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I love this part of the season. Every team is fun to watch, the rookies are fresh, the new basketball smell still lingers on the car seats. It’s glorious, if a bit overwhelming.
You will see a parade of people warning you to beware small-sample theater, and it’s good advice in general. But even small samples sometimes contain a grain of gold, so it’s up to us to sift through the numbers and figure out what’s real and what isn’t.
Welcome to Fact or Fiction!
Victor Wembanyama is a one-man defensive army
The Spurs’ 27th-ranked defense gives up a mind-imploding 29.2 points fewer per 100 possessions when Wembanyama is on the floor than when he’s off. Put another way, the Spurs are one of the best defenses in the league when Wemby is on the parquet and the worst by so, so much when he’s off.
And it’s all him. Most of this team played major parts in last year’s league-worst defense, after all. No other Spurs’ metrics suggest they make anything like the difference that Wembanyama does, and very few players across the league are in the same ballpark.
The physical tools matter. He’s not an awkward giraffe. This is a quick-twitch capital-A Athlete whose arms happen to blot out the sun, and no shot is safe around him. Spurs’ opponents shoot massively worse from every spot on the floor when Wembanyama plays.
One underrated aspect of Wembanyama’s defense is in transition. Coach Pop has him sprinting back, deterring other teams from even thinking about pushing the ball. Few want to challenge Wemby at the rim one-on-one, even at full tilt, and the ones loco enough to try are sent back with their head on a platter:
The craziest part? He can get so much better on this end. He has not yet perfected the timing of when to help vs. when to stay home, and he gets caught in no-man’s land a lot. There are a handful of occasions in every game where he passively watches as an opponent drives by when it looks like he could make a play. Of course, with his length and spidery quickness, he can make up for a lot of positioning mistakes, but there is still a ton of untapped upside.
The Spurs have adamantly played Wembanyama next to a center for nearly all his minutes, but everyone wonders what could happen if he manned the middle by himself. He might turn the paint into a no-fly zone to an extent we’ve never seen before, Reagan’s Star Wars defense system anthropomorphized.
I don’t pay too much attention to the draft cycle hype, and I let every rookie come in and show what they can do without adhering to preconceived notions (because I don’t have any). If anything, I assumed the chatter around Wembanyama would be impossible to live up to. But Wembanyama is the real deal, and he already looks like one of the most impactful defenders in the NBA.
Ausar Thompson is a historically excellent shotblocker
The Wembanyama hoopla, like his arms, casts a huge shadow, and it’s overwhelmed some other fun rookie stories. Ausar Thompson’s has been my favorite.
The less-heralded Thompson brother (who was still the fifth pick in the draft, mind you) has been everything he was supposed to be, except more of it: a better passer, a monstrous rebounder, a worse shooter. And a freakishly good perimeter defender.
Here’s the stat: Among players 6’7” or shorter who have played at least 165 minutes in a season, Thompson’s 5.1% block rate is the second-highest of all time. He’s averaging 1.8 blocks per game, and these aren’t meek little tips. These are malicious, meant to injure basketballs:
He’s swatted Bam Adebayo and Zach Lavine. He denied Shai Gilgeous-Alexander twice in one game. He blocked Jimmy Butler twice on one play:
Thompson is a freak athlete with uncanny timing, and while he probably won’t boast a 5% block rate for long, he’s quickly becoming one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Unlike many of his peers, he doesn’t make his mark in the box score with steals. He prefers aerial combat.
The shot will need to come around for him to maximize his potential (this airball might legitimately be the worst shot I’ve ever seen in a live game), but Thompson is already so good at everything else that his floor is a starter on a good team. Squint in the cold, gray Michigan air, and you see Andre Iguodala. Put on some eclipse goggles (safety first!), and you can see the birth of a star.
New Orleans is a bottom-10 offense and a top-10 defense
As of this writing, NO is 4-1 despite their usual bevy of injuries. Just like when they were riding high last year, New Orleans is winning games with a top-10 defense. Unlike last year, they have a terrible offense, and here’s the crazy part: the Pelicans have scored a horrendous -15.9 points fewer per 100 possessions when Zion Williamson is on the court than when he’s off. That’s one of the worst marks in the league!
We’ve only had a handful of games to judge, but the stats point to one primary culprit: the team doesn’t shoot any free throws when Zion is on the court, averaging about 13 made free throws per 100 possessions. For context, the worst team in the league last year, Phoenix, averaged 23.7 made free throws per 100 possessions, so yeah. That’s a problem.
Zion is part of the issue, as he’s sporting a career-low in both free throw rate and free throw accuracy (although that’s driven primarily by one game with just two FTAs). To me, he’s looked a bit slow and rusty through the first handful of games, which should be expected, while nobody else besides C.J. McCollum has garnered any whistles.
The injuries to Trey Murphy and Jose Alvarado have decimated the team’s outside shooting, and the rest of the roster (outside of McCollum and Matt Ryan) hasn’t been able to pick up the slack. Zion is driving into a wall of bodies on every play, often slinging a great, unfulfilled pass to one of the team’s many bricklayers. Look at how many guys are wide-open from deep on this play:
And that happens nearly every possession!
The good news: this won’t last forever. Trey Murphy and Jose Alvarado will be back at some point, and Zion will get re-acclimated to the game (or at least face a slightly less-crowded paint). That one outlier game drives down Williamson’s own free throw rates, and Ingram (historically, the team’s second-most-prolific free throw shooter) has only played two games himself.
History suggests that Zion is an unstoppable offensive tsunami as long as he has just a smidge of help, and I see no reason to doubt that yet.