Crosshair: Roko Ukic

Roko Ukic Toronto Raptors Barcelona Lottomatica RomaIf I had to buy a Raptors jersey, it’d be Roko’s.

Not having watched many Lottomatica or Barcelona games, I was surprised at how raw Ukic really was. I didn’t expect a refined product but was hoping for him to be of reliable service, after all he’d been playing regularly on some of the better teams in Europe for a few years. The thinking was that instead of playing four years of college ball he got his learning done through a different, maybe even a better, means. Turns out there’s no real substitute for NCAA training and I was a fool for even entertaining that thought. If players like Nowitzki and Ginobili need time to adjust, so will Ukic. The unfair expectations set on him had a lot to do with the fact that he was the designated backup PG to start the season. I naturally assumed that Colangelo and the Raptors brass had done some heavy scouting and evaluation and had come to the conclusion that he was ready to step in. It wasn’t the case.

Colangelo admitted that one of his biggest failings was not to sure up the backup PG spot and that relying on the platoon of Solomon and Ukic was a huge gamble. Once Calderon got injured and was unable to perform at expected levels, this fatal mistake by Colangelo was further illuminated upon and turned out to be a major reason for our terrible season. So before you blame Ukic or Solomon for not performing, blame Colangelo for asking them to.

Parallel’s have often been drawn between Calderon and Ukic’s rookie years and I’m here to tell you that Roko’s been given half the chance Calderon got his first year. Take a look at their rookie numbers:

Roko	72	12.4	.380	.177	.733	0.4	0.0	0.8	1.1	1.1	2.1	4.2
Jose	64	23.2	.423	.163	.848	0.7	0.1	1.6	1.5	2.2	4.5	5.5

Calderon was playing a good chunk of minutes on a team that sucked while Ukic was playing marginal minutes on a team that was expected to contend. The stakes were higher for Ukic than they were for Calderon and having Solomon around to muddy the waters didn’t exactly help his development. Over the last two months of the season I was practically begging for Calderon to be rested and Ukic to assume the starting role so that he can speed up his development in time for next year. It didn’t happen and we wasted a great chance to prime him for next year. In the end he played half the minutes Calderon played in his rookie year, and that too in a spotty and sporadic way.

The drive to his right was Ukic’s main scoring threat and he became better and better at getting to the rim as the season went along. What happened when he got there was a different story. Part of his driving success could be attributed to a defense that hadn’t heard of him but he should get credit for the majority of his success there. You’re going to kill me for this but I liken his drive a lot to Rajan Rondo, when he gets a full head of steam at the top of three point of line, his determination does the rest. He didn’t beat his man using crazy crossovers or deceptive dribbles, no, he mostly used quick high-screen turns, transition momentum and hesitation moves to get there – just like Rondo.

The most noticeable thing about his finishing was how much he didn’t anticipate getting blocked. When it became a little too obvious that he had no idea how to deal with a waiting big man, he admitted that NBA shot-blockers were a different breed than the ones in Europe. This was an area of his game that didn’t improve through the course of the season, he showed little creativity around the rim and just went up for the straight layup which didn’t fool anyone. Perhaps a reverse layup or a better left hand is in order because it’s a shame to see those drives go unrewarded. Even then his drive managed to win us two of the biggest games of the season – Orlando and San Antonio.

I often talked about the tunnel-vision he demonstrated when he drove the ball, especially in late quarter possessions. His recognition of the whereabouts of his teammates was often poor and he attempted many shots when there were open options on the perimeter. When he made up his mind to drive, he did just that and with full intention of taking the shot instead of hunting for options as they presented themselves. Before I sound too critical let me point out that his PER48 assists are comparable to Calderon’s rookie year so its not like this is necessarily a permanent problem.

Pound-for-pound, his defensive effort was one of the best on the team. That’s not a joke, his defensive stance is excellent, his lateral movement is up to par and if his effort continues to be what it was, he’ll be a very capable defender. For a 6’5″ guy he moves well which prevented a lot of team’s from going at him in the post, and if anything, he started getting more scores from the low-block late in the season. The memory’s a little hazy right now but opposing PGs met with much more resistance when turning the corner against Ukic than Calderon and generally speaking, his defense was more than acceptable. I hope Triano can utilize his frame in front-court traps, his agility and size when combined with a defensive minded SF, say Marion, could prove to be a good defensive weapon when trying to kill a shot-clock.

The two biggest issues with Ukic are his shot and ball-handling. A three-point percentage of 18% and a 38% FG rate is extremely poor and can become cancerous for an offense. We saw teams leave him entirely unguarded on the perimeter which congested our offense even further, for him to stay on the court he’ll need the defense to respect his shot (as is true with any backcourt player). His off-season regimen needs to include 500 jumpers a day and maybe even a specialty shooting coach. I wish Dave Hopla was around.

Finally, his dribble is not up to par and far worse than what Calderon possessed in his rookie year. He has a tendency to succumb to pressure, make half-minded point-to-wing passes and doesn’t read the passing lanes as well as a 24 year old should. His tendency to dribble with his back to the basket (for fear of getting the rock stolen) affects his court-vision which reduces his effectiveness. Too many times did the rock end up leaving his hands when was the only ball-handler on the court, and only because of a mild trap where he picked up his dribble. Since Calderon’s forte isn’t drive ‘n kick, its imperative that Roko’s be and for that to happen he needs to play facing the basket, tighten his dribble and recognize opportunities. Really, I can see what they’re talking about in his DX profile.

Everything in this post is written with the knowledge that he will get better as he gets more playing time, however, that can’t be his only source of NBA training. The summer is very important for him and he needs to bring something good to training camp or we could see a repeat of last season. This summer Colangelo won’t be standing pat and relying on Ukic to deliver, he’ll have another PG on the team and if Ukic doesn’t step up, the backup role that should be his can easily be given to someone else. It’s up for grabs, depends if he wants it bad enough. In the best case, he’s the slasher and distributor that we need, in the worst case he’s a guy you can’t afford to have on the floor because he doesn’t threaten without the ball.

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