NBA

What do teams do with non-shooters like Justise Winslow?

During an era in which 3-point shooting has taken over the NBA, being a non-shooter is perhaps one of the worst traits a player can have, especially if he plays on the wing. Players at all positions can get away without ever developing a 3-point shot and can be superstars if they excel in multiple other areas, but it’s incredibly difficult for role players looking to make a significant impact on a playoff team if they can’t shoot.

There are plenty of skills a player can develop to mitigate their lack of a 3-point shot, though it certainly puts a ceiling on their overall value if they’re downright putrid from beyond the arc. Point guards and centers, in particular, have an easier time providing offensive value to their teams without that outside threat, usually through their pick-and-roll expertise or ability to draw defenders into the paint, either through a drive or post touch.

Point guards like John Wall of the Wizards and Russell Westbrook of the Thunder are immensely valuable to their respective teams through their ability to attack the basket and create for others despite neither having developed a reliable 3-point shot. Centers such as Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan have gravity as rollers that can bring an entire opposing defense into the paint, opening up shooting opportunities for their teammates on the perimeter. You’ll never see them on the perimeter shooting a 3-pointer, but they obviously bring value to their teams’ offenses all the same.

Read More: Drummond is no longer an archaic center

Between point guard and center is where things get tricky for non-shooters. Teams are moving further and further away from the idea of playing two traditional big men, making it more imperative than ever that wings and forwards are able to spread the floor. Wings who can be major pluses on the offensive end have to be all-world at other skills to make up for their lack of shooting. DeMar DeRozan and Jimmy Butler are transformational offensive stars due to their mid-range game and ability to get to their spots no matter what the defense throws at them, but stars like DeRozan and Butler are few and far between, and there are plenty of wings who struggle mightily from outside, which puts a much lower ceiling on their potential impact.

Many of the wings who don’t bring a massive offensive impact are great defenders; the most high-profile example being Andre Roberson. His game is about as unbalanced as it comes — he may be the worst offensive player in the NBA but brings so much to the table on the other end of the floor that he earned a three-year, $30 million contract from the Thunder this past offseason, when the free agent market was as tight as it’s been in a few years.

Roberson can’t hit the broad side of a barn from beyond the arc and can barely dribble or pass, yet he may be the Thunder’s fifth guy in crunch time due to his defensive work. Roberson’s entire offensive profile is getting out in transition, cutting to the basket and being entirely ignored by every member of the opposing team when he’s not doing one of those two things. He’s actually rather efficient on the shots he does take due to the fact that the majority of them come in the restricted area on those backdoor cuts when teams ignore him.

The Dive Lob set in the above clip is the only play the Thunder run for Roberson. They rely on the defense to rotate away from Roberson on the Westbrook-Steven Adams pick-and-roll to get the lob to Roberson along the baseline.

Other than this one play they’ve run a handful of times over the years, Roberson gets the majority of his points in the half court on similar baseline cuts and offensive rebounding. He routinely ranks among the best offensive rebounders at his position, mostly because his defender is always off doing something else and isn’t in position to box him out properly when the shot goes up.

Knowing Roberson isn’t an offensive threat allows opposing defenses to key in on the Thunder’s better players and shift their defensive personnel to best mitigate the Thunder’s offensive damage. Watch below how Sacramento was able to overload the strong side of the floor by leaving Roberson alone in the opposite corner:

After a failed early pick-and-roll for Westbrook and Adams, the Thunder swing the ball to the other side of the floor and Roberson cuts through to the weak side. When he does, Garrett Temple doesn’t bother to track him, instead staying on the strong side block to help defend the Paul George-Carmelo Anthony pick-and-roll. When Anthony catches in the mid-post, Temple is already in his face, forcing a pass to the only open guy on the floor: Roberson. Willie Cauley-Stein barely moves to contest Roberson’s shot, and it rims out. Adams gets the offensive rebound off a fortuitous bounce, but the Thunder’s entire offensive plan was blown up by Roberson’s mere presence.

However, the Thunder will sometimes flip this strategy on its head, involving Roberson as a screener to get George or Anthony a good shot. Watch Roberson screen his own man, who was supposed to rotate out to Anthony, to help carve open the Clippers’ defense:

Westbrook and Jerami Grant run a snug pick-and-roll around the mid-post, requiring Blake Griffin to rotate over and help defend against Grant’s roll to the rim. Los Angeles can’t play a two-man pick-and-roll defense against this action because of how close to the basket it takes place, so a third defender is required to deter the pass to Grant. When Griffin moves into the paint, the responsibility of Anthony falls on Lou Williams, who was initially defending Roberson. When the ball swings across to Anthony, Roberson is already blocking Williams’ path to Anthony and Griffin has to fly back out to the 3-point line, overcommitting to the close out and giving up an open jumper. If Roberson is hanging out in the corner, Williams rotates over to Anthony briefly to allow Griffin to get back to his man and the offense stalls out.

Roberson is quick to follow his passes to set screens for his teammates, especially George. With his defender occupied with everything but actually defending him, Roberson can sometimes spring a quick surprise on the defense by directly involving himself in the action.

Omri Casspi does his job by ignoring Roberson to help on Westbrook’s drive, but when Roberson follows his own pass to screen for George, Casspi is too far away to sufficiently help and George is able to knock down the 3. Against the switch-heavy defense of the Warriors, Roberson’s usefulness as a screener grows since his guy is often occupied elsewhere and will be out of position on that switch, as Casspi was in the above clip.

There isn’t a whole lot the Thunder can do with Roberson offensively due to his limited skill set, but sticking him in the corner to brick 3s while nobody guards him doesn’t work very well. He finds little ways to get himself involved in the play and force the defense to at least be aware of his existence, but the lack of an outside shot and no ability to handle the ball makes things very difficult for the Thunder offensively when he’s on the floor. Even being able to do a rudimentary amount of ball handling skyrockets a non-shooter’s value, as the Heat have found with Justise Winslow.

Winslow is by no means a primary ball handler — or even really a secondary ball handler — but he’s at least able to execute a dribble handoff with a guard or fake the handoff, take a dribble or two and finish at the rim.

Winslow has mostly played in a power forward role this season, which helps alleviate his non-shooting concerns, as the Heat can surround him with smaller wings and point guards without running into defensive issues. Roberson, for all his defensive gifts, doesn’t fare as well as Winslow does when playing up a position defensively, instead bringing his value as a longer defender who can stay in front of point guards and small wings in addition to defending his own position. Winslow can defend most big men, which changes the personnel around him for the Heat.

Still, Winslow is more skilled with the ball in his hands in his third season out of college than Roberson ever will be. It allows the Heat to do a lot more offensively as a result.

The Heat will use Winslow to set screens, much like the Thunder does with Roberson, but Winslow’s ability to catch and make a play for himself or someone else sets him apart from Roberson and helps bring additional value for the Heat.

The Heat have even used Winslow as a ball handler in pick-and-roll, though these opportunities mostly come in garbage time. Of the 20 pick-and-rolls he’s run this year, five of them came in the fourth quarter of the Heat’s blowout loss earlier this week in Cleveland, but the fact that their coaching staff is using these garbage time possessions to get Winslow pick-and-roll reps shows what they think of his long-term potential as a playmaker and offensive weapon. He may never develop the outside shot to become a serious off-ball threat, but if he can handle, pass and finish, he can still be a valuable offensive contributor.

The next step up from Winslow is Marcus Smart, the Celtics’ do-it-all wing who can defend all five positions and play both ends of a pick-and-roll equally well. Smart’s one flaw, of course, is he can’t score in an open gym. Still, as far as non-shooters go, he’s just about the perfect role player for an offense and the Celtics are clearly better when he’s on the floor, despite his abjectly terrible 39.0 percent effective field goal percentage. 

Smart doesn’t have a single area on the floor from which he shoots well — he’s shooting a career-low 39 percent at the rim and 30 percent from 3, which is actually BETTER than he’s done the past two seasons from beyond the arc. It seems inconceivable that a player who puts the ball in the basket this infrequently could be a massive positive on the offensive end, but Smart is exactly that, with his ability to handle the ball in pick-and-roll, hustle on the offensive glass and beat up smaller guards in the post. He’s just good enough with the ball in his hands to draw help and can hit the open man when the defense collapses as he gets into the teeth of the defense. At some point, defenses will stop respecting Smart’s scoring game and force him to hit shots, but we’re four years into the Marcus Smart Experience and he’s better than ever.

Smart’s ability to handle the ball makes him a much more dangerous offensive player than Roberson in the same actions. Watch below as Smart sets a back screen for Kyrie Irving, much like Roberson setting a screen to get Anthony open, but unlike Roberson, Smart is able to do something positive with the ball when Irving isn’t open on the cut to the rim.

He’s been poor in the post so far this year but was much better on a larger sample size last season, so it’s fair to assume he can still bring it in the post when he gets a switch on a smaller defender. He can finish in the post with either hand and retains his vision and passing ability when he’s down there, so the Celtics will routinely hunt switches when he gets a traditional point guard on his back after one of those screens for Irving.

Smart’s not an overly advanced operator in the pick-and-roll, but he does just enough to be a quality secondary playmaker even though he seems to be allergic to scoring (though he’s certainly not afraid to shoot, which helps his reputation from taking the nosedive Roberson’s has over the past few years). There’s an evolutionary level above Smart including the aforementioned DeRozan and Butler as well as MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and budding star Ben Simmons, both of whom barely shoot outside of about 10 feet but are so hyper-efficient at it that it doesn’t matter if defenses know their range is limited.

Teams are constantly looking for 3-and-D wings to complement their attack, but these players are perhaps the scarcest commodity in the league, forcing even the best teams to play incomplete players in important roles. While every team would be happy to have Antetokounmpo or Simmons, the fact remains there are a lot more players of the Roberson-Winslow-Smart mold than that of Antetokounmpo and Simmons, but it doesn’t mean the former can’t bring offensive value, even if defense is their primary calling card.