The French Prince: Frank Ntilikina’s Potential Two Way Dominance is Already Materializing

Screen Shot 2018-07-09 at 7.49.10 AM.pngThe energy from Knicks fans outside of Barclays Center ahead of the 2017 NBA Draft was a mixture of resigned hopelessness and naïve optimism. Knicks fans teemed outside the entrance, some holding signs reading things like ‘Fire Phil’ or ‘Sell the team, Dolan’. After a massively disappointing 31-win season, Phil Jackson and the Knicks front office would look to gain back the hearts and minds of its fans by nailing their first round draft pick.

It was immediately apparent that the Knicks fans sitting in the arena wanted the Knicks to select either Dennis Smith Jr. or Malik Monk, both college standouts who had shined on the national stage for NC State and Kentucky respectively. Very few people were talking about Donovan Mitchell, the shooting guard out of Louisville who has now established himself as one of the best players in the draft class, and almost nobody was talking about the young man who would soon grace the stage wearing a Knicks cap.

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Sitting in Barclays Center, surrounded by friends and family, a nervous French teenager tries not to check his phone. He is minutes away from his lifelong dream coming to fruition. The commissioner calls his name with the 8th pick of the 2017 NBA draft. His dream has been realized.

Born in Belgium, the son of two Rwandan refugees, Frank Ntilikina (pronounced nee-lee-kee-na) has been playing professional basketball since the age of 15. Starting at SIG Strasbourg in the French LNB Pro A, he later graduated to FIBA Under-18 tournaments. In his final year, Ntilikina led the U18 French National team to an undefeated championship run and earned MVP honors.

His professional career in France ended with him being drafted by the New York Knicks on the night before the final game of the championship series. Ntilikina flew back to France to play his last game before returning to the United States, ready for the big stage. He left the France pro scene having consistently improved his offensive game every year, shooting 52% from three in his final year. Scouts heralded his raw potential and dynamic frame.

One year later, at just 19 years old, Frank Ntilikina is still raw. He is younger than half the lottery picks from the most recent draft, including both Miles and Mikal Bridges, Mo Bamba, and Shai Gilegous-Alexander. His potential remains largely untapped, though in the past year, Ntilikina has shown flashes of excellence and brief glimpses into how he could one day blossom into a two-way star.

At 6’6” with a 7 foot wingspan, Frank Ntilikina is not built like a typical NBA point guard. With his long frame and quick footwork, his body resembles that of a swingman more than a point guard. For comparison, Jaylen Brown measured in at the combine at 6’6.75” with a wingspan of 6’11.75”. Tyreke Evans is 6’5.25” with a wingspan of 6’11.25”.

Ntilikina’s size is incredibly relevant in any discussion about his game and potential. His size allows him to guard three or four different positions and makes him an enormous asset when switching pick and rolls.  Switching screens has become universally desired in the NBA, as more teams are looking for players who can switch any screen 1-5. While Ntilikina is not quite that defender yet, he is certainly well on his way. His body still needs some more muscle in order to avoid getting rocked by oversized big men, but watch how he defends Dirk Nowitzki (someone twice his age) on a pick and roll switch. He absorbs Dirk’s contact with his chest and doesn’t allow him to get into the paint.

Ntilikina Dirk Switch.gif

Guarding the pick and roll is Ntilikina’s most NBA-ready skill. He allowed .694 Points per Possession in 242 possessions guarding the pick and roll ball handler. That number, .694 PPP,  was the best in the NBA this past season among all players with a minimum of 200 such possessions, per Synergy. For a rookie point guard to be that adept at covering a pick and roll is almost unheard of; the only other player in recent years who has defended the pick and roll in their first year this well is 2017 Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon.

Ntilikina’s positional versatility is huge reason that fans should be excited about his upside. Though he played 71% of his minutes at point guard last year, he can easily slot into the shooting guard position, as he is a defensive asset and doesn’t constantly need the ball in his hands to be effective on offense. He is able to defend NBA small forwards already and does not get bullied by more athletic swingmen who try to exploit his somewhat skinny frame.

Ntilikina Wiggins Switch Post.gif

His post defense is excellent for his size, allowing only .45 points per possession on a very small sample size of 20 possessions. But proof that a player is a good post defender rarely comes from analytics, usually those judgements are made from the eye test.  There is plenty of footage of Ntilikina switching the pick and roll, getting posted up by the bigger player, and having to fend for himself on the defensive end. Check out how he guards Saric on this switch. He’s able to successfully front the post and deny the pass while recovering once he catches it. Dario Saric is damn near seven feet tall and is an above average inside scorer.

Ntilikina front post .gif

Teams are certainly paying attention to these things. With the Celtics, Rockets, and Warriors all playing elite switching-based defenses, NBA executives and coaches are understanding that defenders who can guard multiple positions are exceptionally valuable. Ntilikina looks like someone who has the potential to be a defensive menace one day for this reason. His lateral quickness and quick reaction time allows him to guard almost anyone in isolation, where he held opponents to .703 Points per Possession, and his size and reach enables him to switch into the post and take on bigger defenders. Once he adds more muscle this competitive advantage will become intensified.

It’s not all roses, especially on offense. Ntilikina has a long way to go before he can be an above average, or maybe average offensive player. However, he has showed consistent improvement throughout his professional career both abroad and in the NBA.

Perhaps the area of his offensive game that most urgently needs improvement is the frequency with which he commits turnovers. He started the season committing 16.7 turnovers per 100 possessions used and lowered that to 9.4 after the all-star break. For him to become a great offensive player he will likely have to lower that number even further.

His ball handling has been an area of concern with scouts from the moment he arrived on the scouting scene. With a 6’6” frame, it can be especially hard to control the ball effectively and dribble through traffic. Ntilikina appears to be working on his ball handling this summer, posting workout videos on social media.


It’s notable that only 20 of his 131 turnovers were due to a “Lost Ball” situation whereas 92 were due to a bad pass. This suggests that the issue is not his technical ball handling ability, but his decision making and pass selection. Improved decision making, especially at the point guard position, comes with increased reps and years of in-game experience.

His three point shot is another area of concern where he has shown the potential to grow. After shooting abysmally in his first year professionally, Ntilikina improved his shooting percentage from deep consistently throughout his professional career in France. He shot 32% from three in his rookie NBA season, a number that is not great but is not abnormal among active rookie guards; Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith Jr, and De’Aaron Fox all shot around 31% in their rookie seasons.

The aspect of his shot that should be intriguing to Knicks fans is his shooting off the dribble. Teams overwhelmingly went under pick and rolls executed by Ntilikina, and until his off the dribble three point shot improves, teams will continue to disrespect his shot.  At 6’6”, Ntilikina has the ability to shoot over most guards with relative ease and vertical space, so working on pull up jump shots should be an area of interest for Ntilikina. He’s shown confidence from long range off the dribble in the past, but getting those shots to fall with consistency will require hard work. Ntilikina shot an encouraging 33-78 on pull up jump shots this year, per NBA stats. That 42% off the dribble may not seem like much, but those shots falling will cause defenses to play much tighter on him and will open up space for the entire offense.

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Fans, scouts, and analytics models all have different projections about the direction of Ntilikina’s career. FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projections forecast him to be a replacement level bench player, comparing him to Shaun Livingston. I don’t think this comparison is necessarily fair, as Livingston’s offensive game is incredibly unique and he does not have the same athletic explosiveness as Ntilikina, due to a nearly career-ending knee injury. From the eye test alone, he plays more similarly to George Hill than Shaun Livingston. Hill has been a reliable perimeter defender his entire career, though his consistent three point shooting ability is something that came later in his career. At around 6’1”, Hill does not have the same positional versatility Ntilikina possesses, but has been a reliable perimeter defender throughout his career.

George Hill Rookie Season (Age 22) 5.7 1.8 2.1 33% 16.6% 14.5
Frank Ntilikina Rookie Season (Age 19) 5.9 3.2 2.3 32% 20% 19.8

When new Knicks Head Coach David Fizdale announced the he had a “crush on wingspan,” I suspect Frank Ntilikina’s ears perked up somewhere. Wingspan and length have been increasingly valued in the NBA, and Ntilikina is the perfect future point guard for a lineup that is a defensive juggernaut, something Fizdale has been open about his desire to build.

In his only full season as head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, Fizdale’s team was tied for 6th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. If Fizdale wants to recreate that same energy in New York, Ntilikina will likely be the lynchpin of that defense in the way that Mike Conley was the centerpiece of the last one. As a versatile perimeter defender who can switch, Fizdale is certainly looking to maximize Ntilikina’s potential as a defensive menace.

In discussing his love for wingspan, coach Fizdale suggested playing Kristaps Porzingis, the 7 foot 3 inch Latvian franchise centerpiece, at small forward. This revelation surprised a lot of Knicks fans, but with most big men trying their best to refine their play on the perimeter, it is not that surprising that coach Fizdale would entertain the idea of trying this out, especial.

Porzingis is the undisputed franchise cornerstone in New York, and it would seem to indicate something positive about Ntilikina that he and Porzingis seem to have great chemistry. Last season, Porzingis was assisted on almost 40 of his made baskets by Ntilikina, the most of anyone on the team aside from Jarret Jack.

“There’s a real friendship between KP and me,” Ntilikina told the French radio show Basket Time. “We both come from Europe.” He has called the experience of playing with Porzingis “unbelievable”.

Ntilikina also looks to forge a connection with new draft pick Kevin Knox, the dynamic two-way swingman out of Kentucky. Knox, who is also oversized for his position with an above-average wingspan, projects to be an athletic combo forward who can finish at the rim and be a dynamic, multi-positional defender.  At only 18 years old, Knox has the potential to grow alongside Ntilikina and Porzingis and develop a deep chemistry together.

The next two years will be crucial for Ntilikina’s development. His ceiling will be determined by his ability to improve on offense consistently, especially when it comes to long range shooting and disciplined passing. The NBA hasn’t ever seen a player built exactly like Ntilikina, with a dynamic frame and a moldable offensive game, Ntilikina should be one of the young players oozing with potential that NBA fans keep an eye on throughout the next season.

Jacob Mooallem is a student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team. He spends too much of his time on Twitter.


SLOB Sunday: Playoff Edition, Round 1

Welcome to another edition of SLOB Sunday! This is a semi-regular series to project my love for SideLine Out of Bounds plays, or SLOBs.

Quick refresher on the rules of SLOB Sunday:

  1. The play has to result in a made basket
  2. Has to be an inbounds play from the sideline
  3. Has to be creative (no high pick and rolls)
  4. Bonus points for high-pressure game situation or towards the end of a game

With that in mind, let’s get started.

Pacers vs Cavaliers – Game 4 dipo slob.gif

I have absolutely no idea how Victor Oladipo is able to set his feet on the move, contort his body 180 degrees, and release a perfect shot in less than one second. It’s a work of art. He has been magnificent against the Cavaliers, shooting 40% from three and carrying the Pacers to a Game 7 in Cleveland. I also cannot take my eyes off the fan sitting behind the basket wielding some sort of pink flamingo.

Warriors vs Spurs – Game 5

klay slob.gif

It must be so frustrating to guard Klay Thompson. Danny Green does a great job staying attached to his man at the hip when Klay sets the screen for Durant, but he makes the fatal mistake of trying to go over Javale McGee instead of following Klay under. With Thompson shooting a career-best 44% from three this year, Green has practically no choice but to play overly aggressive on every screen.

Blazers vs Pelicans – Game 2

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I love the gutsy play call here by Terry Stotts in the 4th quarter. Anthony Davis almost gets to the ball in time to break the play up, but Lillard picks up enough speed when he curls around the Mo Harkless screen to finish the play. Impressive body control here by Lillard, finishing that lob with two defenders attached is no easy feat.


76ers vs Heat – Game 1

philly slob.gif

I’m not sure if the credit for this play deserves to go to Marco Belinelli, who acts as a nice decoy by cutting sharply through the middle, or Dario Saric, who sets an good screen for Belinelli then dashes to the rim, or Dwyane Wade, who completely dies on JJ Redick’s screen. Nonetheless, Ben Simmons does an excellent job of delivering a rocket to Saric in the perfect spot. The Sixers scored 130 in this game, largely because of bad defensive communication by Miami, but it also helped that they shot 18-28 (64.3%) from three point range.

Raptors vs Wizards – Game 6raps slob.gif

This play is all about Kyle Lowry. He’s able to tie up Markieff Morris on the screen, despite being 10 inches and 40 pounds smaller than the man he’s screening. This causes Gortat to have to help out on Siakam, who is unguarded under the basket. After Lowry gets the ball, he immediately attacks the middle because Gortat is too far back to contest his floater.

Bucks vs Celtics – Game 5bucks playoff slob.gif

In need of a quick bucket, the Bucks are able to execute a beautiful, simple out of bounds play to get the ball in the hands of one of their best three point shooters. Marcus Smart does a great job of staying active on defense and tries to read the play, but gets to Khris Middleton a millisecond too late. Middleton was on fire this series on SLOBs, hitting one of the shots of the year over Jaylen Brown.

If you’d like to learn more about how Khris Middleton is quietly one of the best players in the NBA, check out my profile on Middleton from February.

Until next time, enjoy Round 2, everyone!

Jacob Mooallem is a student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team. He spends too much of his time on Twitter.

2017-18 NBA Season Awards Picks


Hello friends! What an NBA season we’ve had. Whether it was Kawhi Leonard mysteriously disappearing, a #1 pick forgetting how to shoot, postgame fights in a secret hallway, or all things associated with LaVar Ball, this season never failed to deliver insane and hilarious moments. Now, let’s ignore all of them and focus on meaningless awards for the next 1,500 words. After me…

Most Valuable Player

  1. James Harden
  2. LeBron James
  3. Anthony Davis
  4. Kevin Durant
  5. Damian Lillard

James Harden has had a statistically incredible season, averaging over 30 points per game and 8.8 assists per game, leading the Rockets to a league-best 65 wins. In addition to points per game, he leads the league in PER, USG%, Offensive Win Shares, Win Shares, Win Shares per 48 Minutes, and Box Plus/Minus. At one point, the Rockets held the highest offensive rating in NBA history, but they have fallen to merely the 10th best offense all-time, amassing a measly 1.147 points per possession. He’s the clear cut MVP in my eyes.

I’m not going to lie, I had a whole column written out trashing LeBron for saying he’d vote for himself for MVP. I still might publish that column. But the fact that he played all 82 games (81 if you discount Wednesday’s joke of a basketball game against the Knicks) is really impressive, and he is as statistically dominant as he’s ever been. The Cavs have endured a legitimate amount of nonsense this season, the turnover is unprecedented and as the lone constant I think LeBron deserves a great deal of credit, even if his team is the 4th best team by record in the Eastern Conference.

As for Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard, they’ve both had great seasons in the past, but they both reached a new level this year, carrying their teams to 48 and 49 wins respectively and into the playoffs. Davis was a beast this season, averaging nearly 30 and 12 after the all-star break and keeping the Pelicans afloat after Demarcus Cousins’s injury.

KD had a really nice year, he still might be the greatest scorer of all time, though his shooting percentages have fallen off just a bit from last year. He complained about the ‘Blog Boys’ on Bill Simmons’ podcast, and I’d just like to say, first of all, thanks for the shoutout. Second of all, the other thing I took from that podcast was KD saying that he is obsessed with developing the ability to make every shot on the court, and he’s actually progressed pretty well to that goal. Courtesy of NBAsavant, we can see that he’s made a shot from just about every angle this season. He’s as dynamic of a scorer as they come and will be a menace in the playoffs.

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Rookie of the Year

This is legitimately the closest and most stacked Rookie of the Year race that I can remember. Over the last ten seasons, the average win shares for a rookie of the year has been 4.8. Last year, Malcolm Brogdon won the award after a very solid rookie year where he put up 4.1 win shares averaging 10 points per game.

This year it’s a whole different ball game. Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, and Donovan Mitchell are all putting up insane rookie seasons, leading their teams to playoff spots in their first season in the league. Ben Simmons has 9.2 win shares, Tatum has 7.1, and Donovan Mitchell has 5.2 and is averaging 20 points per game.

Tatum has been great this season, but it’s hard to get past the fact that Mitchell and Simmons were both the most important offensive options on their team for at least most of the season, whereas Tatum had Kyrie Irving and Al Horford to take some of the offensive load off. It’s a small reason, but I feel like the role a rookie plays on their team should matter for Rookie of the Year voting.

Mitchell set the rookie record for most three pointers made in a season, and his shooting revived the Jazz from a 17-26 record, leading them to the 5 seed in the West. He’s shot ridiculously well, his 1.26 points per possession on spot up jump shots ranks in the 95th percentile in the league this season. He’s had more 25 point games this season (27) than LeBron, KD, Larry Bird, and Hakeem Olajuwon had in theirs. He has been absolutely magnificent.

I’m going to ignore the petty beef that exists between Mitchell and Simmons, except to say that the hoodie that Donovan Mitchell rocked this week was incredible.

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Mitchell makes a good point, but Simmons’s season has spoken for itself. He’s 27th in the NBA in Real Plus Minus, his team has somehow achieved 52 wins, and the Sixers have won all their games down the stretch without Joel Embiid. His 2,732 minutes are twelfth in the NBA, and he’s going to be the first rookie to average 15 points, 8 assists, and 8 rebounds per game since Oscar Robertson(Basketball-Reference).

I am going to show you two players’ rookie seasons. One of them is Ben Simmons, another is a rookie from about ten years ago. Ready?

Pts/G Ast/G Reb/G Stl/G True Shooting % Usage % PER Offensive Win Shares Defensive Win Shares
Player A 16.1 7.8 5.1 2.2 54.6% 22.2% 22.1 6.8 3.6
Player B 15.8 8.2 8.1 1.7 55.7% 22.3% 20 4.2 5.0
(Source: Basketball-Reference)

The rebounds probably gave it away, but Player B is Ben Simmons. And his statistically close counterpart? None other than the Point Gawd himself Chris Paul.

I don’t expect anybody to care about the 2006 Rookie of the Year Voting, but Chris Paul received 124 out of 125 first place votes (whoever voted for Deron Williams, I very much dislike you). That means Chris Paul’s season, carrying a bad Hornets team to 38 wins, was deserving of a nearly unanimous victory, due in large part to just how good his numbers were. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but the 76ers won Fifty Two gosh darn games this season. That’s ridiculously impressive.

My ballot goes

  1. Ben Simmons
  2. Donovan Mitchell
  3. Jayson Tatum
  4. De’Aaron Fox
  5. Kyle Kuzma

Coach of the Year

No one really cares about this one so I’ll be brief. I judge for this award based on a few things:

  • How well a team performed versus how much talent they had
  • How the rotation, late game adjustments, and strategic decisions are managed
  • How well the coach diffuses problems in the locker room

The last one is really hard to know sometimes, but it’s worth putting down because it’s an underrated aspect of coaching in my opinion. With that being said:

  1. Quin Snyder
  2. Gregg Popovich
  3. Dwane Casey
  4. Brad Stevens
  5. Erik Spoelstra

The Jazz are one of my favorite storylines of this season because of how well they were able to bounce back from the adversity of losing their leading scorer in the offseason. Additionally, they recovered really nicely from Gobert’s injuries and were able to manage roster turnover on an high level. Quin Snyder proved his metal as a top-notch coach this year, and I do think the voters will give him this award.

Defensive Player of the Year

  1. Rudy Gobert
  2. Anthony Davis
  3. Robert Covington
  4. Draymond Green
  5. Aron Baynes

Gobert posts the third best defensive rating in the NBA, and despite having missed a quarter of the season, he has proven his value over a long enough period of time that I feel that he’s worthy of the award. He still has the fourth most blocks and the highest block percentage in the league, and the most defensive win shares per game. From a viewing standpoint, it’s not hard to see how much he impacts the game. He’s been the anchor of a Utah defense that posted the second best regular season defensive rating in the league, and despite his missed time, he’s been the most impactful and valuable defensive player this season.

Covington’s numbers are equally impressive, and I love it when a wing player can have such a measurable defensive impact on a team. The 76ers, who posted the third best regular season defensive rating, have relied on Covington’s ability to guard multiple positions and force turnovers in bunches. His team allows just 99 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, a defensive rating that is good for fifth in the league among qualified players. He and Simmons have incredible versatility when guarding perimeter players, allowing Philadelphia to get creative with their lineup combinations. I’m looking forward to watching Covington, Simmons, and Embiid lock down teams for minutes on end in the playoffs.

Most Improved Player

No list. Give the award to Victor Oladipo. Enough said.

Sixth Man of the Year

No list. Give the award to Lou Williams. Enough said.

All NBA Teams

First Team
  • James Harden – HOU, G
  • Damian Lillard – POR, G
  • Kevin Durant – GSW, F
  • LeBron James – CLE, F
  • Anthony Davis – NOP, F/C
Second Team
  • Russell Westbrook – OKC, G
  • Chris Paul – HOU, G
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo – MIL, G
  • Lamarcus Aldridge – SAS, F
  • Karl-Anthony Towns – MIN, C
Third Team
  • Stephen Curry – GSW, G
  • DeMar DeRozan – TOR, G
  • Al Horford – BOS, F
  • Draymond Green – GSW, F
  • Nikola Jokic – DEN, C

All Rookie Teams

First Team
  • Ben Simmons – PHI, G
  • Donovan Mitchell – UTA, G
  • Jayson Tatum – BOS, G/F
  • Kyle Kuzma – LAL, F
  • Bam Adebayo – MIA, C
Second Team
  • Frank Ntilikina – NYK, G
  • De’Aaron Fox – SAC, G
  • OG Anunoby – TOR, F
  • Lauri Markkanen
  • John Collins – ATL, F/C

That’s it for my 2017-18 NBA Season awards ballot! If you made it all the way to the end of this article, you must either be my parents or really love basketball, so let’s do some first round playoff predictions while we’re here.

Toronto over Washington (6)

Milwaukee over Boston (7)

Philadelphia over Miami (6)

Cleveland over Indiana (6)

Houston over Minnesota (5)

Golden State over San Antonio (5)

Portland over New Orleans (7)

Oklahoma City over Utah (7)

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll enjoy watching these playoffs as much as I will.

Jacob Mooallem is a student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team and a sophomore in the Kelley School of Business. He spends too much of his time on Twitter.






SLOB Sunday! Week of 4/1/2018

Welcome to another edition of SLOB Sunday! This will be a semi-regular series to project my love for SideLine Out of Bounds plays, or SLOBs.

Quick refresher on the rules of SLOB Sunday:

  1. The play has to result in a made basket
  2. Has to be an inbounds play from the sideline
  3. Has to be creative (no high pick and rolls)
  4. Bonus points for high-pressure game situation or towards the end of a game

With that in mind, let’s get started.

Celtics vs Thunder 3/20

Celtics SLOB.gif

If there was a Basketball SAT, Al Horford would get a 2400. Look at how well he slips the screen and fades, leaving Rozier with two defenders. Even more impressive is his sixth sense that Russell Westbrook is zooming in to block his shot. Seriously, I don’t know how Horford even gets that pass back to Rozier off in time, what incredible vision by Horford and a great pass by Rozier to Baynes. This two big man lineup for the Celtics has worked wonderfully so far, putting up 1.12 points per possession and holding their opponents to .98 PPP over 800 regular season minutes where Baynes and Horford share the floor. The inside-outside threat of the two together causes a litany of matchup problems for the defense, you see it here with Carmelo Anthony being forced to guard 7-footer Aron Baynes. It will be interesting to watch how Brad Stevens utilizes this lineup in the playoffs.

Nuggets vs Raptors 3/27

NuggeTS SLOB.gif

The player to watch here is Jamal Murray, who inbounds the ball and sets a nice screen on Pascal Siakam, then bolts to the three point line, shaking Fred VanVleet. Also love how Jokić creates space here, using his pivot foot to hold off Pöltl and complete the pass to Millsap. Nice play design here by Coach Malone, and nice shot by Murray to finish the play.

76ers vs Nuggets 3/26

634s slob.gif

The 76ers rank fourth in the NBA on points per possession on sideline out of bounds plays, and a lot of their buckets come from simple back screens like this one. Covington finishes this lob nicely, but I really love the enthusiasm with which Markelle Fultz runs to the top of the key. It even looks like he went a little early, as Ilyasova seemed surprised that he couldn’t set a screen for Fultz’s man. Strange play, but none of it matters because Joel Embiid is a brick freaking wall and nothing gets past him. Sorry, Will Barton.

Real Madrid vs Crvena Zvezda 3/30

If you haven’t heard of Luka Dončić yet, get ready to be hearing his name a lot over the next few months. The 6’7″ shooting guard from Slovenia has been tearing up the EuroLeague and will likely be drafted in the top five this upcoming draft. I started watching Dončić this fall when he led the Slovenian national team to their first Eurobasket championship, beating Kristaps Porzingis’s Latvia in the quarterfinals, the Gasol brothers’ Spain in the semifinals, and narrowly defeating the Bogdan-Boban machine that was Serbia in the finals. Doncic has a excellent jump shot and is big enough to finish at the rim with ease against his Spanish league competition. He will undoubtedly face an adjustment period when he enters the big leagues, but he has been playing professional basketball since the age of 16, and appears to have a pretty high basketball IQ, so I am betting on him being able to adapt to the pace of an NBA game. This cold-blooded dagger is just a small sample of what he is capable of on the next level.

From what I’ve seen, I believe he has the talent and potential of a first overall pick. The last non-NCAA player to be taken with the top pick was Andrea Bargnani in 2006. Clearly, Bargnani’s career (particularly his stint with the New York Knicks) was so horrific that it scared all front offices away from selecting an international prospect first overall for 11 years. But I think Doncic has a strong case, he is likely the best guard in the draft and teams are clamoring for guys who can guard multiple positions and score inside and outside. It would appear that Doncic has the potential to become that guy and then some.

Jacob Mooallem is a student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team and a sophomore in the Kelley School of Business. He spends too much of his time on Twitter.

2018 All Big Ten Name Teams

I know I have many fans out there clamoring for college basketball analysis, and since being a student manager has led to me knowing most names on Big Ten rosters, I have decided to use my acute basketball analysis to compile a list of my All Big Ten Teams based on purely first and last names. Enjoy:


The 2018 Big Ten rosters featured some incredible names, but perhaps none more awesome than Thorir Thorbjarnarson, who literally can go by ‘Thor Thor’. Eugene Omoruyi is a fun one as well, but my personal favorite is Aaron Jordan. The Air Jordan brand was introduced in 1984, Aaron Jordan was born in 1997. Shoutout to his parents.


I really hope Johnny Trueblood is getting royalty checks from HBO. And shoutout to my Nana, I love her very much. Honorable mentions include Maryland’s Alex Tostado, who almost made the first team except I googled it, and tostados aren’t a real food. I was thinking of tostadas and now I’m hungry. Great season everybody, can’t wait for next year.

SLOB Sunday! Week of 3/4/2018

Welcome to the first edition of SLOB Sunday! This will be a semi-regular series to project my love for SideLine Out of Bounds plays, or SLOBs.

The NBA is back in full swing after the All-Star Break, which means that 28 of the 30 head coaches had plenty of time to sit around and think of creative inbounds plays (apologies to Mike D’Antoni and Dwane Casey). Before we dive in, let’s establish some rules.

  1. The play has to result in a made basket
  2. Has to be an inbounds play from the sideline
  3. Has to be creative (no high pick and rolls)
  4. Bonus points for high-pressure game situation or towards the end of a game

With that in mind, let’s get started.

Nuggets vs Clippers 2/27

CLIPS SLOB.gifThis play is awesome for two reasons: Tobias Harris’s sneaky behind the back handoff, and DeAndre Jordan sealing Mason Plumlee directly under the basket with Hulk-like strength. The nuggets play good defense here, but there is nothing you can do about a seven foot monster barreling his way underneath the basket.

Heat vs 76ers 2/27/2018

76ERS SLOB.gifCovington fakes like he’s going around the screen to his left side, but cuts through the paint at the last second. The play may not have fooled Josh Richardson if it wasn’t for the perfect execution by Joel Embiid on the classic ‘motion with my right arm to the right side of my body while you fake cut there and go left’ play. Seriously, watch Embiid and tell me he doesn’t make that play with his deceptive arm motion. Also, I know this has been said a million times, but those Miami jerseys are probably the freshest in the league.

Jazz vs Timberwolves 3/2/2018

Wolves SLOB .gif

Seriously, how do you even guard this? Perfect execution by 18-year veteran Jamal Crawford faking the back screen on Rudy Gobert. By the time Gobert sees Karl-Anthony Towns pop back up to the top of the key, it’s already too late.

Rudy Gobert is one the best defenders in the league if you believe in the eye test or in Defensive Win Shares, in which he’s currently second to Andre Roberson. But having a big man like KAT who can draw his defender away from the paint creates so many problems for a defense that relies on Gobert to protect the rim.

Also, once again, those Utah jerseys are insanely fresh. Plus the court, just wow. Nike and the Jazz are both killing it.


Okay, last but certainly not least, let’s check out this play that appears to be drawn up for DeMar Derozan.

Bucks vs Raptors 2/23/2018

Raptors SLOB.gif

Great defense by Giannis getting around the screen from Jonas Valanciunas, but the crucial mistake here is by John Henson, who helps just a little too much and falls too far back, allowing CJ Miles to inbound the ball to Valanciunas easily. He fakes the handoff and catches Henson a little flat footed, then throws it down without a tenth of a second to spare.

Just so beautiful. I love NBA basketball.

Jacob Mooallem is a student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team and a sophomore in the Kelley School of Business. He spends too much of his time on Twitter.

Tales from the Sloan Conference: Data, Decision Making, and the Future of Basketball

Among a sea of statistics geeks, sports fans, reporters, and students, President Barack Obama walks on stage to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 megahit ‘What’s Goin’ On’. The crowd goes wild. The 2018 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the annual gathering of some of the brightest minds in sports, is already a resounding success. And its keynote speaker doesn’t even work in sports.

“Data is a tool, but doesn’t tell you what’s important,” says the 44th President. “It doesn’t tell you what your priorities should be.”

Deemphasizing the role of data is not exactly what you would expect to hear from the keynote speaker at a conference whose theme is “Talk Data to Me”. Seriously, everyone at this conference is obsessed with data, and for good reason. In basketball and the sports world as a whole, three-dimensional player capture has completely revolutionized the kinds of data teams are able to employ when evaluating talent. Advanced statistics have power to give people insights into things even the smartest basketball minds wouldn’t have dreamed of being able to quantify decades ago. And teams are making good use of it.

“Data gets used in a lot of different places,” said Clippers Owner Steve Ballmer. Teams utilize data in tracking player health, preparing gameplans, analyzing the business side of the organization, optimizing arenas operations, salary cap planning, and so on. The things people are able to construct and uncover with large amounts of data are monumental.

Over the course of the two days of the conference, speakers discussed all possible kinds of data, whether it pertains to basketball operations, business activities, or fan engagement. There were presentations about using data to retain season ticket holders, predict defensive movement, and analyzing fans’ responses to certain game actions.  

However, the validity of certain data is still up in the air. Daryl Morey, founder of the Sloan Conference and GM of the Houston Rockets, discussed the legitimacy of ESPN’s Real Plus Minus (RPM) stat. Morey said that although a team performs better when the players with a high RPM are on the floor, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the player with a high RPM is contributing anything groundbreaking to their teams’ success. As Morey pointed out, “that player could be very replaceable by multiple players with that same skill set.” Regardless, teams are striving to find out as much as they can about as many things as they can, collecting mountains of data trying to dissect the most minute of details.

So what’s the biggest threat to data? Bias.

Biases distort our vision of reality and make evaluating talent objectively impossible. Among the specific types of biases targeted include winning bias, which implies that teams who won must inherently be doing something right solely because of the outcome, and confirmation bias, which is the tendency to view new information as supporting your preexisting beliefs. It’s not just front office executives that are working hard to eliminate bias. Steve Nash emphasized how important it is to “look back on our preconceived notions” and evaluate how we can see the game from a neutral lens. Nash noted that he always had the preconceived notion that point guards weren’t supposed to take the bulk of shots on offense. This held him back, as he was overly hesitant to shoot the ball throughout the early stages of his career.

One way to eliminate bias, as the President pointed out, is to account for a wide diversity of opinions when making decisions. If you can have the “confidence to want as many viewpoints as possible around the table,” Obama said, “you will have better outcomes.” This can be applied to anything from organizational decision making to player evaluation.

So how do you evaluate a player? Lots and lots and lots of data.

Not only do medical, psychological, and background evaluations factor into a team’s decision of who to draft, but the team situation a player is uniquely in is always taken into account, especially at the college level. Austin Ainge, Director of Player Personnel of the Celtics, noted that when Jayson Tatum was at Duke, he was an isolation midrange scorer who shot a low percentage from three. But Coach K wasn’t concerned about showing off all of Tatum’s talents, he was concerned with winning, as all coaches are. After hitting a high percentage of three pointers in a closed workout, and by evaluating his performance data independent from his team situation, they arrived at the conclusion to trade down from the #1 pick in order to acquire more assets, and then draft him at #3.

“We’re trying to take him out of the context he’s been in and try to apply him to ours and see how it will work” said Ainge. So far it has worked pretty well, as Tatum is in the conversation for Rookie of the Year and the Celtics are second in the Eastern Conference. His style of play is drastically different at the professional level, as he’s found a lot more confidence driving to the basket.

The most important thing to do when evaluating talent is to have perspective. You view things on what Steve Ballmer called a “wide time horizon” and see the game as constantly evolving.

Jonathan Givony, founder of DraftExpress, noted that when Jahlil Okafor entered the national recruiting scene as a high school freshman, his skillset of being able to post up and command the ball on the block was viewed as a crucial asset. Five years later, In 2015, The 76ers pounced on him, drafting him third overall, but by then the game had completely changed. The league no longer needed big men to be able to score in the post, and that trend has only continued, as many centers today take more three pointers than they do low post hooks.

The game is evolving on both sides of the ball. Defenses are evolving to foster more switchability (the ability to swap defensive assignments on screens) as a means of combating deadly three point shooting teams that frequently utilize high pick and rolls. Just years ago, as Rockets’ General Counsel Rafael Stone noted, PJ Tucker was out of the league because he “didn’t have a position”. Now, Tucker’s ability to guard multiple positions is what makes him so valuable, and is a pretty large reason why the Houston Rockets signed him to a contract worth more than $31 Million after being out of the NBA for four years. Stone also says he believes we’ll see a “resurgence of defensive coaches [and] defensive minds” as a result of the offensive explosion the league has seen in recent years.

Screen Shot 2018-02-27 at 5.43.28 PM.pngPJ Tucker (6’5″) guarding Marc Gasol (7’1″).  Image courtesy of the Houston Chronicle.

Despite this massive gathering showing such support for analytical approaches to team building, or maybe because of it, I still got the impression that the teams that utilize these practices are a little scared. After all, as their approach has become more popular, the competitive advantage has worn off. There is a big difference between there being ten dumb teams in the league versus there being two dumb teams in the league, and that seemed to be the biggest underlying point of concern among general managers from traditionally analytics-oriented teams. However, as the game continues to evolve, executives are confident that the NBA is “winning the war for talent,” as Daryl Morey put it. Top players in the league now include guys from Cameroon, Latvia, and Greece, as the league has become increasingly international in recent years and the sport of basketball has nearly secured its spot as the second most globally ubiquitous sport.  This talent explosion couldn’t be happening at a better time for the league, as cutting edge technology has completely revolutionized the game, and it’s about to get a lot more intense.

Among the neat gadgets unveiled during the conference was a high-resolution shot capture system that showed not only whether a shot is made or missed, but precisely where the ball crossed the plane of the basket or where it missed. Using this information allows individuals to tell where players habitually misses shots to one side of the rim and allows teams to lay the groundwork for correcting their form.  

Player tracking data is the most coveted and the most versatile type of data, and is likely where most of the next advancements in the field of basketball analytics will emanate from. This innovation has been huge, as stats emanating from player tracking data become more commonly used and accepted. Former President of the Los Angeles Lakers Mitch Kupchak stated that the introduction of GPS data has “changed the way our sport looks at analytics,” but teams are looking to do even more with this information.

During a presentation dubbed ‘Bhostgusters’, my mind was promptly blown when a group of PHD students and research associates introduced a system of synthesized NBA defenses paired with a real-time sketching system. Bhostgusters uses 30,000 possessions from the 2016-17 NBA season to train what they call ‘ghosts’. Ghosts basically act as the computer-generated defense in NBA 2K, predicting where players will go and how they will react to offensive action. What makes it special though is the staggering amount of factors that are taken into account to determine a defender’s next action. Everything from those 30,000 NBA possessions is recorded; the amount of time a player’s been on the court, the game clock, the shot clock, and the game situation. Then, by using a deep-learning system that I am not even going to pretend to be able to understand, the algorithm is able to predict defensive responses to offensive actions. The user interface system allows a coach to draw up a play (on an iPad) in a specific game situation and see how the defense is likely to react based on data accumulated over the course of the season and over the course of the game. Instead of viewing the play as a one dimensional image of basketball action, coaches can view an animated simulation featuring ghost defenses in their custom play, in order to see how the defense will handle the offensive actions. Even if the model has never seen the play before, it can still come up with “context-dependent behaviors” to predict defensive movement. This incredible presentation was only one of dozens of projects from graduate students outlining technological advances and statistic models.

While the ‘Bhostgusters’ system itself may or may not ever find its way onto an NBA sideline, deep imitation learning, the foundation of the predictive model, is already changing the way teams utilize data. The days of basic linear regression are almost over, as organizations now strive to use deep learning on spatial data in order to gain a competitive advantage. The holy grail is a system that is able to take real-time data, apply an algorithm, and spit out data in real-time to help teams manage games. Some of the stuff seems unusual and niche right now, but in the words of the great Sam Hinkie: “What’s novel today is a building block for what you build tomorrow.”

Tomorrow certainly seems exciting from an NBA fan’s perspective. Multiple panelists, including Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, discussed the very real prospect of in-game betting making its way into professional sports in the next decade. Additionally, the league continues to work hard on eliminating dead time from timeouts, free throws, and replay reviews, which currently amount to around 20 minutes per game.

When it comes to the structure of the game itself, there could be far bigger changes than the elimination of conference playoff seeding (which was a big topic of discussion this weekend, but I’m going to save it for another post).  Among the ideas floated around was the pitch to change the free throw system to be all-or-nothing; if a player gets fouled on a two or three pointer he just takes one shot worth two or three points. The idea of switching the draft and free agency seemed to gain a lot of support from front office guys, as this would allow teams more flexibility to make exciting moves on draft night without worrying as much about salary cap ramifications. However, there will always be resistance to change no matter how incremental, and what NBA Senior Vice President of Strategy and Analytics Evan Wasch called the “momentum of the status quo” will always play a factor in keeping the game the way it is.  

The Sloan Conference shows both sides of the basketball analytics coin. The massive turnout, fanfare, and enthusiasm around the field demonstrates that the science that was once ridiculed has gained legitimacy among the sport’s most influential figures. However, at the same time, the experts in their respective fields understand that the competitive advantage that arose from the advent of analytics is silently dwindling. Every new general manager who takes an analytical approach, while undoubtedly being inspired by analytics trailblazers like Hinkie and Morey, decreases the competitive advantage by elevating competition and replacing a regime that did not utilize data most effectively.

“The most important thing we do in sports is to mimic people who have been successful,” said former Cavaliers GM David Griffin. That’s just human nature. Everyone at the conference knows that data leads to good decisions, the challenge for the next 10 years will be evaluating which methods work and which ones don’t.

Screen Shot 2018-02-27 at 5.48.17 PMFormer Cavaliers GM David Griffin. Image courtesy of Associated Press.

Perhaps the most strangely uplifting moment of the conference was when President Obama discussed the disparity in information consumed in today’s society.

“Essentially we now have entirely different realities that are being created with not just different opinions but now with different facts.”

This is inarguable, as in 2018 it can quite often feel like we’re living in separate worlds, dealing with different sets of truths. Obama said it would be “very difficult” for society to function over the long run with that disparity in reality, and it’s hard to disagree with him. Hearing hundreds of extremely intelligent people all talking about using facts and tangible information to make decisions should not have been as reassuring as it was. But our society too often deemphasizes objective accuracy in favor of a number of biases just like the ones NBA front offices are working hard to combat. Maybe the NBA front offices’ commitment to finding out what is objectively true while eliminating our preconceived notions that cloud our judgement is exactly what the world needs, and maybe it’s where the world is going. After all, Obama did say:

“What’s true in sports is true more broadly”

I sure hope he’s right.


Jacob Mooallem is a student manager for the Indiana University Men’s Basketball team. He spends too much of his time on Twitter.