Edmond Sumner and T.J. McConnell are basketball marauders. With liquid hustle pumping through their veins, the latter searches for plunder to the tune of “Flight of the Bumblebee,” pestering opponents into making mistakes with chaotic and rapidly changing flight patterns that the former gleefully deposits at the other end of the floor in the blink of an eye. Fueled by their flurry of swarm-and-sting defensive activity, the duo has linked up for 22 assists in only 239 minutes of playing time this season (i.e. one shy of Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo in 339 in 2019-20), with opponents coughing up 97 turnovers — 60 percent of which have been of the live-ball variety. For point of reference, that number equates to forcing 11.1 live-ball turnovers per 100 possessions, per PBP stats — a rate which exceeds the league-best mark currently being posted by the Memphis Grizzlies (9.67).
That said, the question for that pairing has never been about what they can accomplish in transition, sailing the open seas as constant threats to make off with your basketball, but rather what happens when they get confined to the half-court.
To that point, there was a moment in the playoffs last season that perfectly encapsulated the struggle of having two non-shooting threats on the floor at the same time. With Justin Holiday coming off a hand-off from JaKarr Sampson, this was the scene: Not only is Goran Dragic straying off of McConnell to pinch Justin Holiday’s drive, but look at how far over Andre Iguoadala is pulling from Sumner, who ends up taking and missing a corner three.
Seven months later, teams still aren’t necessarily honoring Sumner’s shot when he doesn’t have the ball, but he also isn’t standing and waiting for them to pay attention to him, either.
Think of it like the dash that connects two dates in time. Although most of Sumner’s involvement on offense typically begins or ends with him in the corner, he isn’t as often glued to that spot for the entirety of a possession, making it easy for his defender to take extra steps away from him. There’s a middle to what he does now, too.
Cutting from the corner
For example, at the most basic level, compare and contrast his reaction to how he was guarded on that above-referenced possession against the Heat to the same disregard that is shown to him, here, by the Knicks. Rather than letting his defender off the hook for playing free safety in the lane, notice how he assertively cuts behind the defense for the highlight-reel jam.
That’s turning a liability into an asset, and it also extends to possessions where he never even touches the ball. Though it requires some creativity, this is how the Pacers make due involving three (historically) shaky shooters at the same time. When Sabonis is on the floor, Indiana likes to run delay actions, either with two pindowns on both sides of the court or one flare being set on the side he’s dribbling towards. In addition to occupying the opposing center on-ball and stretching the floor with playmaking, the guard-to-guard screens also open up numerous possibilities based on the coverage, ranging from backdoor cuts to ghosting the screen for a drive decision, and more.
Here, Reggie Bullock stays below to help or switch, so Sumner slips, presenting Sabonis with two options, where the lefty big man can either attempt to hit him jutting back toward the basket or flow into a hand-off with McConnell, who ultimately uses a slight lift hesitation to counter for Derrick Rose’s attempt to jump the screen.
Granted, McConnell is doing most of the heavy lifting, but Sumner is still lending a helping hand, although he never touched the ball. Not only because he removed the potential for congestion on the drive by exiting from the strong-side corner, but also, as a result of the the dunk that happened earlier in the quarter, because Bullock is suddenly all too concerned with a potential lob or dish to the corner, causing him to abort his help at the rim.
Exploding from the corner
Aside from operating like Super Slash Brothers, however, Sumner and McConnell have also started to dabble with simultaneous involvement in sideline plays that allow the former to attack off the dribble. To be fair, until Sumner demonstrates ability as a three-level scorer, sighting of this will likely continue to be rare, given the touch-and-go nature of what might happen if he doesn’t make it all the way to the basket for either a layup or runner.
That said, in some ways, calling pistol for these two also has the potential to play to their strengths. In the long run, the more the defense believes that Sumner is going to explode into a hand-off, the more the opportunity might be there for him to simply face-cut in front of his defender, making a beeline for the basket, when the expectation is for him to come toward the ball.
Lifting from the corner
Of course, what all of this ignores is that Sumner is shooting 39 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, albeit on a small volume of total attempts (41). Maybe it’s a fluke. Maybe we look back in a few months and wonder how he was draining shots that he suddenly can’t make, again. It’s possible. But, for now, at least give him credit for how he’s sourcing most of those shots, whether sprinting hard to the line in transition, which accounts for roughly 27 percent of his attempts, or lifting from the corner.
Admittedly, not all of these forthcoming examples occurred, specifically, with McConnell on the floor, but demonstrating the ability to slide along the three-point line to get into the eyeline of the ball-handler is still critical for the feasibility of that pairing, regardless of if he ultimately pulls the trigger from deep or catches the ball on the move.
Why? Because, in doing so, he isn’t just manufacturing a passing angle, he’s making his defender pay for not paying him any mind.
Vacating the corner
This also applies to zone coverages, though the exact path of movement is different. More often than not, at the expense of being hyper-aware of Sabonis or shooters, Sumner is the player for which opposing 2-3 zones have a tendency to loose track. Sometimes, as can be seen below, cracking the coverage is as easy as passing the ball ahead of the bump down.
But look at what happens, here, when Maxi Kleber stays pre-attached to Doug McDermott as the weak-side forward. With Jalen Brunson fixated on the ball, Sumner simply cuts into open space from the corner to the opposite wing, creating an open three.
On that note, if he’s making standstill threes, then maybe the other above sections in this writing won’t matter quite as much. After all, he has the ability to look as though he’s been shot out of a cannon when attacking against defense (with improved footwork!), and it’s clear that the Pacers are attempting to foster his development from outside.
Need evidence? Look no further than this out-of-bounds play against Detroit. Here’s how you know what option the Pacers are going to look for out of their usual alignment when three players are standing side-by-side either along or next to the free throw line. If Nate Bjorkgren holds up three fingers, they’re going to skip the ball to the other side of the floor, taking advantage of the focused attention on the basket weave of cuts taking place at the middle for the floor, for...wait for it... yep, a three.
Now, with that in mind, look at who the recipient of that pass is on this possession. Not Doug McDermott, who is being used as the distraction on the cut-through. And not Jeremy Lamb, who is shooting above 40 percent from deep this season. Nope, it’s Sumner, who catches and misfires on the dart, although he made four other threes on the night.
In that way, making that play-call isn’t just about demonstrating trust or feeding the hot-hand; it’s an investment in confidence-building. Plus, even if those shots stop falling, what the rest of the aforementioned sections in this writing reinforce is that the Pacers are better prepared for how to manipulate negative space with McConnell and Sumner playing at the same time than was the case in the bubble.
In fact, while Indiana is still narrowly losing the minutes when the two of them share the floor (-0.32), it isn’t because of the offense, as the team is scoring 112.3 points per 100 possessions in those minutes. None of which is to mention that, from improved switching and swapping Doug McDermott for Jeremy Lamb positionally at the forward spots to things starting to click for Goga Bitadze, there’s reason to think that the defense for those reserve lineups will shore up, even if only slightly.
In that regard, with Sumner using the corner like a launch pad rather than a docking station, perhaps he and McConnell have found ways to reasonably co-exist, even when they aren’t using plundered possessions to stay above sea-level.