Shake Milton’s undervalued creation ability

HARTFORD, CT - MARCH 11: Ben Emelogu II
HARTFORD, CT - MARCH 11: Ben Emelogu II /

Shake Milton finished his junior season at Southern Methodist University (SMU) prematurely due to a hand injury. The injury is a minor concern, but it did impact him at the combine and may cause him to slide slightly in the draft.

At just under 6-foot-6 in shoes, Milton ran the point for SMU and his presence was dearly missed following his injury. He is far from an elite prospect and natural creator like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, however his transition to a court with more space and a team not expecting him to run the point will facilitate his overall game and unlock opportunities to prosper. He understands systems and where to locate players. He holds underrated play making ability that will become exponentially easier playing a position primarily off-ball in the NBA.

Where does Milton struggle creating plays for himself and others?

Milton panics when pressured, or when placed in a situation where he is trapped and a play breaks down. He usually picks up his dribble as soon as he experiences pressure. This tendency carries over to when he drives the ball and experiences pressure. A stereotypical drive starts with him losing the battle for his position by getting knocked of his drive. Next, the help defense presents itself usually causing him to pick up his dribble inducing a pivot so his back faces the basket. The drive generally finishes one of three ways — dump off pass, forced and contested finish, or an occasional turnover.

His creation ability has improved but does not come naturally to him. His lack of natural creation ability still reveals itself when he attempts blind passes. He just lacks the instinctual feel on the “he has eyes behind his head level.” His instincts and split second decision making has steadily improved each season at SMU. As a result, he may develop that type of creation ability and instinctual feel considering he has already shown the capacity.

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With that said, Milton is able to pass with either hand and has improved his court vision. He locates players moving throughout the court, throws great lob passes, and finds cutters through offensive plays well. The concern is he whether can break free from an offensive system and find success. His college progression is showing he can develop those exact skills.

The NBA is a sophisticated game of pick-up. Against Arizona, Milton tosses a perfectly placed lob to a teammate capitalizing on a defender falling asleep. On an overly simplified level, that is the ultimate goal of read-and-react offense and offense in general in the NBA. NBA offenses attempt to run dummy action nonstop in order to open up a man on the opposite side of the court for a shot. While it continues to need work, Milton has displayed the ability to break loose of a set play to make the smart basketball play.

Let’s say the Celtics select Milton with their pick and the end of the first round (No. 27 as of now). Brad Stevens runs a read-and-react offense. Milton is not going to fail because Stevens runs a fewer amount of sets than say the Minnesota Timberwolves. Stevens’ offense still follows rules and guidelines to play meaningful and successful offensive basketball. It does not mean just rolling a ball out there and letting players play but they need to know how to play. Think about it like this, the offense  is like a bike with only one training wheel. The toddler may still be able to fall but there is still some level of protection safety. Milton’s ability will continue to grow and allow him to perform effectively in any type of offense with the potential to remove the final training wheel.

Milton is lethal in catch-and-shoot situations. He rarely misses when his feet are set, hand in his face or not. His shooting is his best asset (42.7 percent from 3 over his 3-year career at SMU). When a play breaks down off-ball, he does a good job relocating and landing both feet behind the 3-point line before firing. If he needs to create space he owns a nice jab step that notably jabs towards the rim. Jabbing towards the rim backs a defender up more than jabbing sideways and creates more space to fire off a shot. If you were a skeptic about his shooting ability adjusting to NBA distance, it’s a nonissue. According to Will Schreefer’s shot chart tool, he shot 43 percent from NBA range.

The one aspect about his game I have yet to hear anyone address is how his nearly 7-foot-1 wingspan, shooting motion, and elite shooting ability may develop into a foul drawing magnet in the NBA. James Harden’s trademark, Milton may develop a newly evolving skill in drawing fouls beyond the arc. Last season, he drew 4.7 fouls per 40 minutes and I could see it continuing to remain somewhat higher than expected if he develops the ability to draw fouls beyond the arc.

Where else does Milton struggle to create?

Milton walks the incredibly fine, unclear line between whether he is smooth, lackadaisical, or inferior athletically. The answer may be a little bit of everything but there are some signs he lacks explosive athleticism. He lacks a dynamic first step in order to create separation on and off-ball. Vertically, he struggles to explode and have any impact above the rim. In fact, his absent vertical athleticism nullifies much of his 8-foot-3 standing reach. Additionally, he lacks flexibility in the air and therefore the ability to angle his body for tough finishes and neutralizing rim protectors. Jalen Brunson is an example of a player who effectively does this provided his limited athleticism. In hand, Milton will likely continue to struggle around the rim and get blocked by larger more vertically inclined defenders in the NBA. His sub-par finishing ability around the rim restricts his ability to finish at the rim even further.

He flashes incredibly nice touch on runners and floaters. Milton must settle for those shots frequently as a result of his inability to penetrate, but thrives attempting the difficult shot. His soft touch coupled with quality arc makes his floater incredibly difficult for a defender to block, particularly because of the no-man-land nature of a floater.

Off-ball, his floaters and shooting ability yield promising potential. Milton is effective coming off curls and pin downs and is able to pressure a defense with his ability to dribble with either hand. Accordingly, Milton would prove rather effective in screen the screener action, which is a strategy often utilized if a 3-pointer is needed in a game.

His skinny body and poor vertical athleticism makes him an unlikely candidate to develop as an above average force on the boards. Defensively, his length attracts teams for the versatility potential. SMU primarily played zone but there were still takeaways from his defensive potential. Even with said potential, his ceiling as a defender is average, at best.

His help defense is questionable, he struggles to close out on the perimeter, and make an impact within the team defense. Off-ball flare, pin down, and wide screens pose a challenge for Milton, and these are all staples in NBA offenses. Milton is consistently killed on those screens.

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Milton struggles to fight over screens on ball as well. He consistently goes under ball screens and fails to takeaway space. There is a difference between truly contesting shots and the facade of simply putting a hand up. Also, he may struggle to stay with his man on the drive. A positive is his length pesters opponents and helps cover up his deficiencies. His length offers little else at this point though.

Milton’s creation ability, particularly in traffic, still has a ways to go. It is better than he receives credit for and will translate to the NBA. His shooting will keep him on the floor, but as he develops he will start to be able to create when given pressure off of curls and other similar actions. He may very well become one of the best values at the end of the first round.