Now, let's hand out some awards.
BEST SCREENER: DOMANTAS
Honorable mentions: Steven Adams, Rudy Gobert, Bam
Adebayo, Nikola Vucevic
I'll never forget Caitlin Cooper's article on Domas Sabonis' screening back in 2019.
To that point, it was one of the first — if not
the first — deep dive I've seen on someone's
She touched on the sheer volume of screens Sabonis set; his
sense of flipping the angle on screens to pry ball-handlers open.
Knowing when to slip if defenses went with more aggressive
coverages. Those astute observations remain true roughly three
Sabonis is more of a revolving door than a brick wall, but his
ability to do both at a high level is what earns him this
distinction. He only ranks third in screen assists (5.5)
this season, though he's led the NBA in each of the past two
It's worth pointing out the prowess of Rudy Gobert, who leads
the NBA in screen assists (6.4). He's long been an underrated
linchpin of Utah's offensive success. Heck, it feels like he's the
reason screen assists have become part of the non-casual fan's
Nobody has set more on-ball picks than Nikola Vucevic (3,167)
this season, per Second Spectrum. His work with freeing Zach LaVine
and DeMar DeRozan has been invaluable, especially at the end of games.
If you're a fan of bone-crushing screens, look no further than
Steven Adams and Bam Adebayo. Second Spectrum tracks the percentage
of screens that a defender "dies on"; it should come as no surprise
that Adams leads the NBA by a solid margin (5.7%) among high-volume
screeners, while Adebayo ranks third (3.9%). Quick hat tip to Kevon
Looney (4.7%) for being sandwiched between those two; he deserves more love.
BEST SCREEN NAVIGATOR:
Honorable mentions: Alex Caruso, Mikal Bridges, Gary
The NBA is a pick-and-roll game. With the heightened emphasis on
spacing and three-point shooting (linked, but not the same thing),
elite ball-handlers have more room to operate. Add in the
fluctuating scale of physicality allowed from defenders, and it's
pretty darn hard to contain people.
The fact that Herb Jones, a second-round draft pick, is already
among the NBA's elite defenders is flat-out insane. You simply
can't keep this guy out of a play unless you have a crowbar
He does a phenomenal job of staying attached to ball-handlers.
He's able to re-connect if he's bumped on screens, but also has the
length to duck under picks and offer strong contests anyway.
If you want a number, let's go back to the die-on-screen
percentage. Among 28 players who have faced at least 1,000 picks
this season, only Desmond Bane (0.6%) has been washed out less
frequently than Jones (0.9%).
There's some context needed. Players in heavy switching schemes
will naturally have a lower percentage than those who have to fight
over screens while their big drops back. Even if you filter only
for the screens being fought over, Jones has a top-five mark among
high-volume defenders (minimum 300 picks fought over), per Second
Now, factor in Jones getting the opposing team's best perimeter
option; because of that, Jones defends more picks per 100
possessions (29.7) than Bane does (22.4). He should be getting
legit All-Defense love.
The same could be said for Alex Caruso before injuries derailed
his season. During the Bulls' run as the East's top seed, Caruso
set the table with his gnarly defense at the point of attack.
Mikal Bridges likely will make an
All-Defensive team this year for his work. He doesn't miss games,
he plays high minutes and he relishes the matchups he's tasked
There may not be a better point-of-attack defender than Gary
Payton II on a per-possession basis, though he gets dinged a bit
for his lack of workload.
BEST HELP DEFENDER:
Honorable mentions: Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green, Robert
Williams III, Marcus Smart, Evan Mobley
Here's a minute's worth of help rotations from Giannis this
year. Hit me up on Twitter (@NekiasNBA) and let me know
which clip is the one that makes you laugh, because it will
It remains wild to me that this can be considered a down year
for Giannis, and he's still been one of the most destructive forces
in basketball. He's had to toggle more roles this year with the
extended absence of Brook Lopez. When tasked with being an off-ball
roamer — his best role — he's been able to blow things up.
It's been a pretty wild year for mess-cleaner Rudy Gobert. He is
one of three players defending
at least four shots at the rim (7.0) and allowing a field-goal
percentage under 50% (49.9%); Defensive Player of the Year
candidate Jaren Jackson Jr. (4.8, 49.6%) and Isaiah Hartenstein (4.7, 47.6%)
are the others.
The same can be said for Robert Williams III (get well soon!),
whose deployment on weak shooters has unlocked his prowess as a
shot-blocker. That hack has been a pretty big part of Boston's
It feels like some of the shine is wearing off of Evan Mobley's
campaign. He's been more of an anchor than helper since Jarrett
Allen has gone down; don't sleep on what he's been able to do in
the helper role though. His unique blend of size, length, mobility
and discipline has allowed him to shut things down. Whether he's
rotating from the weak side or causing havoc as part of the zone,
he's already one of the most feared defenders in the league.
Kudos are in order for the work Draymond Green and Marcus Smart
put in. They are two of the best communicators in the NBA, able to
call out opposing sets and direct switches to flatten out actions.
Neither are traditional weak-side rim-protectors, but Green wins
with his positioning and verticality while Smart takes charges like
he doesn't give a single [expletive] about his well-being.
SHORT-ROLL THREAT: NIKOLA
Honorable mentions: Joel Embiid, Dwight Powell, Deandre
In normal circumstances, I'd call Jokic a basketball computer
due to his ability to map the floor and make great decisions on a
whim. In light of the banter around the MVP conversation, it's
probably best to keep Jokic and "computer" out of the same
With no Jamal Murray, you don't see Denver ball-handlers get
all-out trapped too often. But on the occasions that Jokic is able
to face a 4-on-3, 3-on-2 or 2-on-1, the inevitablitity pops out.
What do you with a player with Jokic's passing chops and
intermediate scoring ability?
You pray. That's what you do.
His MVP-candidate counterpart in Joel Embiid doesn't exhibit the
same skill as a passer, but he brings the funk as a scorer. Whether
it's bullying smaller defenders at the rim, or slowing things down
to sprinkle in pull-up jumpers, scrambling defenses don't have much
of a shot.
Deandre Ayton has made real strides as a scorer in these
situations. If we want to talk about intermediate scoring, you have
to shine line on his career-high 59.0% clip on shots between 3 to
And then, there's Dwight Powell. He's generating well over 1.2
points per possession when shooting or passing out of a trapped
ball-screen, a number sandwiched between Jokic and Embiid. He's
long been one of the NBA's underrated roll men; his improvements as
a passer have nearly made trapping Luka-led pick-and-rolls
BEST DRIVER: LUKA
Honorable mentions: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Ja
Speaking of Luka, he narrowly edged out our candidates as the
NBA's best driver. It's become commonplace to describe a lead
ball-handler as one that plays at their own pace — oddly enough,
sub-elite athletes seem to make up 100% of the list of those
players. But Luka really does.
He doesn't blow past you; he freakin' bodies you
while going 6 miles per hour, then contorts his body for rim
finishes or dimes to open teammates.
Doncic ranks second in the NBA in drives
(22.4), leads the NBA in assists via drives (3.0) and is converting
55.3% of his shots off drives. That 55.3% clip ranks fifth among 53
players averaging at least 10 drives a game.
If Luka's style isn't your speed, I'd once again like to present
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as the NBA's funkiest driver. Differing
stride lengths, off-foot gathers, quicker-than-usual scoop shots
against unsuspecting defenders. He's got the juice, man.
SGA's got the stats, too. He leads the NBA in drives and
free-throw attempts drawn, and boasts a comically low turnover rate
despite passing at a higher rate than Trae Young.
And then there's Ja Morant, who glides through the air like he
belongs there. He's the NBA's leader in paint points for a
Three unique talents with contrasting driving styles. You truly
love to see it.
BEST PASSER: TRAE
Honorable mentions: Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, Chris
While we're on Trae Young, there's nobody in the league doing
what he's doing right now. He may just join Nate "Tiny" Archibald
as the second player to lead the NBA in total points and assists.
And to the latter point, he gets the "best passer" tag for being
able to make every read in the book while being my size.
Teams are geared to defend Young. They throw size on him. They
trap him. They pre-rotate to take away his common reads, and yet,
he counters all of your counters. He's the NBA's premier
lob-thrower while being a skip-pass savant. He doesn't need to see
over your defense because he already knows where everyone is.
If you do enjoy the advantage of looking over the top of
defenders, it's hard to argue against Luka Doncic. There really
isn't a coverage you can play that prevents him from dotting you
up. A growing favorite: watching Doncic get trapped, only for him
to casually string it out before tossing a dart.
I'm not sure there's much more to be said about Nikola Jokic at
this point. Between his long distance hookups after boards and
preternatural sense for finding cutters, it's
been time to discuss where he ranks among the top
passers of all-time, period. He's top five in my book, and that's
Oh, right, Chris Paul is leading the NBA in assists without
really turning the ball over. Another year in the office.
BEST DUNKER: MILES
Honorable mentions: Giannis Antetokounmpo, KJ Martin,
Obi Toppin, Jarrett Allen
It is hard not to enjoy the musical stylings of Miles Bridges.
It is also hard not to enjoy the musical stylings of
I could bore you with the numbers, like him being one of four
non-bigs to rank in the top 15 of total
dunks (13th, 116). But honestly, just look at what this dude does
with a runway. It's skillful violence.
The combination of power and pretty (he has some
fire windmills in his film) gives him the edge over
the inevitability of Giannis (third, 174) and Jarrett Allen
(fourth, 164), as well as the suddenness of KJ Martin (15th, 111)
and Obi Toppin (23rd, 93).