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Finding New Roles for Some of the NBA’s Most Misused Talents

Justise Winslow’s new life as a Miami Heat point guard got us thinking: Who else in the league could use a role change?

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Imagine if Draymond Green, a chunky 6-foot-7 second-round pick, had been drafted into a situation that forced him to operate as a full-time small forward. Stats have never told the entire story with Green, but they would look even worse at the 3, given how his subpar shooting is considered a liability even at the 4 and 5, where lower percentages are acceptable. Green might be playing overseas today, or on his second or third team, still in search of a niche for himself.

Fortunately, the Warriors developed Green as the unique player he is: a traditionally undersized yet incredibly versatile defensive big man who makes plays for others on offense. An injury to David Lee opened a starting spot for Green near the start of the 2014-15 season, he blossomed into a star, and the Warriors went on their first title run to kick off their budding dynasty. Green exemplifies how role and opportunity can be as pivotal as pure talent in determining a player’s success or failure. Whether a star like Green or a reserve finding continuity within a team’s system, any player’s situation can be the difference between earning millions of dollars or tens of millions of dollars; it can even make or break a career.

Heat point guard Justise Winslow is the latest example of a player to emerge following a significant role change. When the Heat drafted Winslow with the 10th pick in 2015, he was a player who many thought could find success even as a complementary offensive player because of his intangibles and because he had the physical tools to be a five-position defender. Over his first three seasons, Winslow showed flashes of being Draymond Lite, but multiple injuries, a fluctuating role, and highly paid veterans ahead of him on the depth chart hampered his production until this season, when Goran Dragic’s ongoing right knee issues forced him to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery. With Dragic sidelined, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra entrusted more playmaking responsibilities to Winslow, who has responded by playing the best basketball of his career.

Winslow is averaging 15.1 points and 5.2 assists and only 2.0 turnovers since December 7, the date of his first 20-point game of the season, compared to 9.4 points, 3.2 assists, and 2.1 turnovers prior. Winslow is initiating more offensive possessions as a ball handler and is the recipient of more on-ball screens, of which the Heat run many: He is finishing 42.2 percent of his possessions using the pick-and-roll, nearly double his 21.4 percent from last season. The Heat are grinding under Winslow’s methodical playmaking style: They ranked 14th in possession time before the change and 26th since, per Inpredictable. Winslow might take his time creating space, but he’s quick targeting open cutters, rollers, and shooters.

Deploying Winslow as a caretaker is another case of the Heat recognizing the strengths of their personnel and minimizing weaknesses. Winslow’s biggest weakness? His lack of reliable scoring ability. Of players to log 5,000 minutes since 2015-16, Winslow has the third-worst true shooting percentage, ahead of Stanley Johnson and Emmanuel Mudiay, per Basketball-Reference. Despite that, putting the ball in his hands has led to better efficiency since he now has the runway to plow through smaller defenders or scoot by larger ones in transition and in the pick-and-roll. Winslow has a 55.7 true shooting percentage since December 7, compared to a 45.2 true shooting percentage before. It’s a small sample size, and he can still get better at finishing inside, drawing fouls, and scoring off the dribble, but the tweak has led to more cross-matches in transition and switches in the half court.

There’s a chance that Winslow flames out, and his stretch that’s helped lead the Heat to a 12-6 record turns out to be just another blip in a forgettable past few seasons for Miami. Bet on things getting better, though: Winslow is still only 22, and he’s defending multiple positions, making plays for others, initiating the offense, and scoring well. He’s also hit 38.4 percent of his past 250 attempts from 3, so he’s not a liability off the ball. With just a tweak to his role, Winslow is finally emerging as the two-way player that many analysts anticipated.

Here are three players under 25 years old who could see their games ascend, like Green or Winslow, if they’re cast into a new role.

Aaron Gordon

Aaron Gordon is an athletic marvel. Remember when he jumped over the Magic mascot while putting the ball underneath his legs in the 2016 dunk contest? I wouldn’t blame you for not watching the Magic, but Gordon makes similarly intoxicating athletic plays during games:

With Gordon’s speed, ballhandling skill, and vertical explosiveness, you’d think the Magic would want to play fast to maximize those abilities. That has not been the case. The Magic play at a snail’s pace under new head coach Steve Clifford, ranking 29th in possession time after turnovers, 28th after made shots, and 15th after rebounds, per Inpredictable. Clifford modernized his offense last season with the Hornets, but he’s back to his old ways in his first year in Orlando. Opportunities for Gordon to show off his bounce have been limited.

The league has noticed. In an informal survey I conducted among sources on players most deserving of a role change, Gordon was the most common answer. Two executives said he could be used as a transition starter like Pascal Siakam is for the Raptors—and it’s clear why as soon as you see him he sprint up the floor or handle the rock. Another said there’s still some modern Blake Griffin in his game that’s still untapped. To unlock these skills, though, the Magic need to start playing faster.

Gordon isn’t quite great enough of a scorer or playmaker to warrant being the man, but even the opportunities he’s getting in a smaller role have been marginalized. Gordon is playing a large chunk of his minutes at small forward with Jonathan Isaac at the 4, and Clifford structured the system to play through center Nikola Vucevic. Gordon’s all-around game allows him to shape-shift into different roles, but his skills are best suited for the small-ball 4, where he can attack mismatches as a playmaker by running pick-and-rolls or set screens and pop or roll. Gordon is a lob threat off the ball, and he’s turned into a solid spot-up shooter, hitting 37.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s since the start of last season. Without a system that maximizes his strengths in the open floor or the half court, it’s possible that Gordon won’t find his true self until he’s on a team that plays fast.

With a four-year, $80 million contract that declines in salary each season, he should be an appealing trade target for teams willing to take a swing on a player who’s shown flashes but hasn’t put it all together. It might be in the Magic’s best interest to someday make a move if the return is strong, but Gordon could make them regret it.

Dario Saric

Saric’s résumé overseas includes championships and MVPs. For a time, it seemed Saric was never coming over. But he did, and the transition from Adriatic League MVP and EuroLeague rising star to the NBA was largely seamless: All the flashes Saric shows today, he showed back then. He hustled on defense, crashed the boards, hit timely shots, cut, and screened. Saric is a role player now, but his style remains the same—every bit of it except for his passing. Saric was never a primary playmaker, even overseas, but he did offer more creativity in transition in Europe, and was utilized as more of a facilitator in the half court.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Minnesota Timberwolves
Dario Saric
Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

After being acquired by the Timberwolves in the Jimmy Butler blockbuster, Saric was quickly pigeonholed by Tom Thibodeau into a basic spot-up role. Saric logs fewer touches, passes, and potential assists than he did with the Sixers, and for the first time since his rookie year, Saric looks uncomfortable. Thibodeau is no longer coaching the Wolves, which is a good thing for the sanity of their fans, and his absence could be a boon for Saric. New head coach Ryan Saunders suggested the team will play a more modern style, which should translate to more 3s, more fast breaks, and more ball movement.

We’ll see how things change under Saunders, who is beginning to punish players for taking long 2s by making them worth negative points in practice. It may only be a matter of time until they’re playing faster, too. Hopefully Saunders also experiments with Saric handling the ball more in transition, with all of Minnesota’s superior scorers and athletes sprinting by his side. A two-man game in the half court between Saric and Karl-Anthony Towns would be a new wrinkle for the offense. Switch on a play like that and teams will leave Towns with a mismatch; and if they don’t switch, Saric has the vision to find open shooters. Saric finished only 30 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball handler last season, and has logged only nine this season, but he’s shown the tools since his time overseas to do it well. It’s not that Saric should be the Wolves’ offensive hub—especially not with Towns emerging as a destroyer as of late—but teams in this era need as many competent playmakers on the floor as possible, regardless of role or position. Surely the Wolves didn’t acquire Saric just to have him stand around. There’s more to his utility-man game ready to be rediscovered.

Brandon Ingram

Pete Zayas, a.k.a. Laker Film Room, recently posted a Twitter thread explaining how he thinks the Lakers botched Ingram’s development by trying to turn him into who they wished he’d be instead of developing him as the player he is. In short, the Lakers skipped on grooming Ingram’s defense, playmaking, and off-ball skills—which players like Paul George and Kawhi Leonard had to hone early in their respective careers—and instead jumped ahead and forced him into a lead on-ball scorer role. By doing this over his first three seasons, Ingram built habits that have him looking to score first and pass second, but this season has suddenly thrust him into a situation where he should be picking his spots and finding opportunities within the flow of the offense. That’s a jarring transition to make.

Yet, in spite of everything, Ingram has shown major flashes, including his stellar all-around game on December 30 against the Kings, which Zayas detailed. The Lakers used Ingram all over the floor in weaves, handoffs, and pick-and-rolls, and he made rapid decisions that led to open shots for himself and his teammates. Nothing felt forced on his way to 21 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds. It was a blast from the past in that we saw the Ingram who shined at Duke, and possibly a glimpse of his future.

Ingram is only 21; he’s still maturing physically and developing his skills. The question is whether he can become the player he’s meant to be on the Lakers. Touches will be more sparse for Ingram alongside LeBron James, and he’s yet to figure out how to shine while sharing the floor with the King. It’s critical that Ingram shoot well off the catch, but it still looks like he’s unfolding a lawn chair when he shoots. Ingram brings the ball to his forehead before launching, a hitch that may be the cause of his struggles from the field and from the free throw line. Beyond shooting, Ingram needs to focus more on passing, even when he’s not involved in a pick-and-roll or transition opportunity.

Luke Walton’s system allows Ingram to generate plays for others despite sharing the floor with LeBron, but the team’s developmental sins of the past can’t be reversed now. Ingram serves as a potentially franchise-changing example of how system and opportunity can impact a player. Before the 2017-18 season, Magic Johnson said he’d be “disappointed” if Ingram didn’t average 20 points—this following his rookie season when he averaged 9.4 points with a 47.4 true shooting percentage. Ingram wasn’t ready to carry that load then, and he’s still not today. By the time he is, it might be too late to make it work in Los Angeles.

LeBron’s presence accelerates the Lakers’ timeline, and Ingram is a valuable asset to dangle in trades for a star who can increase their NBA Finals odds. Whether Ingram’s future is with the Lakers or a different organization, the team must focus on turning him into a player who enhances his teammates with the pass and complementary scoring, rather than a go-to scoring presence. If Ingram is tasked with doing a little bit of everything, then that’s exactly what his team will someday receive.