Wednesday December 2nd, 2015

Welcome to The Craft, a serial look inside the world of player development in the NBA.

The role of the big man has changed more in the past five years than in any stretch of NBA history. At first, the league pressed for the next Dwight Howard, then it wanted the next Pau Gasol. It yearned for the next Tyson Chandler until it prized the next Roy Hibbert. It called for the next Larry Sanders or the next Joakim Noah until decision makers realized what they really needed was the next Draymond Green. Those shifts came out of waffling, year-to-year trends, and from there came changes in developmental priority.

Utah’s Derrick Favors is a product of that evolving league. Favors was just 18 years old when he was drafted by the Nets in 2010, too young to be in command of his considerable potential. Now, in his sixth season, Favors is drawing upon an incremental growth that seems to bridge tradition and innovation rather neatly. His broad basketball education has given him a staying power beyond the latest trends; if there’s a true counterpoint to the Warriors’ revolution, players like Favors—who can exploit smaller defenders, protect the rim, and move their feet to guard on the perimeter—will be central to it.

The process that made Favors what he is today was a steady churn. Nowhere in his body of work will you find the kind of single-season breakout that draws attention and accolades. He entered the league raw and reliant on physical advantage. He left every ensuing season with more savvy and skill than before. It's the kind of career topography that’s best appreciated from a distance. Favors has been climbing for five straight seasons. Even now there’s no plateau in sight.

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Some of that is a function of innate potential; it pays, after all, to be a naturally coordinated athlete with a 36" vertical and 7'4" wingspan. Most of what Favors has become, however, is the result of his constant push for newfound viability. Favors has met every threshold of his career to date with hard, focused work in response—first to play full-time minutes, then to become a starter, and ever since to keep ahead of the curve of competition.

“Every summer I kept figuring out what I needed to work on to be productive the next season,” Favors said. “Right now it's paying off for me.”

For the rookie Favors, that process began with the pains of adjustment that all young bigs must endure. He was prone to lunging and swiping on defense when he ought to move his feet instead. He would leap freely on shot fakes and arrive late when contesting drives. The speed and improvisation of the best basketball players in the world got the better of him regularly, baiting Favors into a prohibitive 5.8 fouls per 36 minutes. There is no way to remedy those tendencies but with experience, and in time Favors addressed them.

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Favors was also told outright—by the coaches of Brook Lopez and later Al Jefferson—that the primary obstruction to his progress was his inability to use the post as a weapon. 

“As a rookie, I was a pick-and-roll player,” Favors said. “I was an energy guy who could dunk, block shots, rebound. Basically, the kind of bigs that everybody wants now with the way the NBA is going and everybody spacing. I was that big.

“But a couple of years ago it was still the power forward and center where you throw it in the post and you've gotta have a post move. You've gotta be able to score around the basket. I think that was one of the things that stuck out to me, because the coach was like, ‘We can't play you because you don't have an offensive game. You don't have any post moves.’”

Favors’s first attempts to oblige were predictable and awkward:

This is what happens when a player—especially one not yet 20—tries new things in a high-stakes setting against top-level competition. At first, a new move might be obvious and overly mechanical. With repetition it becomes useful but simple. After months of practice it might begin to feel more natural, if only in certain spaces and contexts. There is often no immediately redeeming quality to this kind of skill training, which in the case of a high draft pick like Favors can leave room for snap judgment.

“I think people [throughout Favors’s career] have been quick to say ‘This is what he is.’ By definition, though, he’s not that—he’s no different than all of us in every facet of our lives,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "You’re going to grow. It’s just a question of in what direction and how quickly.”

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​​Favors, it turns out, would grow his game in almost every direction but at a subtle pace. He began by finding the ease in his deliberate hook shot and sharpening the footwork needed to access it. Even in a league where treating post play as a requirement for bigs now seems archaic, Favors continues to hone his moves on the block.

“I keep everything sharp,” Favors said. “You never know when you might need it.”

It’s good that he does, if not for quite the same reasons that former coaches Avery Johnson and Ty Corbin might have envisioned. Utah’s offense under Snyder doesn’t much indulge first-option post play; the sets designed to feed Favors on the block are used sparingly and layered with alternatives. More often, Favors’s opportunities to leverage his post game come as patient byproducts of the pick-and-roll game:

“If I set a screen and get it on the roll where the [defender] comes to me and I don't have anywhere to go, most bigs will get it and try to pass it back out,” Favors said. “But because I worked on my post game so much and I've been through so many experiences doing it, now when I get the ball in that situation I just treat it as a post-up.”

This is essentially a post-up without the baggage: It’s initiated quickly in a way that is difficult for a defense to deny; Favors will naturally have deep position as a result of catching out of the roll; and the spacing of the floor is generally quite accommodating after being spread to run the two-man game. This leaves Favors free and clear to attack defenses, even those that have done everything right in cutting off his dive toward the rim. 

And to think: it was the impulse to turn Favors into a pound-it-in, back-to-the-basket post threat that would eventually augment his roll game. The best roll men in the league treat that action as a vehicle. An uncontested dunk is always a possibility, though the standard return is the momentary opening created within the center of an opposing defense. Reliably exploiting that window takes creativity and a range of skill—both of which eluded Favors early in his career. His every move back then came in the form of a straight line.

“When I set picks and rolled to the basket early in my career, either I'd dunk or it'd be an offensive foul where I run the guy over,” Favors said. “And through all that contact over an 82-game season, your body starts hurting, starts getting tired. Man, I was going in there throwing my body into DeAndre Jordan, not getting the foul call, and coming back bruised up.”

Favors’s solution was simple, if less common around the league than one might think. To balance his full-speed finishes at the rim, he dedicated himself to the art of the short roll—an abbreviated dash ending in a pull-up jumper rather than barreling contact:

Artful as it is, this can be a tricky shot. Stepping in for jumpers at this range requires a deft touch, often from the hand of a shooter already gliding forward. Shooting in this way is thus asking a lot of Favors—who is far from a natural jump shooter as it is—in terms of establishing proper shooting balance on the fly. That said, adopting the shot has had precisely the intended effect for Favors’s offensive foul rate:

Data courtesy of NBA Miner.

The shot itself remains a work in progress, better on some nights than others. That Favors is effective at all on this kind of attempt, however, only enhances his options when catching the ball with a head of steam.

“He's not a pick-and-pop guy to the three-point line but he can pop, he can half-roll, and he can roll all the way to the rim,” Snyder said. “Really, what it allows you to do is adjust to different pick-and-roll coverages. That's a luxury.”

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​If anything, Snyder is underselling the value of that variety. Adapting to an opponent’s pick-and-roll coverage may indeed be a regular-season luxury, but it’s an outright necessity in a playoff setting where a team’s entire strategy will be tailored to the Jazz. Good defenses could try to take away the full rolls, the half-rolls, the impromptu post-ups, or the increasingly potent elbow jumpers (Favors is shooting 51.2% from 10 to 16 feet), but can’t fully deny them all. Favors’s hard-earned versatility gives Utah an effective workaround for every scenario and the means to use his size to its consistent advantage. The Jazz still want Favors to play big; Snyder has texted him pictures of the team’s empty weight room as a half-serious call to keep pushing in strength work. The trick in the NBA in 2015 is finding ways to keep that size on the floor when bigger players will have their mobility challenged on every defensive possession against an increasingly smaller league. 

The prevalence of small ball has made offensive perimeter play a crucial part of the rubric in evaluating bigs—and power forwards in particular. Range shooting is an easy litmus test, confident playmaking a more nuanced indicator. A given player’s success in a small-ball world, however, may be even more dependent on their ability to comfortably wade out to the three-point line and beyond when in coverage. Favors, despite his build as a traditional big, has become remarkably good at this over the past year.

“Early in my career, I was at the rim a lot because the NBA wasn't where it is now,” Favors said. “So I was close to the rim and I was effective blocking shots, clogging the paint, making it tough for guys to score. But with the way the NBA is now, there are a lot of fours that can stretch the floor and shoot the three. That kind of takes me away from the basket. I don't get as many blocks as I used to because I'm out on the perimeter guarding. That's the difference now. I've gotta be out on the perimeter moving my feet, chasing guys off screens, helping and getting back to the three-point line, or switching on the guards. That's the tough part.”

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In this case, “the tough part” has turned some former stars into liabilities and rendered certain role players almost useless. Guarding a man is but one small part of what a modern NBA defender is asked to do. The far more pressing responsibility is defending action after action in space, where lateral movement is vital. Favors shuffles well enough to keep up in most instances while using his length and timing to play a disruptive role on the perimeter. As it stands today, Favors ranks eighth in the NBA in steal rate—a clear best among big men.

“Being out there on the perimeter, [I’m] paying attention to the scouting reports and just being active out there,” Favors said. “I know guys are going to try to hit the elbow or try to hit the pick-and-pop. I'm just being active and trying to read the guard's eyes.”

All this from a player who ranked in the top 15 in block percentage in each of the past four seasons and could be his team’s primary rim protector if not for Rudy Gobert. Favors is not Draymond Green. He is, however, a traditional big who can live and thrive in the world Green inhabits by balancing interior responsibilities with perimeter assignments and even switching up when needed. Utah doesn’t run a switch-heavy scheme by design, but Snyder has allowed Favors to pick up some very challenging ballhandlers on occasion. Only one perimeter player—LeBron James—has managed to score on Favors off a switch thus far, according to Synergy Sports. Among those he’s withstood are Stephen Curry and Kyle Lowry, both of whom missed late-game threes over Favors’s contest. 

Snyder considers Favors a natural.

“Switches, when he's guarding the ball—that came pretty quickly to him,” Snyder said. “Just being down in a stance, his lateral movement, his length. And then the next phase is guarding a more conventional perimeter player, like a matchup with a three where he's chasing guys off screens and doing some of those things when he gets cross-matched. We haven't seen him do as much of that; I'm not gonna put him on a two-guard just yet but I think he'd enjoy the opportunity.”

Favors might just be one of the rare players in the modern NBA who can really help his team by playing down a position. Most teams would do fine with Favors playing the role of a mobile, rim-protecting center. For the Jazz, Favors accomplishes much more as a center option playing high-leverage minutes at power forward. Favors’s emerging skill set is perfect for bullying the overmatched forwards typical of the small-ball set without surrendering much in the way of tracking or defending them.

The future of the league is largely seen through the lens of collective speed and shooting. Favors’s development, however, makes the case that the defining trait of the modern NBA could instead be adaptability. What if small ball is only the convenient packaging? Golden State, the most dominant team of the last few decades, uses speed and shooting in service of its own strategic agility. Favors, armed with a developing array of counterpunch skills, now applies his own speed and size to much the same ends. 

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