Justise Winslow, Aaron Gordon, and role optimization

Oct 12, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) dribbles the ball against the San Antonio Spurs during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 12, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) dribbles the ball against the San Antonio Spurs during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

When evaluating prospects, talent level unquestionably dominates the conversation, especially when projecting college players’ transition to the NBA. Player development, opportunity and role optimization usually take a backseat, even though in many instances those two components trump talent level in significance. Who is the best in the abstract is not always as important as who is the best in context.

A lot of supremely skilled players fall by the wayside, because they either don’t have the opportunity to develop or aren’t used optimally. Already this season we have seen examples of young players getting a developmental boots by being used in a more optimal role, and a few who are less fortunate.

Justise Winslow backup lead guard

With Dwyane Wade’s departure to Chicago Miami had a huge creation void to fill on the wing, and Winslow looked to be the beneficiary of that via an enhanced role. Winslow’s usage rate last year was 11.9; 132nd out of 139 for qualified wings per ESPN.com. His usage is up to 22.2 this year, 11th for qualified small forwards. How is that happening? Because Spoelstra is optimizing Winslow’s creation opportunities by giving him backup lead guard duties.

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Dragic is still the primary initiator in the starting lineup, and when complimented with guys like Dion Waiters and Hassan Whiteside, the latter getting fed down low, Winslow is an ancillary piece with the starters. But when the reserve unit takes the floor, the offense slides over into Winslow’s hands. Often paired with a secondary handler in Tyler Johnson in the backcourt, Winslow runs the second unit, playing in pick-and-roll and unleashing the creation aspect of his game we rarely saw last year.

And again…

Winslow’s playmaking, and overall game impact, is significantly lessened when relegated to a spot up shooter (Winslow is just 4-of-21 on spot up shots this year per NBA.com playtype stats, in the seventh percentile). Spoelstra understands that, and has tailored his rotations to not only optimize Winslow’s current impact, but also increase his long-term ball-skill development.

Brandon Ingram the initiator?

So far this season the rail thin, 19-year-old Ingram has yet to make his mark, outside of occasionally dwarfing his defensive assignment with erasing length when his assignment thinks he can take advantage of Ingram’s lack of strength. Ingram, at this juncture, isn’t going to wow you outside of skill and tools flashes, and for one of the youngest players in his class, that’s okay. The surprising element of Ingram’s game isn’t his actual skill, but rather the freedom he’s given.

Lakers head coach Luke Walton allows Ingram to bring the ball up and initiate the offense on second units, which Walton justifies with the importance of keeping Ingram involved:

It might seem insignificant, but that’s developmental coaching at it’s finest. Ingram doesn’t just enter the game and stand in the corner for six minutes. He’s actively dribbling, reading defenses and honing his playmaking skills. Do you think Byron Scott permits that?

Parker & Giannis staggering

The Khris Middleton injury sent Milwaukee’s season into a tailspin, but the underlying goal of maximizing the development of franchise cornerstones Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker should still be at the forefront of any season goal calculus. This means optimizing the usage and development of each player while on the court, and staggering both players to do so. Through four games per NBAWowy, Jabari has played 25 of his 123 total minutes without Giannis on the court, roughly 20 percent.

NBA.com hasn’t updated lineup data for the fourth game, but through three games Jabari wasn’t even in the highest non-Giannis minutes lineup.  Jabari is still a raw mess on the court offensively looking sped up most of of the time, and is a lost sieve defensively, but this is about a long-term development trajectory. The Bucks aren’t going to win games when their highest non-Giannis minutes lineup is comprised of Brogdon/Vaughn/Beasley/Teletovic/Monroe. They might as well give Jabari primary creator control of those lineups and see if that experience makes the game slow down for him.

Aaron Gordon playing out of position

Orlando has been one of the most disappointing teams in the league this year with their conglomeration of mismatched pieces, and no one has paid the piper (development wise) more than Aaron Gordon. Through four games, per NBA.com, Orlando’s highest minute lineup is Payton/Fournier/Gordon/Ibaka/Vucevic, and Orlando’s second highest minutes lineup is Payton/Fournier/Gordon/Vucevic/Biyombo. What is the commonality? Gordon is playing almost all his minutes out of position at the 3 spot, and his development is suffering.

Gordon is a big space player, meaning he excels operating in large spaces attacking closeouts. This renders him a plus fit at the 4 position, where he is arguably the most athletic power forward in the league, one who can blow by slower-footed opponents on closeouts and explode vertically attacking the basket. It’s not an accident that his most productive minutes of the season came in the second game against Detroit playing the 4 being defended by Jon Leuer.

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Gordon is not a wing as he lacks the small space tight handle to create against superior athletes. Players such as Dion Waiters in the first game of the season have really pressed up and gotten into his body, and Gordon can’t counter that skill-wise. The Magic are touting Gordon as a 3 because of front-court personnel constraints in trying to give newly signed Bismack Biyombo and Jeff Green more minutes. Gordon has the ideal skill-set of a two-way playmaking 4, and has made tremendous strides in his shot mechanics and footwork.

The fear is his development upside is being curbed by the politics of a desperate franchise.