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Passing along with the newest Grizzlies bigs

Though Marc Gasol is gone, the Memphis Grizzlies are still dropping dimes in the frontcourt.

Joakim Noah (Chicago Tribune), Jonas Valanciunas (Brandon Dill/AP), Kyle Anderson (Getty, Joe Murphy) and Jaren Jackson Jr. (Justin Ford USA Today). Graphic: William Stone.

The NBA has evolved this past decade, and one of its more prolific evolutions is the role of a big man. In the past, big men at the 5 (center) — and sometimes 4 (power forward) — position had simple tasks. Score in the paint, hit a mid-range jumper, set hard screens, and defend the rim. Now, the responsibilities a 5-man now shoulders are quite substantial, compared to the past.

In today’s NBA, a 5 must be able to switch onto perimeter players in the pick-and-roll, defend in space, protect the rim, and space the floor. Slowly but surely, the big men of the past are being phased out, or being sent to reduced roles as back-to-the-basket bucket-getters off the bench. However, a skill that has catapulted these 5-men to new heights is playmaking. Players like Nikola Jokic, Marc Gasol, and Draymond Green are at the current forefront of this wave, as guys like Jusuf Nurkic, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Al Horford are all prominent playmakers as well.

For the Memphis Grizzlies, they’ve also had great playmaking out of its big men — primarily Pau and Marc Gasol. In Pau Gasol’s Memphis years, he averaged 3.1 assists, including a team-high 4.6 assists in his lone All-Star campaign with the team. With a bigger spotlight, his passing prowess was highlighted and praised, establishing himself as the NBA’s premier passing big man.

Marc Gasol has the passing wizardry that’d make Arvydas Sabonis proud. He has this flair when dishing the basketball that established him as the best passing big man of this decade. Because of his vision and facilitating abilities, he established great continuity in the high-low with Zach Randolph and off cuts with Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince, and Rudy Gay.

Though Marc Gasol is gone, the Grizzlies are still finding playmaking success with its big men. With a high post offensive set, J.B. Bickerstaff positions either one or two big men at the high elbows, allowing them to drop passes to the perimeter players via cuts or dribble hand-off’s. As a result, Joakim Noah has re-established himself as one of the league’s best passing big men, and Jonas Valanciunas has added a new element to his game. It’s also a formula the Grizzlies could use going forward with Ivan Rabb, Kyle Anderson, and its young star, Jaren Jackson Jr.

Not a short time ago, Joakim Noah was considered the best “non-Gasol” passing big men in basketball. His deft, unique facilitation skills drove the Chicago Bulls to the playoffs year after year, despite the injuries to MVP Derrick Rose. Once he left the Windy City, he flopped in New York, because the Knicks are just amazing at utilizing and evaluating talent. Now that he’s in Memphis, he’s rekindled that passing magic, proving that he still belongs in this league.

Since arriving on the Grizzlies, he’s been one of the league’s best playmaking big men. According to Cleaning the Glass, Noah is in the 95th percentile in assist percentage (20.4%) and in the 94th percentile in assist-to-usage ratio (1.02). His passing has been a huge boost for this Grizzlies bench, as they don’t really possess a proper bucket-getter that can create his own shot. Most of the players in bench unit are better served as cutters or spot-up shooters, which helps Noah highlight his playmaking abilities.

Joakim Noah’s ability to create from the elbow and find open slashers allows him to serve as a unique primary facilitator in the second unit. Since the All-Star break, he’s averaging 5.7 assists per 36 minutes — the 5th most among all centers that’ve played 100 or more minutes in that span. Through his resurgence, Noah has elevated the Grizzlies’ bench and probably secured a spot somewhere in the league for the 2019-20 season.

Jonas Valanciunas isn’t the most prolific passing big man in the game, but he’s making strides in that area. So far with the Grizzlies, he’s averaging 2.1 assists per game and 2.7 assists per 36 minutes, which would be career-high’s if those numbers were stretched across the span of the season. Valanciunas is in the 80th percentile in assist percentage (13.7) among big men.

Though he doesn’t possess the same passing wizardry as Noah or Gasol, Valanciunas has flashed the ability to find open cutters:

The most compelling part of Valanciunas’ playmaking and his role in this high post set is his screen-setting. With his frame, he sets bone-crunching screens and is one of the league’s best big men at screen assists — 3.1 per game, top 25 (4.4 per game, 9th in the NBA since the All-Star break). His screens open up multiple avenues not just for himself, but for the ball-handler.

Mike Conley is one of the most deadly guards in the mid-range, as he uses a lethal right-handed floater to score in the paint. With a pick-and-roll buddy like Valanciunas, the path to the basket becomes much more clear:

Though this play isn’t an example of his hard screen-setting, Valanciunas used the threat of the screen off the hand-off to disrupt Otto Porter’s path to keep up with Conley, leading to an easy floater.

Valanciunas’ dish-screen combination has also unleashed Avery Bradley in the mid-range, where he’s been thriving with Memphis — 52% in the mid-range, 97th percentile among guards.

Because of Valanciunas’ efficiency in the paint, the threat of him scoring off the roll has also played a helping hand in freeing the Grizzlies’ ball-handlers and in revving his assist numbers up:

Jonas Valanciunas isn’t going to wow people with crazy passes, and he’s not going to put up Gasol’s assist numbers. However, his overall skill set has been an asset in the high post for this Grizzlies offense.

The Memphis Grizzlies’ utilization of having a big man or two in the high post has opened up better opportunities for the rest of the players within the offense.

It’s freed up mid-range looks for Avery Bradley, who isn’t a prolific 3-pointer shooter or shot creator. Justin Holiday has been a nice cutting target, which might be the best offensive use of him outside of a corner 3. Delon Wright has also been a good cutter alongside either big man, and it also eases his playmaking responsibilities — giving him more chances to show off his crafty, efficient finishing in the paint. It’s also helps the Grizzlies utilize Chandler Parsons’ in-between game and his skill as a pick-and-short-roll ball-handler.

More importantly, it helps the Grizzlies feature Mike Conley more as a dynamic scoring option rather than a facilitator, which is the main key to securing victories for Memphis.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

With its young trio of big men, the Memphis Grizzlies have a chance to carry on this high post success that the Gasol brothers integrated and that Joakim Noah and Jonas Valanciunas have continued.

Ivan Rabb has flashed the ability to facilitate out of the low post, primarily a product of his high basketball IQ. As the season winds down, the Grizzlies should look to utilize Rabb and his playmaking more often to tap into this potential. If he can get more reps as a high post facilitator, and pair that with a 3-point jumper, he’d be a strong second-unit big man behind Jackson and Valanciunas.

Though Anderson’s traditional position is at the “small forward” spot, he should be used as a “big” in these sets. Granted, they could have him in a role similar to Parsons, where he comes off a hand-off and serves as a big pick-and-roll ball-handler. However, his shooting damages the Grizzlies’ spacing, and that 3 spot in this offense set could be filled by a stretch big — someone like Jaren Jackson Jr.

Speaking of the Grizzlies’ rookie, Jaren Jackson Jr. is the crown jewel for this piece. He’s already surprised everyone with his ability to take both bigger and small players off the dribble. He also can space the floor and shoot 3’s in both spot-up and off-dribble situations. If he can pair that with deft playmaking in the high post and off the dribble — like Noah, Gasol, or Valanciunas — he could experience a jump next season similar to Pascal Siakam’s leap this year.

The departure of Marc Gasol means another step away from an era of historic success for the Memphis Grizzlies. Those that remain, however, are carrying on the legacy of facilitating big men making an impact in Memphis.

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