How contactless basketball is both limiting and expanding the 21-year-old center’s game.
A week ago last Monday, the short-handed Pacers, down by both Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, lost to the Spurs, 109-94, on the second night of a back-to-back while shooting a season-low 32 percent from the field, including 40 percent inside the paint. Concluding a stretch in which the team had played six games in nine nights, fatigue likely played a role in the struggle to finish around the basket, as did the necessity of rolling out unfamiliar lineup combinations and adjusting to changes in coverage and further injuries, but what happened just before several of those misses also can’t be ignored as a factor among many — at least as it pertains to the long-term development of second-year big man, Goga Bitadze.
Take a look at this possession from before he turned his ankle, for example. Per usual, the Pacers are running their weave into a high ball screen; however, make note of what happens when the high ball screen portion of the action has no effect.
Rather than peeling Caris LeVert free of his man, Bitadze essentially touches base, almost like he’s hitting his mark on a stage, before immediately crashing to the basket. Later in the half, nearly the same scenario plays out on the opposite side of the floor, only with Malcolm Brogdon anchoring the final leg of the exchange. Granted, in part due to Derrick White’s indecisiveness about whether to duck under (a coverage which the Spurs had been mixing in over the early portion of the game), Brogdon manages to squeeze the ball through the narrow passing window, but again: Goga is so eager to start his dive to the rim that he never actually makes contact on the screen, nor forces much of a 2-on-1 decision.
Unfortunately, while the results aren’t always this literally hit-or-miss, setting non-screens is a recurrent theme for Bitadze with regard to this particular play, as well as others. In most cases, by virtue of the side-to-side action, T.J. McConnell is quick enough to still get a step on his man and draw extra attention along the baseline. But, therein also lies the rub: Without being snagged, the on-ball defender also has just long enough to veer into Bitadze’s body on the potential catch, in spite of the fact that the 21-year-old is in no way delaying his roll to make sure his pick sticks as a real obstacle.
To be fair, this particular aspect of Bitadze’s game isn’t necessarily a new, reappearing tendency, but the way in which he has been used and responded to this season, albeit in a limited role, is nonetheless noteworthy.
Let’s investigate, both from the standpoint of set plays as well as how some of his teammates go about manipulating his picks.
No screen as the best screen
Quick and easy with minimal assembly acquired, this is arguably Nate Bjorkgren’s most plug-and-play set, making it a go-to of late as the team has dialed up the pace with various players in and out of the lineup. It’s also a dream for Goga Bitadze, because with one wing clearing space for T.J. McConnell to attack baseline and the other cutting as the ball is penetrated, all the 21-year-old big man has to do is stand there and be ready to shoot.
In essence, aside from the ghost screen, it’s contactless shot-creation.
On the season, this play alone accounts for over 20 percent of Goga’s 56 three-point attempts and generally leads to ‘wide open’ shots, which he’s knocked down at a 35-percent clip, compared to 26 percent from deep overall.
According to Synergy, Goga has generated more attempted putbacks (31) in 419 minutes than Myles Turner (29) has in over three times as much action (1455). Don’t get it twisted. This isn’t necessarily a knock on Turner, who starts alongside Sabonis and spends a large portion of his minutes out on the perimeter, as much as it is eyebrow raising with regard to Goga — especially since his offensive rebounding rate has nearly doubled, skyrocketing from 5.2 to 10.0, despite the fact that the team has only shot marginally worse from the field (45 percent) during his minutes by comparison to last season (47.8 percent) while also playing only a tick faster (106.1) than when he was on the floor with 2019-20’s speedy reserves (105.7).
Digging deeper, he obviously deserves credit for attacking the glass from the dunker’s spot, but perhaps some of the jump can also be attributed to the change in system as well as the particular way he (ahem) sometimes acts out his role within it?
Take for instance this possession against Detroit. All season long, the Pacers have been using off screen shooting gravity, with staggers set closer to the baseline, to leverage paint drives for Doug McDermott going to his right. Focus, however, on Goga. Though it may seem nearly impossible, somehow he manages to whiff on both picks, which results in a wider angle finish for McDermott, who rounds the corner (albeit in part due to a miscommunicated switch) with two defenders on his hip.
In the end, take a gander at who is there — completely unoccupied — to collect the somewhat wild miss. In that way, Goga’s non-screen, strange as it may seem, is almost to his team’s benefit in that it produces an uncontested rebounding chance and putback.
Attack before or away from the screen
Even so, arguably more interesting is the way that his teammates, at times, interact with him as the screener. For example, look back again at the game against San Antonio. Normally, when the Pacers run this set with either Turner or (especially) Sabonis, the player cutting over the picks at the elbows will receive a ball screen at the wing, like so:
Here, though, notice how LeVert and Lamb both attack ahead of the pick, with the former (fortunately) squirting the ball through a crowd for an open three and the latter missing a shot at the rim, which the Georgian big man recycles for two while collecting **promises not to make this a thing** a non-screen, self-assist.
Likewise, watch what LeVert does, here, against Minnesota. Rather than dribbling off of the pick and playing two-man game, the slippery playmaker fires the ball to the player behind the pick-and-roll (in this case, Edmond Sumner) to attack downhill, effectively using the screen like a clever ruse.
What happens next, though, after Robert Covington angles off Sumner, is arguably where Bitadze has shown the most maturation on the offensive end of the floor. Whereas last season it at times appeared as though the game was impacting him more than he was impacting the game, notice how he avoids spoiling the spacing by immediately filling the spot vacated by the driver, whether following screen rejections or for dribble throwbacks.
Although he isn’t carving out space for his teammates with contact, moving as the ball moves still makes him an active participant in reshaping the defense. That said, there has to be a balance between manufacturing open looks for a 26-percent three-point shooter and mastering the pick-and-roll ballet, especially when not running stacked screens or double drags that allow him to merely hold space. For the season, Goga has taken over half of his shots as either threes or putbacks, and while his most used action is still that of the roll-man, he isn’t involved as frequently in those actions (22.9 percent) as last season (35.6 percent) — which is to say nothing of this writing’s main topic: the screens he sets, but doesn’t actually set.
Overall, from running plays that don’t incorporate picks to growing in his understanding of court mapping, crashing the offensive glass, and even countering for overplays on hand-off screens with “get” actions, the Pacers have found ways to develop their third-string center in limited minutes that don’t necessarily hinge on his ability to regularly crunch opposing guards. Still, as the second meeting against the Spurs goes to show, consistently setting solid screens against various types of coverage is critical over a larger sample size — particularly when fluid re-screens are absent as a counter for ducking under, or when bounces aren’t quite as friendly coming off the rim. Otherwise, for better or worse, while it may not show up in the box-score like a team-wide slump around the basket, the attention to detail that precedes those shots makes an impact, both with screens and non-screens alike.