(right) is off to a fantastic start thanks to creative ball handling. (Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)
There is no clear roadmap to precision in point guard play. A prospect can be told to speed up or slow down, to make this kind of play or that kind. Yet, in order to truly integrate those concepts into his game, a ball handler must fully absorb them. They should not just be on a player's mind but in his fingertips. Once the beats of read and react become instinct rather than deliberate thought, the player can take that next step toward functional, fluid playmaking.
Atlanta's Jeff Teague is in the midst of such an evolution. Teague, at 25, is beginning to grasp the off-the-dribble nuance that had eluded him. Even at his most successful in past seasons, Teague was largely a product of his athleticism. He was quick, not truly dynamic, able to beat opponents off the dribble only as often as his first step allowed. Through 16 games this season, however, Teague has incorporated the kind of creative spice that allows good dribble penetrators to become great ones. Teague hasn't fully made that progression, but within the process he has become slippery enough off the bounce to more than double the rate at which he draws shooting fouls, post a career-high in assists (9.2 per 36 minutes) for the second straight season, and shed defenders with regularity.
It's not the acquisition of a single move that has benefitted Teague, but the way he now brings them all together. The cruel hesitation that lulls a defender out of position. The inside-out dribble that removes an imposing big man from Teague's driving lane. The subtle way that he changes direction and shifts his body to streak past an interior defender. These are understated, sophisticated moves that were previously beyond Teague, who lacked this level of court-reading comprehension. The comparisons to Tony Parker -- born of Teague's newfound relationship with head coach (and former Spurs assistant) Mike Budenholzer -- are now more than just convenient. Teague acts the part. At times, he'll dupe a defender in such a way that you'd swear you were watching Parker:
Or wheel around defenders in a way that makes the point of comparison undeniable:
Teague is still grasping at the particulars that make Parker so potent, though he's already finding plenty of success in the stylistic imitation. That he's been able to earn 6.6 free throw attempts per game while logging the same minutes and filling the same role he did last season is miraculous. Players rarely undergo such a dramatic change in their foul-drawing profile, which is a testament to both Teague's improving maneuverability and his willingness to create contact. Both of those factors have served to make straight-line drives a relic of Teague's past, as he's now better than ever when it comes to manipulating an opponent's expectations to create better angles to the rim.
He's frequently chosen to work away from high screens, forcing opponents to compromise their planned coverage to account for a sudden shift in direction:
Teague is hardly the first guard to deny a ball screen by driving in the opposite direction, though that he's now doing so more readily -- as a right-handed guard often pushing to his left, no less -- allows him to take advantage of presumptive defenders. Opponents occasionally take shortcuts in guarding more limited ball handlers in the pick-and-roll. Teague was once a predictable player worthy of that treatment, but now he demands a defense's second-by-second attention as he threatens to take any driving lane available to him.
The result is a more adaptable Teague, who no longer needs to get all the way to the basket in a single burst to be successful. He now has the resources to draw out pick-and-rolls to further stress defenders, to regroup once establishing a position of advantage, or to target="_blank">drop a careful pocket pass
through a pair of opponents if they are drawn to the ball. There are more counters and contingencies to Teague's game than ever before, which has expanded Atlanta's options at the point of attack. Teague was useful enough in the past by merely driving toward the rim in the simplest ways possible. Now he navigates, and the full options of the court are his to explore.