Emerging Zags

The last two off seasons 2for1hoops has ranked the best players under the age of 23 for a series we call Emerging Stars. The Gonzaga basketball program has two eligible bigs in the Association who didn’t make the rankings, but will still impact the 2018-19 season in a major way.

Domantas Sabonis

Indiana Pacers

Age 22

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1 Big Thing:

Success as Pick and Roll Man

The move to Indiana allowed Sabonis to better showcase his skill set. He removed spotting up and the occasional pick and roll with Westbrook, for running a heavy dose of pick and rolls and employing his skills as a cutter and low post scorer. In 2016-17, 128 of Sabonis 593 possessions (21.7%) came as the screener in the pick and roll accounting for .859 PPP per Synergy.

After being traded in the Paul George deal, Sabonis had 378 of his 897 possessions (42.1%) come as the screener, resulting in .989 PPP. Sabonis led the NBA in possessions as a screener, though his .989 PPP is tenth in the league of players with at least 250 possessions trailing teammate Myles Turner ( 7th – 1.031) and the game’s elite finishers.

If he can improve on his 50.9% field goal and 10.6 turnover percentage in these situations, Sabonis will become a great weapon in Indy.

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1 Thing to Watch For:

Growth as outside shooter

Sabonis was miscast as a stretch 4 in Oklahoma City with 170 of his 593 possessions (28.8%) spotting up and attempting 2 three pointers per game. Last season with the Pacers, Sabonis drastically cut down both those marks, spotting up on 76 of his 893 possessions (8.5%) and attempting only 37 three pointers.

It’s no secret that the modern NBA has embraced the three point shot, as the Final Four in the NBA last season were top 8 in the league in three pointers made. The Indiana Pacers, losers in 7 games to the Cavaliers in the first round last season, were 25th at 9 per game.

If Sabonis can take and make three pointers at a higher rate above the 32.7% career three point percentage, it impacts his and the Pacers upside. When ranking the Emerging Power Forwards in the NBA, one of the reasons Sabonis wasn’t in the top 5 is because he hasn’t shown the shooting ability of those ahead of him. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently detailed, the dynamic between Sabonis and 22 year old 7 footer Myles Turner will depend on Sabonis showing a greater willingness to take threes and let Turner operate more as a roll and lob threat.

Additionally, Sabonis would become more dangerous in the pick and roll as defenses will have to respect his pick and pop jumper. Last season, of players with at least 75 possessions picking and popping, Sabonis was 31st with .075 PPP. A leap from behind the arch will open up the floor for the Pacers stable of playmakers including last season’s Most Improved Player Victor Oladipo and free agent acquisition Tyreke Evans.

As is, Sabonis is a wonderful pick and roll player with the chance to become an even better. His offensive repertoire features excellent footwork and touch around the basket, seemingly always turning right shoulder. He plays with fire and is part of an exciting core that looks to grow together in the Eastern Conference. Improvements from the outside and the defensive side must come, but successful NBA days are in front of the former Zag.

2017-18 Stats:

11.6 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2.0 APG

51.4% FG, 35.1% 3FG, 75.0% FT

Zach Collins

Portland Trailblazers

Age 20

Drafted after one year of college to an established, playoff team it was unrealistic for Collins to come in and contribute immediately. In 66 games, Collins worked himself into a regular role, finishing with very similar numbers to Domantas Sabonis in his rookie year. For Collins to make a leap like Sabonis experienced in Year 2, he must maximize his opportunity behind Jusuf Nurkic. Much like Sabonis experienced an uptick in role and usage in Year 2, Collins could benefit from the departure of Ed Davis to New Jersey freeing up 18 minutes per game in the front court.

The opportunity to adjust to the NBA game and grow with each rep will help Collins immensely as his role expands. Asked at training camp about the Las Vegas native, Blazers star Cj McCollum put down his latest twitter beef and raved about Collins outlook for Year 2, “I think you get more comfortable, more confident in yourself you stop thinking, and that’s when you become your best player, when you’re just out there reading and reacting.”

1 Big Thing:

Defensive Upside

Collins provides great value defensively using his excellent athleticism and length to contest shots. Collins is learning the art of verticality, but he projects to be a very effective rim protector going forward.

Collins blocked 37 shots last season, a number held down by playing only 15.8 minutes per game. Of players with at least 75 possessions defending around the basket, Collins was 15th with 0.87 PPP, holding opponents to 41.6%. A small sample size but Collins makes scoring around the basket no easy task, and it’s a skill that will be on display more next season.

Zach Collins using his verticality to contest at the rim

The TrailBlazers had Collins sit back in the pick and roll and invite opposing teams to pull up in the mid-range or attack the former Bulldog at the rim. Of players with 165 possessions as the big man defender in pick and roll, Collins was 41st, holding opponents to a 42% field goal percentage at the rim. His overall statistics in the pick and roll stand to improve next season, as Collins ended last season 63rd at .881 PPP.

Portland defended the rim very well last season, and Collins’ growth as a shot blocker will only boost a team that has lost in the First Round 3 of the last 4 seasons.

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1 Thing to Watch For:

Shooting Efficiency

Collins was used on 121 of his 366 possessions spotting up around the perimeter, and he wasn’t very effective, shooting 30.6% on catch and shoots. Overall, Collins converted 35 of 113 three pointers and accounted for .871 PPP spotting up, a mark that must improve.

Portland’s President of Basketball Operations, Neil Olshey said over the summer that, “It’s our responsibility to move him back closer to the basket…..He played a lot in partnership with Ed Davis, so Ed was clearly the dive guy playing with a foot in the paint. And it forced Zach really to play a little bit outside his comfort zone a little sooner than we would have liked.”

The numbers support Olshey’s remarks, as 144 of Zach’s shooting possessions (52%) were jump shots , resulting in .854 PPP and a miserable 31.3% field goal percentage. Meanwhile he had 81 shooting possessions (29.2%) around the basket, scoring 1.062 PPP and shooting 51.9%. Hopefully playing more of a balanced inside out game can improve Collins’ offensive efficiency and the outside jumper will fall at a better rate. Much of Zach Collins’ upside is rooted in his shooting stroke, but in Year 2 it would be nice to see him operate more in the paint.

Playing with pick and roll maestros like Damian Lillard and Cj McCollum, it’s important to be effective a both a roll guy and a pop guy. Collins rarely went to the basket after setting a pick, rolling after only 6 of his 54 (11.1%) screening possessions. This number figures to also increase without Ed Davis clogging the lane, giving Collins a chance for easier layups and dunks.

However, the best big men in the modern game are effective in stretching the floor with their outside jumpers, and Collins has that ability. Last season, he popped on 39 of his 54 (72%) of screens, accounting for .821 PPP. He shot 33% in the pick and pop, a dreadful mark that needs to trend upward in 2018-19. With improvement in the pick and roll, Collins will earn more opportunities to work with Portland’s playmakers and score more efficiently. After being used only 14% of the time in the pick and roll, more pick and roll chances add another element to Zach’s offensive game.

Next season, with an uptick in both comfort at the NBA level and usage, and more shots around the rim, Collins is primed to make big progress in Year 2.

2017-18 Stats:

4.4 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 0.8 APG

39.8% FG , 31.0% 3FG, 64% FT

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