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The Burgeoning Ballhandling of Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa

A deep dive into the two Toronto Raptor forwards' prompt progression as ballhandlers this season.

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Photos via The Star and SportingNews

The Toronto Raptors get a lot of props for their shooting development system. Rightfully so.

The three point-shooting of Pascal Siakam (22% in his second year to 38% the next), OG Anunoby (33% in his second year to 38% the next), and Chris Boucher (33% in his second year to 39% the next) all swiftly flourished within.

The same has transpired for Precious and Scottie whose shooting accuracies have progressed at lightspeed throughout the 2021-22 season.

What, perhaps, receives lesser attention is Toronto Raptors’ ballhandling tutelage.

It took a few years: Pascal is now an excellent and perilous ballhandler, particularly, for a player at his size; OG remains a year or two behind but has improved dramatically. For Precious and Scottie – they still have a long way to go – the transformation has been remarkable and rapid.

At the beginning of the season, both Precious and Scottie were capable of utilizing one or two sudden moves – a hesitation, a cross-over, and/or a change in speed or pace – while charging downhill to get by guys.

Now, we’re seeing much more. Both – Scottie a bit more than Precious – are attacking with more complex dribble combinations and with more body and ball control amidst traffic.

An aside:

We regular humans think too linearly and plainly. When we criticized Masai’s roster construction, we envisioned a bunch of clunky bigs rambling up and down the court. At best, we thought them to be a set of wide receivers and volleyball spikers who would overwhelm teams with size and athleticism. We have seen both, for better or for worse.

Special humans envision more. Player acquisition is not just about who the player is in the present, but what they will become in the future. There’s an archetype Masai has sought throughout his career (stay tuned for my writing on that) that aims to achieve a very specific, innovative arbitrage.

He wants über-athletes with a tireless work ethic and limitless potential. All of which manifests into the ultimate basketball player: fast, tall, lithe, strong, explosive, big, versatile, ballhandling, shooting bigs. Masai’s not searching for positionless basketball, he’s attempting to clone his roster into an army of Super Basketball Soldiers. 

Precious Achiuwa Dribble by Dribble

Precious’ venture into ballhandling commenced prior to this season. With Miami he was little more than a rolling, lobbing, rebounding threat. Precious only used 0.79 dribbles per touch last year; only 20 of his shots occurred after 3 dribbles or more in 61 games.

In the Olympics and Summer League (#4), Precious started testing the waters: taking the ball in transition and attacking space in the half-court. Premonitions of a more advanced Precious.

This season, that future Precious has begun to take form. He’s up to 1.14 dribbles per touch and 67 shots with 3+ dribbles in 63 games. That latter number is a bit fuzzy. It can include fast-break line drive dribbling – which we care less about, though even that is a progression in and of itself. Conversely, it doesn’t include the number of times Precious’ dribble sequences concluded without a shot. Split the difference.

Film tells the story of his progression. Early in the season, Precious’ aggression and lack of ball control led to an assortment of calamitous events. Next to Pascal (24), Precious has committed the most (19) offensive fouls on the team despite a much lower usage rate. Many of those are charges arising from Precious predictably hurtling towards the rim without the agility or wherewithal to adapt to attending defenders.

The first three charges are almost identical. Precious’ mind is already made up. He’s not reading others’ movements or positioning. Despite a single, unconvincing dribble, he attacks defenders who have plenty of spare time prior to contact.

There are also Precious’ multitude of bobbles, strips, and fumbles over the course of the year. His brain wants one thing, his skillset enables another.

When one instigates a “Woahhh” [the Boston clip] from the ever-so-optimistic Matt Devlin, you know it’s bad.

As bad as they can look, all these misplays feed into a larger plan. Precious’ experimentation and failures are acceptable risks if management anticipates he’ll improve.

He has.

Over the course of the season, Precious has limited his wreckless stampedes and poor decision-making. He still commits the odd folly. They’re more seldom as his ballhandling and playmaking become more nuanced, diverse, and tight.

Consequently, Precious is beginning to flummox opposing defences. Typically, the opposing team’s 4 or 5 checks Precious, they’re turning out to be too slow:

The last one against Dwight Howard is where Spidey Senses should be flashing in opposing GM’s brains. Once bigs learn Precious’ agility, they’ll back off, as D12 does. The response is a pull-up. If Precious hits that with consistency, coaches will then look to quicker, usually smaller, players to confound him, which might not turn out so great either:

Precious, with any amount of controlled momentum, is too much for leaner defenders to manage. When they do cut him off, Precious is learning how to back them down much like Pascal does:

 

Precious doesn’t really get by Matisse Thybulle (Joel Embiid roams nearby), once Matisse catches up, Precious turns his back to find the open man. In other situations, he’s also backed down the lesser defender to make a play in the paint.

Most excitingly, though, is when even those best suited to guard Precious still fall short:

 

Onyeka Okongwu is nearly a mirror-image of Precious and a top-end defender. They battled all night. Precious got the best of him here with a nasty cross and a controlled pro-hop into Okongwu’s chest. Very savvy.

Lastly, Precious is learning how to navigate 2nd line defences. When helpside sidles over, Old Precious would charge ahead or do something imprudently and not good. Now, he’s taking more time, scanning and adjusting.

Recall the number of charges he committed above. This time with his eyes up, Precious avoids the charge hunter:

 

Precious still has much further to go. It wasn’t that long ago I was castigating (yet, praising his testing of the waters) Precious’ isolations (#3). He still makes the odd blunder pushing the limits of his abilities; that’s all part of the long game.

Scottie Barnes Dangles

Scottie entered the league already with a natural affinity towards ballhandling. Having played a hybrid forward-guard at Flordia State, he often brought the ball up the floor against pressure.

For much of it, as he does still, he used his body as a shield to advance up the court. In the half-court, Scottie’s attacks were – and still are – north to south, using both his sheer size and momentum to blast gaps or overwhelm diminutive defenders.

Nothing wrong with that. As we saw with Precious and, at an elite level with Pascal, it’s a prominent part of a well-rounded attack from a strong and long forward. Exploit a player’s physical deficit and force defences to adjust.

The challenge for Scottie is he can’t always get himself in a position to leverage his physical advantages. His shot is not deadly enough to pull defenders closer in nor is his first step explosive enough to outright get by guys.

To compensate, early on, the Raptors got Scottie in situations where he’s close enough to the hoop to inflict damage. Now, we’re seeing Scottie creating those situations on his own accord with bettered ballhandling.

 

This is a grand example. LaMelo Ball cheats hard. He’s not the quickest defender and gives Scottie a chasm of space to avoid getting beat. The Hornets will live with a Barnes 3-Ball. The downside, as we see, is Scottie closes that space and builds momentum with a few moves, ironically, giving Scottie the downhill speed he relishes. Ball’s toast.

It’s been a noticeable change in Scottie’s approach. He’s more aggressive, generally; he’s also decidedly trying to bewitch defenders in isolation through a multitude of dribble combinations.

Pre-All Star Break, 33% of Scottie’s field goal attempts followed 3 dribbles or more (remember the potential fuzziness of that stat). Post-All Star Break, that number’s jumped to 43%. His dribbles per touch have gone up too from 1.90 dribbles Pre-All Star to 2.55 Post-All Star.

This is a natural progression to Scottie’s game. We just didn’t expect to see it so soon, or even next year, to be frank (don’t call me Frank). Like his shooting bump, Scottie’s handles have tightened, improved, and expounded in what seems like a matter of weeks.

Take this example from November:

 

And contrast it to this in mid-February:

 

He was not putting those kinds of combos together earlier in the year.

I don’t have his isolation data splits pre- and post-All-Star break, but his assisted and unassisted-field-goals-made frequency is quite stark. Pre-All-Star it was a 50/50 split – half his scores were assisted by someone else, half weren’t. Post-All Star break, that’s surged to 41/59. The sample size is smaller; still, there’s no looking back.

 

You can literally see Scottie learning and adapting within a game. The last two clips, again against Dwight Howard, Scottie adjusts based on his reads. First, he fakes Howard with an in-and-out, and gets in the paint; next, Howard steps back a bit on the dosey-doe, and Scottie pulls.

This year’s true brilliance for the Toronto Raptors is their ability to win ball games while also honing prospects. A true art to both succeed at the end of games while individuals fail within it.

Unlike other teams, who anchor rookies and sophomores to benches or yank them at the first sign of defect, Toronto has let many of its young players fly, crash hard, pick themselves up, and fly again.

The team will be vastly better off for it.

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