For most of his career with the Pacers, Doug McDermott has lived on the edge, hugging the curve of the three-point line in a periphery role dependent on the whims of his teammates while leaving a stream of exhaust in the wake of wide pindowns as he races from the corner to the top of the key. With staggered staggers connected to double-drags, the 28-year-old sharpshooter has even more picks to rocket off of in Nate Bjorkgren’s system, and though he’s hit on just 29 percent of his threes to start the season; his micro-movements have augmented his ability to get to the rim. Here, for example, notice how he feathers the brakes just long enough to momentarily freeze Jayson Tatum at the apex of his curl before putting the ball on the floor and attacking the basket at the same time as Justin Holiday forces a point switch by replacing him on the wing.
It’s that confluence of factors, from continuous spacing to handling around hairpin turns, which has led to him already notching at least 12 shots in two of the team’s first three games — something which occurred a grand total of five times last season. And yet, despite his improved visibility in increased playing time, he’s also making an impact with his intentional efforts not to be seen.
Typically the player weaving through mazes of off-ball picks, McDermott is now returning the favor, operating as a sneaky back-screener as well as a shooter. Here’s when you know the ambush is coming. Thus far, Sabonis is executing post-ups about as frequently under New Nate (17.8) as he did under Old Nate (17.1 percent), but when he’s playing with the bench there’s a twist: Rather than merely entering the ball to him with the other four players on the court firmly affixed to the surrounding perimeter, the Pacers use his screening and playmaking at the top of the key to distract from the feeding session on the block that is about to be facilitated by McDermott taking an alternate route to work.
Standing in his usual left corner, instead of springing off of a screen from Sabonis to trace the bend of the three-point line, Indiana’s floor spacer moves furtively across the lane at a 45-degree angle and screens Sabonis into his dive.
What develops next depends on the coverage. Against Chicago, Lauri Marrkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. ended up being mismatches for Sabonis without forcing a switch; however, versus Boston, it took a little more finagling. Here, the Pacers disguise the same eventual back-screen action with a double-drag, but when Sabonis is unable to gain traction against Robert Williams on the first pass, McDermott is there to recycle the ball back to him on the kick-out. At which point, Sabonis finishes with **gasp** his right hand.
On that note, the geometry of this play alone can almost be interpreted as a lesson in how to finesse in-game player development while weighing short-term goals against long-term gains. After all, per Synergy, Sabonis only went to work from the left block on 28 percent of his post-ups last season. For that reason, by having McDermott cut on a diagonal from left-to-right with Sabonis diving from right-to-left, the lefty big man is naturally going to be forced into more reps turning over his left shoulder throughout the season — at least when he’s unable to wriggle back to his strong hand along the baseline.
Beyond the possibility of losing some jousting matches on the block now in the name of proactively preparing for exaggerated schemes later, however, the play also comes equipped with baked-in options that, thus far, the Pacers have only lightly teased.
For instance, if the defense miscommunicates a switch, then McDermott can run up through a subsequent middle pindown and gain all the daylight he needs for three.
Plus, a properly executed switch in this situation actually works in favor of both players, whether forcing a big to chase out to the perimeter or hunting the mismatch in the post — a departure from past seasons when trading assignments against off-ball actions worked to dust McDermott off the court, or at least limit his effectiveness.
Interestingly enough, the second unit also runs this play for Myles Turner, only with one minor tweak. Watch what happens, here, in the immediate aftermath of the loopy ball and player movement that sets up the action. Rather than swinging the ball into a post entry, McConnell keeps his dribble alive and attacks the side of the floor, forcing Mitchell Robinson to rotate to him on the baseline.
That way, with rookie Obi Toppin failing to sink, Turner is available to step into a dunk directly under the basket instead of probing the limits of his post game.
To be fair, the play hasn’t always functioned that well, but even on this possession against the Knicks, when Turner had no idea what set they were running, McDermott adjusted on the fly and motioned for both of them to instead flow into a double drag.
Admittedly, Robinson isn’t always going to be there to gift the Pacers free points. Still, taken altogether, what all of these possessions go to show is that McDermott doesn’t have to exist exclusively along the edges of the three-point line to provide spacing or be involved in the offense. As a screener who can shoot on the move, he has the ability to force his man to chase him while also carving out opportunities for others. In that way, for a player who has long struggled with fading into the background, occasionally swapping roles from coming off screens to setting them may finally offer McDermott a more sustainable means for making his presence felt, even while deliberately operating in the shadows.