You could put together a pretty good rotation with the NBA veterans that didn’t play a single game last season. You’d have Jamal Murray, Ben Simmons, Kendrick Nunn and John Wall in the backcourt, with Kawhi Leonard, Zion Williamson, T.J. Warren, Dario Saric, Jonathan Isaac and James Wiseman up front. That group is a little short on shooting, but good luck scoring against a lineup that features Simmons, Leonard and Isaac.
Of course, those 10 guys play for eight different teams. Simmons was featured in this space a couple of weeks ago, but here are some notes, numbers and film regarding six players expected to return to the floor in October after more than a year away from the game.
1. Kawhi Leonard – LA Clippers
Leonard had a true shooting percentage of 67.9% in the 2021 playoffs, the highest mark in NBA history for a player who averaged at least 30 points in 10 or more playoff games.
Highest playoff true shooting percentage, 30 PPG, 10 GP
TS% = PTS / (2 * (FGA + (0.44 * FTA)))
There are only 60 instances (including 10 from Michael Jordan) of a player averaging at least 30 points over 10 or more playoff games. But it’s an elite sample size if it’s a small one. In short, Leonard was playing some incredible basketball before suffering a partially torn ACL in his right knee in Game 4 of the conference semifinals. And that came after he registered a career-high true shooting percentage (62.2%) in the regular season.
His free-throw rate and 3-point rate were actually down from his first season with the Clippers (2019-20). But, counting the regular season and playoffs, Leonard saw big jumps in both field goal percentage in the paint (from 57.1% to 62.0%) and effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint (from 49.1% to a career-best 54.2%).
Leonard ranked third in pick-and-roll ball-handler efficiency (1.11 points per possession) among 73 players with at least 200 ball-handler possessions and third in post-up efficiency (1.12) among 30 players with at least 100 post-up possessions in the regular season.
In the playoffs, Leonard increased both his frequency and efficiency in isolation, scoring 1.16 points per possession on 51 isolation possessions, according to Synergy tracking. The Clippers liked to get him the ball at the elbow and let him go to work…
One of his final buckets in that historically efficient playoff run was a similar isolation play with an emphatic result…
The last time Kawhi Leonard played NBA basketball.
Ian Eagle on the call. pic.twitter.com/LUXQAfMhNW
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) September 15, 2022
2. Zion Williamson – New Orleans Pelicans
Zion Williamson averaged 18.0 points per game in the restricted area in 2020-21.
That was the highest restricted-area average in the 26 seasons for which we have shot-location data, and it topped Williamson’s own mark of 15.8 restricted-area points per game in his rookie season.
Restricted-area data can be a little problematic because there’s shot-charting inconsistency from arena to arena. But even if you consider just road games, Williamson has the two highest restricted-area averages in the 26 years of shot-location data: 16.8 in ’20-21 and 15.8 in ’19-20.
Most restricted-area points per game, since 1996-97
|Player||Season||GP||RA FGM||RA PPG||Road|
While Williamson is a beast, his numbers in the restricted area are a little more about volume than skill. His 69.5% in the restricted area on the road ranked just 25th among 96 players with at least 100 road restricted-area attempts. And (including home games) his shot was blocked 131 times, the highest total in the last 18 seasons and 34 more times than any other player who was blocked in ’20-21.
Williamson took 95% of his shots in the paint, the eighth highest rate among 250 players with at least 300 field goal attempts in ’20-21. He’s made 25 shots from outside the paint in 85 career games, and four of those 25 makes came in his rookie debut.
The Pelicans set 12.0 ball screens per game for Williamson over his final 37 games of ’20-21, up from 3.3 per game over his first 24 games and 0.4 per game in his rookie season. His defenders, for obvious reasons, tried to go under those screens. So the Pels set those screens as low as possible to keep the defender from getting around them and allowing Williamson to find a runway to the hoop:
We’ll see if Williamson comes back with a jump shot. Maybe he doesn’t need one.
3. Jamal Murray – Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic had 94 assists to Jamal Murray, and Murray had 92 assists to Jokic in 2020-21.
There was no other pair of teammates where each had more than 73 assists to the other. In fact, the next pair on the list was Jokic and Will Barton (86 and 73, respectively). And of course, Murray tore his ACL with 14 games left in the ’21 regular season. The 1,363 minutes that Murray and Jokic played together ranked 103rd among all two-man combinations in ’20-21.
The season prior, Jokic (129 to Murray) and Murray (116 to Jokic) combined for 245 assists to each other. Jokic is obviously not a normal big, but the assist totals speak to the chemistry between the pair.
A common action that the Nuggets would (and will) run was Murray pitching the ball to Jokic at the top of the key and then following for a dribble handoff (DHO). If the defender tries to deny that DHO, both guys know what to do…
Then can play pick-and-roll the standard way…
Or go 5/1 instead of 1/5…
4. Kendrick Nunn – Los Angeles Lakers
Nunn shot 47.5% on pull-up 2-pointers, but just 26.5% on pull-up 3s in 2020-21.
That was the biggest differential among 74 players who attempted at least 75 pull-up 2s and at least 75 pull-up 3s.
Nunn registered an effective field goal percentage of 57.8% in ’20-21, up from 51.4% in his rookie season. That was the 10th biggest jump among 110 players with at least 500 field goal attempts each year. Improvement mostly came in the paint (from 52.4% to 62.1%) and on catch-and-shoot 3s (from 34.7% to 42.1%). But Nunn shot just 26.5% on pull-up 3s, down from 36.8% as a rookie.
That 42% on catch-and-shoot 3s would look pretty good alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis. And if Nunn can get back to shooting pull-up 3s like he did as a rookie, that can open more things up for the Lakers’ offense.
But even if he’s just got that same, smooth, mid-range pull-up that he had in Miami, Nunn will be more of a perimeter threat than the guy who shot just 37.0% on pull-up 2s and 30.3% on pull-up 3s for the Lakers last season.
5. John Wall – LA Clippers
Wall has an effective field goal percentage of just 34.6% on pull-up jumpers over the last five seasons, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
Amazingly, Russell Westbrook has taken the seventh most pull-up jumpers (2,693) over the last five seasons. But at 39.0%, Westbrook doesn’t have the worst effectiveness among 316 players with at least 500 pull-up jumpers over that stretch. That mark would belong to Wall, who’s been a pretty brutal off-the-dribble shooter.
Wall can do some great things off the dribble. As noted earlier this summer, only LeBron James (3.22) has averaged more assists on 3-pointers per game than Wall (3.18) over the last 10 years (minimum 300 total games).
But he’s probably a little too eager to shoot off the bounce. Though he played in only 40 of 72 games two seasons ago, Wall attempted more than twice as many mid-range jumpers (145) as anybody else on the Rockets, and he shot just 31.7% on those shots.
Opponents will give him space, but that doesn’t mean he should be taking mid-range pull-ups with 19 seconds on the shot clock:
Wall hasn’t played in a game since April 23, 2021 when he took 12 pull-up jumpers against the Clippers. Though he made six of them, that kind of volume is probably best reserved for only Leonard on this team.
6. T.J. Warren – Brooklyn Nets
The stat: In 2019-20, Warren was the only player who shot 55% or better on at least 500 2-point attempts and 40% or better on at least 200 3-point attempts.
Warren, who’s played just four games over the last two seasons, famously shot 22-for-42 (52%) from 3-point range in the Orlando bubble. But for a wing, he was a particularly strong finisher in the paint. His 64.7% in the paint ranked second (behind only Derrick Jones Jr.) among non-bigs with at least 200 paint shots in ’19-20.
If he’s healthy and in rhythm, he can be (another) serious bucket-getter for the Nets…
Count that among the many “ifs” regarding Brooklyn this season.
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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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