The silhouettes are far from being an exact overlay, but in some respects Naz Mitrou-Long is like the Malcolm Brogdon to Walter Lemon Jr.’s Victor Oladipo.
Like Oladipo, Lemon saw his stock rise considerably in 2017-18 when given the freedom and space to wheel-and-deal as a high-usage guard. Averaging 22.4 points, 6.1 assists, and 4.7 rebounds, the speedy slasher didn’t just key Fort Wayne’s system; he by and large was the system, with the team’s identity morphing around his ability to pick apart defenses off the dribble while being surrounded by shooters. Now, after parlaying that Third-Team All-League season into two consecutive 10-day deals with the Pelicans, a two-way deal with the Celtics, and later, six games on standard contract for the Chicago Bulls, Lemon has once again resurfaced with the Mad Ants — only, this time, he’s sharing the back-court with a spot-up threat attempting to prove himself as a point guard.
“Coming out of college I’ve been known to be a shooter, but prior to college a lot of people don’t know that I was a pass-first point guard,” said Mitrou-Long, tracing a similar chalk outline to that which was drawn by Malcolm Brogdon in his transition from Milwaukee to Indiana. “I’ve truly fallen in love with that again. And I’ve been put in that situation, being here in Indiana, I’m going to be with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, to be a facilitator, to be the point guard that leads the team.”
Unfortunately, despite the loose comparables, the fit hasn’t been quite as clean in practice as actual Brogdon and Oladipo appear on paper. Not only are the Mad Ants 0-3 in games in which Mitrou-Long and Lemon have started, they’ve been outscored by 15.1 points per 100 possessions in the 72 minutes they’ve been on the floor together. Predictably, many of their difficulties in tandem can be directly tied to how they differ with their respective counterparts. As showed up in his call-ups versus the Bucks, and to a much lesser extent in Brooklyn, Mitrou-Long isn’t as steady or deliberate in the pick-and-roll as Brogdon, and Lemon, as evidenced by his icy cold conversion rate from three (18.2 percent), has yet to sustainably elevate his shooting to the degree of Oladipo.
What’s more, for two players who have yet to fully establish themselves at the next level, the struggle for the offense to devolve into an endless loop of your-turn, my-turn is very much real:
Having said that, when they aren’t battling each other for preeminence and Lemon isn’t missing all of the shots, the Mad Ants have some nifty actions that enable both of them to steer the same ship that could be useful for the Pacers once Oladipo returns, especially now that Brogdon has established himself not only as a point guard, but as a darn good point guard.
If the initial set-up looks familiar, that’s because it’s one that Indiana already employs, albeit for different intents and purposes. Used as a quick-hitter to free up a shooter, Sabonis can commonly be seen setting these flat away screens in transition to generate open threes for Justin Holiday and Doug McDermott, like so:
Because there’s no clear answer on from where to send help, defending this action is decidedly pick-your-poison. The on-ball defender isn’t going to leave Aaron Holiday with the ball to converge on the shooter, and if the big steps up higher to greet Justin Holiday coming off the screen, Sabonis can slip with numbers.
Where the Mad Ants differ is with who they call this same play for. Wielded more as a means to initiate offense than to finish offense, the screener acts like a water pressure booster for Fort Wayne’s guard tandem.
This way, when the defender chases either of them over the pick, rather than having to pass out of a contested shot, they can use their momentum to carry them to the basket, as Naz should’ve, here.
Or, they immediately flow into pick-and-roll off a re-screen.
Plus, with all eyes focused on the off-ball screening action, there’s also space for high-octane speedsters like Oladipo to color outside the lines and simply go away from the play with a straight-line drive, as Lemon demonstrated in Portland:
Utilities that end in points and assists for players other than Mitrou-Long and Lemon exist as well, though both are still at the heart of every variation. Pay no mind to this bricked three, and instead, focus on the throw-back. Realizing that his man circumvented the off-ball screen, notice how Naz counters with a quick toss to Lemon, who then throws a dart to the opposite corner at the precise moment when the low-man goes to help on the roll.
That’s all well and good, especially if there’s a shooter planted in the corner, but imagine if that’s Oladipo and he drags out the defense. Rather than having to leave his feet to complete the skip pass, he could draw both defenders and set up Turner for an open three.
Another option they routinely go to is to use a third scorer, in this case Brian Bowen II, as the screener. With the off-ball guard cutting through off the pick, Indiana’s two-way wing can then pop out to three or attack the closeout.
Bowen is still learning when to drive and when not to and what’s a good shot and what isn’t, but it’s probably fair to expect a different result there if that’s Jeremy Lamb or T.J. Warren.
They also have a look where they don’t use the screen at all, and Naz just circles around to the corner with the player he replaces lifting to the wing as Lemon penetrates the lane.
All of which is to say that G League teams are typically a reflection of their parent club; but, in this instance, it seems as though the Pacers could benefit from being a reflection of their affiliate. By borrowing back and sprucing up what the Mad Ants already tailored for a two-guard offense, Indiana would essentially be gifting themselves a dynamic answer for how both of their All-Star caliber guards can attack at the same time without having to look any further than their very own test ground.
Given that Oladipo is picking up practice reps here and there versus Fort Wayne, the relationship between the two squads is already closer than ever. Why not take it a step further with one providing a unique window into what could provide early offense flow for the other?