top of page

The Problem With Ball Dominant Smalls

There is a problem with team building in the NBA that people seem to neglect year in and year out. Once you draft a small, especially a ball dominant one, you are more or less stuck with them, for better or for worse.

Ever since the Golden State Warriors won the 2015 NBA Finals, the rest of the league has begun to put more and more emphasis on guard play and backcourt-based rosters. Obviously high picks had already been used on players like Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Russel Westbrook, and others, but the idea of a guard driven team without a post presence has certainly taken off in the past decade largely due to the Warriors, and Steph Curry's dominance in particular. What teams fail to recognize, much like NFL teams with QB's, is that once you draft your ball dominant small you are stuck with building a roster around their inefficiencies. Which is a much harder task than Curry made it seem, clearly evident by Ja Morant and Trae Young the past two playoffs.

Ja Morant is an explosive playmaker in the Derrick Rose, John Wall, Russell Westbrook mold who uses his elite athleticism to attack the rim at will and open up opportunities for himself and his teammates. The issue for Morant is he is a career 32% three-point shooter who is rendered ineffective when the ball is not in his hands-on offense, while also not being a plus on the defensive end. This makes Morant very difficult to build a roster around as you can no longer stock your rotation with players who need ball handling touches in the half court in order to remain effective. You are instead essentially limited to 3 and D specialist and rim running bigs who can remain engaged on the defensive end without many touches on offense but be prepared to finish plays once Ja has made his attack towards the rim. Essentially the best possible roster for Morant would be a Jaren Jackson Jr type (already on his team) and 3 Mikal Bridges type players. The problem is those extremely high-level connective role players do not grow on trees and even when they are available, many grow frustrated with a lack of ball handling duties or post touches when it comes time for them to sign an extension. This has led to Memphis' downfall in the post season these past two years, as teams can build a wall around the paint once it comes playoff time and there are tighter game plans. This limits Memphis' entire offense and leads them to fall victim to early exits. Something the Wizards and Thunder became very used to while building their rosters around the flawed stars that were Wall and Westbrook.

Trae Young on the other hand is a great (theoretical) shooter, who seems to have no interest in becoming the type of off ball weapon his idol Steph Curry is, thus limiting his potential. The Hawks have made many attempts to build their roster round Trae and it has yielded them a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, so you cannot fault their effort. However, Trae being a complete liability both off the ball on offense and on the defensive end as a whole has stunted the Hawks growth. At first Travis Schlenk tried to replicate the Warriors blueprint by bringing in players such as Kevin Huerter and DeAndre Hunter to be big wings around Trae that counteract his lack of ability on the defensive end. Then they shifted gears to bring in a dominant on ball defender who could share ball handling responsibilities in Dejounte Murray. The issue here was Trae does not move off ball nearly well enough to provide gravity to open up the offense without the ball, and Dejounte does not shoot the ball well enough to be considered a threat off ball either. These restrictions have led to Trae being fairly ineffective the past two playoffs, and the Hawks to be bounced early, a fait they will continue to experience if Trae cannot improve the off ball and defensive aspects of his game.

This is the issue with drafting ball dominant smalls high in the draft who do not possess the ability to play off the ball, every roster move going forward has to be centered around them, and yet no matter how well you build up the surrounding pieces you will still fall victim to their weaknesses.

If you would like to see a scenario in which a small who did possess the ability to exist in a multi ball handler offense and thrive off ball has grown into a star on a contender, look no further than Darius Garland. Garland is essentially what everyone wanted Trae Young to become, with his off the dribble shooting, ability to space the floor off ball, and knack for getting to the line. Garland also showed this season that he could coexist in a multi-ball handler offense when the Cavs made the move to acquire Donovan Mitchell allowing them to vault from a play in loss to home court in the Eastern Conference. It is Garland's ability to remain a threat on offense even when sharing the load with another shoot first ball handler that has allowed this Cleveland team to flourish. This type of Curry like gravity that a player like DG can carry at all times on offense that truly unlocks roster building to a point where you can acquire talent no matter what skillset in order to elevate a roster, in contrary to the players we spoke about before who must be able to fit with the talent that is being added to the roster in order to thrive.

These playoffs should be a lesson to all front offices across the league, if you plan on drafting a ball dominant small in the near future make sure they offer high level ability either off the ball on offense or on defense in such a way that they can coexist with all different player archetypes, thus allowing for talent acquisition to be simpler. Rather than locking yourself into a small who, no matter how talented, will continuously fail against sharper game plans in the post season due to their weaknesses.

8 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page