When Nick Calathes made the trek across the pond from the Russian VTB United League to play in the NBA, it was difficult to sift through his skill set in a multitude of YouTube videos and determine which of those skills, if any, would translate to the NBA. Now that he's here, it's become easier to discern that the budding Greek point guard could have the tools to give him staying power in this league.
Throughout Calathes' performances, during limited minutes in a very small sample size, it's been odd to watch the juxtaposition of him slicing and dicing up a defense with his passing ability and then give the ball right to the defense a play later. Calathes is technically a rookie, and even though he has played professional basketball for several years before joining the Grizzlies, the 'kid' is just making normal 'rookie' mistakes in the toughest basketball league in the world.
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Although not everything Calathes has done on an NBA court early in his career has been positive, what is overwhelmingly positive is the fact that his mistakes are not linked with a lack of physical ability. That would be a real cause for concern because physical ability obviously can't be coached. On the contrary, most of Calathes' early mistakes can be attributed to poor decision-making, making his flaws easily correctable.
Calathes' problems are easily diagnosed. He turns the ball over far too frequently, and he hasn't shot well from the field or at the line. At all. Many have been turned off by Calathes' complete lack of shooting ability, but he doesn't have to be a good shooter to have value as the Grizzlies backup point guard. Sure, the Grizzlies need more bench scoring, but the best way to increase that is to have a point guard that can set guys up for easy shots. Calathes' is certainly capable of performing that role.
First, to address Calathes' turnover issues, it would go a long way if he would let the game come to him and stop trying to force the issue. His game is flashy, and there is no need to change that. However, he does need to dial it down at times and just make the simple pass rather than attempting a fancy one. Watch Calathes try to force the issue and be a little too fancy for his own good in the video below. If he would make the aforementioned, slight adjustments, that would push him in the right direction towards improving his mediocre 1.32 ASS/TOV ratio.
Calathes obviously doesn't make all bad passes though. As a matter of fact, many of his passes have been impressive. He has a physical gift that most NBA point guards don't have: extraordinary height. Standing at 6'6, he is able to see passing lanes that the majority of NBA guards just aren't afforded the luxury of seeing. Not to mention that he has long arms that provide him even more length. Calathes possesses great strength for his position, which is both a gift and a curse. He can get to the lane at will using his bullish shoulders to charge into defenders, but he doesn't finish well when he gets there. If someone steps up to block him off and he is forced to pass, he can sometimes overestimate his strength and make a ridiculous cross court pass resulting in a turnover as was demonstrated in the video above.
The young point guard's usefulness can't be fully explained without starting with his skill at running the pick and roll. The best word to describe Calathes in the pick and roll is likely crafty. In the video below, no two passes are the same, and it's extremely difficult for the defense to get a beat on when he is going to give up the ball. More than anything, his patience allows him to excel in the pick and roll game. He is able to read what his roll/pop man is going to do with ease, and he always anticipating what the roll man is going to do early, which is key. His length allows him to deliver some incredible passes where he seemingly wraps his arm around his defender like silly putty to deliver a dump off pass for an easy bucket. If he is able to continue his phenomenal passing tear while running the pick and roll, he will continue to have a place in this rotation, and he will most likely see more minutes on the court than he is now.
As for Calathes' shooting, he isn't likely to ever develop into an above-average shooter, but that doesn't mean he can't carve out a scoring niche for himself on this Grizzlies team. Calathes is 6/18 from the field this season, which is obviously not good. But, when you drill down into where exactly his opportunities are coming from, it's easy to see that he feels exponentially more comfortable shooting the ball when he is driving into the paint. All six of his made field goals have come from within twelve feet of the basket, and five of those were runners and little flip shots. Calathes gets it done best unconventionally on the scoring front, and he operates best when he is allowed to roam with the ball in his hands and use his creativity to get himself a shot close to the rim.
If Calathes can swallow whatever pride he may have and realize he is not going to be a traditional shooter in this league, then he can focus on what gives him the best chance to succeed when it comes to scoring, which is shooting in the paint. If he eliminates shots that he's not wide open on outside of twelve feet, his FG% is likely to increase five to six percentage points, which is good enough to make him an asset on offense in another way than just passing. Check out Calathes at his best in the video below when he's getting into the painted area before he lets a shot fly.
On the defensive end of the floor, Calathes isn't great, but he plays passable defense. According to Synergy, Calathes has faced twenty shots on defense this season, and only four of them have gone in. That can't all be attributed to Calathes' defense, but at least some of it can. Just like on offense, his length is incredibly helpful on defense. It allows him to challenge shots even when he is slow to recover, which he is often. Also, he should be commended for his effort on defense. He busts through screens with incredible vigor on a consistent basis. He's very workmanlike on defense, and that will possibly allow him to not be a liability on that end.
It's worth noting that Calathes has been incredibly lucky that the guys he has guarded have missed a lot of wide open shots that they've gotten because he is nowhere to be found. If he can figure out his positioning and not get lost so often, he will be a serviceable defender for the Grizzlies that won't have to be hidden when he is on the floor. Watch Calathes' great defensive effort and how his length affects shooters below.
Calathes is not an ideal backup point guard. An ideal backup would be a better shooter, commit fewer turnovers, make better decisions, and play better defense. But, it needs to noted that Calathes is still a rookie in this league that is learning via baptism by fire. He is getting better every single night. If he is able to stay on track with his passing while correcting several small things, namely cutting down turnovers and picking better shots, then Head Coach David Joerger's hand might be forced to play him more. Better yet, if he improves on the things mentioned above, he will become the Grizzlies ideal backup point guard. The one they have dreamt of for years now.