.

It’s the kind of productivity you expected from a prospect as highly-touted as LeBron James to start his career, not Barnes, who in college averaged only 10.3 points and started just seven games.

While many scouts didn’t expect his scoring or his shooting touch to come along this early, anyone who had ever watched him play knew Barnes had the potential to be an energy bunny whenever he stopped on the floor.

He has been someone who has been extraordinarily willing to cover as much ground as he can. The stats prove this, too. Only three players have already traveled more total miles than Barnes has (19.3 miles) in 2021-22.

Even when he’s running his cardio, though, Barnes has been able to find his man on a dime and carve through opposing defenses to help his teammates get their shots up.

But it’s his transition scoring (35 points), which according to Synergy currently ranks eight-best in the NBA, that has made him special.

His long-term potential looks the most promising when he has the ball in the open court, like when he somehow needed just three dribbles to cover the entire length of the floor for a grab and go on the fastbreak:

When he is playing at the peak of his powers, as you can see above, the rookie already has flashes and sports where he looks awfully similar to someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Barnes, an oversized ball-handler, has actually surprised folks as he has become a player who has been able to create his own shot at the NBA.

So far this season, 62.2 percent of his field-goal attempts have been self-created, defined as when a player held the ball for two or more seconds before the shot. In totality, Barnes already has 22 unassisted baskets within ten feet of the rim. The full list of players with more is Giannis, Ja Morant, Russell Westbrook, Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Jaylen Brown.

This man has been able to sprint down the court, stop on a dime, then still find ways to have enough touch for hook shots in the post. It’s silly.

Evan Fournier

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

THE KEY: Early on-court chemistry with teammate

We already learned last season that Julius Randle was an impressive playmaker. But this season, there is a new wrinkle. Randle has already assisted new teammate Evan Fournier sixteen times so far this season.

But what’s particularly interesting about that is that every single one of those assists has been a three-pointer. No other player in the league has assisted an individual teammate on even a dozen three-pointers thus far, per PBP Stats. To add some fun context, the second-most prolific three-point assist combo is Draymond Green to Stephen Curry.

New York’s Randle-to-Fournier has been the Eastern Conference’s answer to Golden State’s Green-to–Curry or Denver’s Nikola Jokic-to-Jamal Murray in the West.

Like those two teams have popularized in the Western Conference, Randle and Fournier have already shown they’re more than capable of getting the Knicks a bucket thanks to their strength on the dribble handoff.

Randle currently has four assists to Fournier from dribble handoffs so far this season.

But it’s not just that Randle will hand the ball off to Fournier and then use his imposing physical strength to set a screen. Sometimes, even though he is a big man, he will even run an inverted pick and roll as the ball handler.

For example, as Randle dribbled the ball up the floor, Fournier set a screen on Seth Curry against the Philadelphia 76ers on Oct. 26. Fournier then lifted up to the perimeter and swished an easy pick-and-pop three-pointer.

When the offensive possessions are less developed and more spontaneous, the results can look particularly gorgeous.

Watch the way that Randle fired off a bullet to Fournier, who was waiting in the weak side pocket:

Whether he’s passing out of the post or out of the drive, Randle is constantly looking to see if Fournier may be waiting for an easy shot off the catch. The two players have made opposing defenses look foolish.

But the chemistry of this combo has looked good on the inverse, too, as Fournier has set up the reigning winner of the NBA’s Most Improved Player for some fairly pretty buckets thus far. In fact, no one on the Knicks has more assists to Randle than Fournier has recorded in 2021-22.

It’s also worth noting that Fournier has played just a single minute for the Knicks without Randle on the floor. Tom Thibodeau isn’t staggering their minutes, he’s making sure they play at the same time, and it’s working.

Overall, New York is outscoring opponents by 6.8 points per 100 possessions when both players are on the floor. It’s clearly a big part of why New York has been one of the hottest teams in the league.

Jakob Poeltl

(AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

THE KEY: The league’s most underrated paint beast

The San Antonio Spurs only got one young asset in return for Kawhi Leonard. But that player, Jakob Poeltl, has actually turned out to be a solid option in the frontcourt. This season, he is making a case for not only NBA’s All-Defense consideration but also Most Underrated Big Man in the League.

His offensive rebound percentage (16.1 percent) ranks in the 98th percentile among bigs, per Cleaning the Glass. Meanwhile, he is passing the ball significantly more often per game so far this year (49.8) than he did last year (33.1) as well.

But most importantly, the big man has more paint touches (62) than any other player in the league. He is averaging 11.2 paint touches per game. For comparison, during the 2019-20 campaign, the big averaged just 4.7 paint touches per game.

Specifically, he is making his living from the high post. Poeltl has 46 touches on the elbow this season, the most in the league. He is touching the ball at the elbow twice as often as he did just last season. The San Antonio center has also already connected on 15 field goals from this part of the floor. Only one other player in the league has more than ten.

For what it’s worth, he is dunking the ball more often than ever before, too. He had 141 dunks in the first 348 games of his career — or 0.40 per game. This season, he already has seven dunks in six games — or 1.2 per game.

His overall presence near the basket has been massive. Per 100 possessions, among those who have logged at least 100 minutes, only five players have made more field goals at the rim than Poeltl (7.69) has made.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the floor, he has defended 63 field goal attempts at the rim. That’s good for the most in the league as well.

His rim protection, even against some of the league’s best interior scorers like Los Angeles Lakers star Anthony Davis, has been nothing short of elite:

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