Roaming the Baseline: Luka Doncic, Betnijah Laney, Jonquel Jones

Roaming the Baseline: Luka Doncic, Betnijah Laney, Jonquel Jones

Hi, hello, and welcome to yet another edition of Roaming The Baseline! This will be a weekly endeavor where I point out some things that caught my eye: a hot or cold streak from a player, a developmental flash, a well-run play, a funny tweet, who knows? There will be film -- it’s me, so of course there will be film -- but this will also be a bit looser. It’s an extension of my Twitter feed, if you will. 

With that said, let’s roam the baseline.

BETNIJAH LANEY IS HERE

Can you win Most Improved Player two years in a row? We may need to start asking that question about Betnijah Laney.

While guard Sabrina Ionescu, recently mentioned in this space, has gotten well deserved flowers for her blend of scoring and playmaking, Laney's offensive prowess can't go overlooked.

We're a year removed from her breakout campaign with the Atlanta Dream, a season in which she averaged a career-high in points (17.2), rebounds (4.9), assists (4.0), and steals (1.6). She's made yet another leap as a scorer this season, torching the nets to the tune of 22.7 points. 

The most impressive part is the efficiency. She's one of two players (Jonquel Jones is the other) in the W averaging north of 20 points with a True Shooting percentage above 60.

Laney's a smooth operator, able to flow into jumpers almost at will. Ducking under a screen is an invitation to be lit up. To be caught on a screen is to concede a pull-up.

Laney's release is quick, giving very little time for defenders to react to her stop-and-pops. Even if they're able to stay attached, she has comfort putting a defender on her hip and flowing into un-blockable fadeaways.

The threat of her jumper, as well as the general amount of spacing the Liberty deploy at any given moment, allows her to generate paint touches.

The self-creation from Laney is obviously important. I'm also impressed with her off-ball usage. She isn't just a great shooter, though a 52.2% clip from deep is nothing to sneeze at. She's a smart mover, able to find cracks in the defense to stress weakside defenders.

There's also sneaky value being added as a screener in some of the Liberty's more intricate sets. Ionescu doesn't have an opening night game winner without help from Laney.

WELCOME TO LUKA'S TORTURE CHAMBER

As my colleague Spencer Davies recently wrote, the Clippers haven't been able to slow down Luka Doncic.

Like, at all.

He's averaging a smooth 35-9-9 through two games, and even that doesn't do it justice. There's an inevitability about the way Luka is playing right now. He's dictating terms against the Clippers' switching; he's carving them up with passes whenever they trap. 

Poor Ivica Zubac is probably seeing Luka step-backs in his nightmares at this point. The shotmaking from the perimeter has truly been amazing to watch.

This might be my favorite part of the Luka explosion, though.

The first clip was the fun one. Luka just tosses Patrick Beverley into the hamper. His exclamation -- "TOO F****** SMALL" -- isn't a taunt. It's a warning shot.

Mr. Lue, you're not going to be able to put small humans on me.

The second shot is the scary one. It's a clear side against Kawhi Leonard, one of the greatest perimeter defenders the NBA has ever seen. Luka puts him on his hip, takes a couple of strength-testing dribbles, then sprinkles in a moonshot.

The man doesn't get sped up at all.

Luka has generated nearly 1.3 points per possession on post-ups (passes included) through the first two games of the series, per Synergy. We know that Luka has the stepback whenever he wants to go to it. We also know that he can cause chaos on drives, as a passer or scorer. Having this kind of intermediate prowess makes him virtually unsolvable in the half-court.

Best of luck to the Clippers.

JONQUEL JONES & THE ART OF INVERSION

I can't get this play from the opening weekend out of my head.

That is 6-foot-6 Jonquel Jones grabbing a defensive board, going coast-to-coast, then finishing with a Eurostep-adjacent move while drawing the foul. That's not normal.

Jones is back after opting out of last season due to COVID-19 concerns. She was one of the most high-profile players to make that decision, an MVP-caliber talent whose absence played a large part in the Sun's 10-12 record last season.

She's back now, filling up the stat sheet like she never left. It's easy to get lost in her work inside the arc. She's a natural menace on the offensive glass, ranking just outside of the top-10 (2.3). Her post game can be brutish when necessary, though her level of touch allows her to sprinkle in fadeaways without much resistance.

The shot versatility for someone her size is honestly absurd. How many bigs are getting these kind of actions ran for them?

Even that undersells her. The drives to either side of the floor, hooks, up-and-unders, and even step-back jumpers are part of Jones' arsenal. There just isn't much you can do with her right now.

THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO "HMMMM"

  • Jackie Young may be figuring things out for the Aces. She finished the second half of last season on a high note. Outside of a 2-for-9 dud against the Sun earlier this week, Young has continued to make an impact as a driver. 
  • I highlighted Dorian Finney-Smith as an X-Factor in the LAC-DAL series because of how he'd be defended. He's one of six (!!!) Mavericks shooting north of 40% from three through two games.
  • Keep an eye on Lynx big Damiris Dantas, one of the underrated stretch options in the W. After two-straight seasons of shooting north of 39% from three, she's gotten off to a slow start (21.4% on 4.7 attempts).
  • It's two games of course, but I didn't expect Derrick Rose to hold up with this sort of minute load (38.2). He's given the Knicks an important blend of scoring and playmaking.
  • It's less of a "hmmmm" and more of a sigh. Kemba Walker (16.0 points, 37/30/90 shooting split) has made me sad. He just hasn't been able to get busy against Brooklyn. Not that it would really matter with this kind of talent gap between the two squads.

PLAYS I LIKED

Hawks Go To Spain

Be still, my beating heart.

There's nothing like a well-executed Spain pick-and-roll. I'm sorry.

HORNS on Main

Turn this all the way up.

The Nuggets look like they're setting up some Elbow action out of HORNS, only for it to turn into a double-screen set-up for Michael Porter Jr. 

The Blazers switch the initial screen from Aaron Gordon, and that's all it took for this possession to go downhill. Gordon immediately dives to the basket with Norman Powell on his backside. The ball finds Nikola Jokic, who then pings it inside to Gordon for the easy bucket.

On a Loop

Just watch Kahleah Copper, man.

Sets a hard screen to force the switch, then curls tightly around the screen to keep the Dream (and especially Chennedy Carter) off balance. While that's happening, Courtney Vandersloot and Astou Ndour-Fall flow into a quick-hitting pick-and-roll.

The Dream put two to the ball to force Vandersloot to pick up her dribble; that also leaves Carter splitting two defenders. Copper capitalizes, lifting back up to the wing for an open triple.

THE READING LIST

There is plenty of high-level basketball content out here if you know where to look. I wouldn’t be where I am as a writer without reading a ton of Zach Lowe or Chris Herring or Caitlin Cooper or Mirin Fader or... well, you get the point. 

Anyway, here are some -- not all, but some! -- of the stories I’ve read this week that I think you should check out. Their Twitter handles will be linked under their names, so click and follow if you don’t already.

Jonathan Tjarks wrote, well, just read it. And also keep him in your thoughts and prayers. We're all rooting for you.

Seerat Sohi with a tremendous debut feature on The Block Heard 'Round The Bubble.

Matt Ellentuck dug deep on the Liberty's hot start, then bounced around the W with general observations.

Caitlin Cooper took a break from the Pacers beat to give us the goods on Jonas Valanciunas.

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