The other day I asked Nick Nurse about Malachi Flynn's defence. The Toronto Raptors' coach had spoken at length about Flynn's need for offensive improvement and I wanted to know where he thought Flynn could still improve on the defensive end.
Normally Nurse can go on and on about where players can improve defensively. He's a defence-first coach and on his teams, if you can't hang defensively you essentially can't play. But with Flynn, Nurse had very little to say. The 22-year-old rookie has been so good defensively of late that Nurse didn't really have much to critique — at least not publicly — about Flynn at that end of the court.
"There's a bigger step probably at the other end where he's gotta kinda be the floor general out there and run the team," Nurse said as he quickly pivoted away from my question about defence to touch on Flynn's offence. "It's a work in progress and it just comes with experience and minutes on the floor."
It's become a trend as of late whenever Nurse is asked about Flynn. It's clear the rookie guard is advanced for his age on the defensive end and Nurse is far more concerned about making sure Flynn is aggressive on offence.
"We're really trying to get him to start attacking up the floor faster, and sooner, and getting downhill, and things like that," Nurse said prior to Saturday's game. "Getting him out of just playing around the top arc out there."
That can be a problem for some rookie guards who are just trying to get accustomed to life in the NBA. They hang out at the top of the arc, dancing around, and offloading the ball before the offence can create an advantage.
On Saturday, however, Flynn showed his offensive game is coming along. He attacked the Cavaliers' lackluster defence, got deep into the paint, and either looked for his shot or found kick-out opportunities for teammates.
We'll start by taking a look at his passing, which Flynn said he was more proud of on Saturday. He recorded a career-high 11 assists, three of which came from probing the defence inside after working pick-and-rolls with Freddie Gillespie.
"He was doing and we’ve asked him to, again, stop floating on the perimeter so much and take it to the basket," Nurse said of Flynn's passing "Most of those [assists] were caused because of his aggressiveness downhill. They start pulling in on the weak side and he’s just making the play out, which he is what he is supposed to do."
When the defence didn't collapse around him or he saw an opening, he took it up himself, scoring 10 of his 20 points inside the paint.
"He had a good game," Nurse said. "Just all the things we've been talking about, just a little more aggressive, a little more into the paint, a little more at the rim. I thought he made really good decisions most of the night."
If there's been any positive from Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry's absence lately, it's been this playing time surge for Flynn. He's averaged 34 minutes over the last five games and it's allowed him to figure out exactly what Nurse has been talking about.
"It's been a great opportunity for me to really play a lot of minutes, play through some mistakes, just continuing to learn the game at this level," Flynn said. "It's been a little bit of a learning process."
The key for Toronto will be to let Flynn continue to work out these kinks when the lead guards come back. He's already had his development this season truncated by a shortened G League season and COVID-19 issues, so any extra playing time down the stretch should better quip Flynn for next season.
With his defence already good enough to avoid Nurse's nitpicking, it's just a matter of continuing to stay aggressive and show off the kind of moves he flashed against Cleveland.