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What do we make of Gary Trent Jr.’s playmaking bump?

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Are we in a run of form, or is this genuine progression?

There have been two standout aspects of Gary Trent Jr.’s game in the 21-22 season so far: His remarkable talent for on-ball steals, and the sheer volume of difficult shots he’s been able to toss into the bucket. The most encouraging thing lately with ‘GTJ’ hasn’t been the Kawhi Leonard (steals) or Kobe Bryant (impossible faders) cosplay, it’s been the playmaking bump. Trent Jr. qualifies as a poor to mediocre playmaker. His vision can often be described as part of the tunnel variety. He’s a gunner. When he attacks a closeout, he’s typically getting to his spot for a jumper, not looking to extend the advantage by drawing a rotation and finding the open man.

Although, Trent Jr. has been extending advantages lately. His recent stretch of games (8) qualifies as his most robust as a playmaker by some measure. His AST% sits at 14.2-percent over that stretch – more than double his career average – and he’s dishing out 3.5 assists per game. And with that bump, he’s taking good care of the ball at only one turnover per game. All of this has moved him north of 2 assists per game for the first time in his career and he’s creeping closer to a double-digit assist percentage.

So, are these assists where he’s just moving the ball to the open man without taking a step? Is this jumpshot variance being kind to his passes over a stretch of games? Is he the trigger man in a pet BLOB set for the Raptors? No, no, and yes.

The Raptors have two monstrous hand-off presences on the their team. ‘GTJ’ is a high-usage scorer in handoffs as he’s in the 80th-percentile (1.13 PPP), which is phenomenal. Pascal Siakam is lower usage, but he’s in the 99th-percentile (1.67 PPP), which is absurd. The Raptors ‘DHO ace in the hole’, Trent Jr., is expanding how he attacks in that playtype a little bit. Teams have picked up on the fact that the Raptors will run a ‘DHO’ for Trent Jr. to get the offense unstuck and so they’ve begun to load up on those plays a little bit more. Trent Jr. has responded to this attention in an almost perfect way – with shots created for teammates, and low turnovers.

These are controlled possessions where he’s drawing a rotation or a switch each time. The bread and butter of NBA offense is a moving defense. There are games where Trent Jr. on ball can be aggressively one note. 3 dribbles to the left, a push-off, and a mid-range jumper – despite his shooting talent that’s not going to cut it. There’s real on-ball craft in the plays up there, and a diversity of decision making.

And it isn’t just the DHO’s either. Trent Jr.’s head has remained lifted and in surveillance mode off of pin-downs, pick n’ rolls, and even as a heady off-ball cutter.

These passes are coming against tight windows and while on the move. You can see him outskirting Matisse Thybulle, move incredibly well as the back-screener in the Spain pick n’ roll, and overall find the open man in the paint after getting downhill. A lot of these reads would not be made in years past, and certainly not with this regularity. 

Most of these reads are staying on the strong-side of the ball. ‘GTJ’ isn’t breaking off grand manipulation of the second-level of the defense very often, if at all, but given what he’s already good at and his role with the Raptors, this is found money. Fred VanVleet’s absence wasn’t the only reason the Raptors went to a few different looks with Trent Jr. down the stretch of the game against the 76ers, it was because he had made versatile reads as a passer and scorer throughout the game. They looked past the abhorrent shooting night and decided to put the ball in his hands and see what reads he would make. It didn’t work out, but it’s a nod to the improved decision making of late.

Trent Jr. will never abandon some of the more ill-advised attempts that occupy his shot diet, but lately he’s turned some of those possessions into layups for teammates. That’s a huge deal. And quite frankly, these decisions look like something that can be repeated into the future. A little bit more in the bag for Trent Jr.

Have a blessed day.

 

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