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Kyle Lowry and the Subtle Art of the Assist

The Raptors are humming along in the East with Kyle Lowry running the show and leading the NBA in assists. For Toronto and Lowry, this early-season success is rooted in making the simple play.

The great deception in Kyle Lowry’s game is that he appears to barrel down the floor when he’s merely browsing. Forgive his defenders for not spotting the difference; from their vantage point, they see only this cannonball of a point guard picking up speed as he pushes toward the rim. If they don’t prepare to absorb contact, Lowry will leverage it into a layup. Should they hold their ground in an attempt to draw a charge, Lowry—who has yet to commit an offensive foul this season and picked up eight all of last year—will dance around them.

Success is preventing Toronto’s All-Star point guard from attempting a shot altogether, from putting his guile into play off the backboard. It’s natural for a defense to exhale in the moment when Lowry finally circles back, away from the rim, and it’s then that instinct betrays them.

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For Lowry, driving is less a directional movement than a state of mind. It continues when the basket is no longer in his line of sight, so long as he carries his momentum through and tugs the defense along with him. The danger so often comes when Lowry turns the second corner—not in a beeline for the rim but in a softer arc away from it. This is how Lowry, this season’s unexpected assist leader, brings Steve Nash back home:

NBA defenses are predicated on arranging layers of help between the ball and the basket, which leaves them vulnerable to sudden, dramatic changes in direction. Lowry effectively runs a longitudinal reverse, priming the defense to move outward before setting up a teammate to cut back inside. 

Playmakers are often judged on the difficulty of their passes, where something as mundane as “threading the needle” characterizes one of the game’s most dazzling acts. There is a specific satisfaction in following a pass that goes where it shouldn’t—between defenders or, perhaps, through the legs of one. Lowry doesn’t abstain entirely from that sort of needlework, though the bulk of his playmaking appears, at first glance, more ordinary. For proof of how much Lowry’s game has matured, look only for how simple his shot creation has become:

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Anyone could make this pass, if only they could parse the full-speed traffic of the densest space on the court of the most athletic sports league in the world. The real test of the modern point guard isn’t how he reads the open floor, but what he sees in the clutter. Most professionals can come around a high screen and make intuitive reads to the corners; the prevalence of that very mechanism is part of the reason why scoring in the NBA is at an all-time high. How many, though, can tightrope the baseline to occupy two defenders, attract the attention of a third, and dime off Danny Green in the corner before anyone is the wiser?

Many of Lowry’s assists are more pitch than pass, which is really a credit to how deftly he operates. There’s a reason playmakers tend to work at a distance. The top of the floor is a lookout, the single best place to see the full panorama of a play’s development. It’s where the Warriors position Draymond Green as Stephen Curry darts around screens, where Nikola Jokic sets up shop to orchestrate the Nuggets, and where LeBron James surveys to pick out defenders even a step out of position. Its value is self-evident. 

Lowry relies on it in some cases, though he’s at his best when mixing it up, jumbling the defense before assisting a teammate in close quarters. There are four defenders clustered around Lowry on this possession. With a quick shift and well-timed hand-off, he creates a path for OG Anunoby to course between them:

The complexity of these exchanges is undersold by the path of the ball itself. Yet if we accept that the most important scorers in the game are those who create the easiest shots, wouldn’t there also be some virtue in creating by way of the simplest passes? This season, Lowry has produced an astounding 44.9 points per game by way of score or assist for a top-three offense, per His production is just a few baskets shy of what we might expect of an MVP candidate.

Lowry is as poised, and skilled, and resourceful as any team should want its point guard to be—and he still does all the work of running a team. It just comes to him differently than it does others, and more easily now than ever before.