Even Steve Nash wasn’t ready to say the word.
As with many innovations, chance and necessity collided and birthed something new. Following Brooklyn’s trade for James Harden, the only centers on the Nets’ roster were De’Andre Jordan and a rookie Nic Claxton dealing with injuries. Searching desperately for a physical interior option with a defensive mentality, Nash turned to the 6’5 Bruce Brown as the team’s backup five man.
“Bruce is remarkable, I mean, I believe he mostly played point guard last year and he’s playing – what do you want to call him our center?” Nash said in early 2021. “He’s picking and rolling and finishing with two bigs in the lane. His willingness and ability to do that is remarkable.”
While Brown’s game has grown since then, his acceptance of a role unique to him and the game of basketball highlighted teams’ creativity (and occasional desperation) to get one-of-a-kind players on the court even if their shot rarely falls. In the modern NBA, being a non-shooter was supposed to spell career ruin. Not long ago, guys like Draymond Green, Eric Bledsoe and PJ Tucker bombed away aimlessly from deep, clearly out of character.
Yet rather than ignore and dispose talent, coaches and players have continued innovating, showing not just hope for these athletes but a different, more exciting future for the game.
Let’s walk through today’s successful non-shooters, one type at a time:
The What Do You Want To Call Him, Our Center? featuring Gary Payton II
For most of NBA history, a non-shooter meant a big man. It wasn’t part of the job description for Bill Russell or Robert Parish or Dwight Howard to shoot three-pointers. So when today’s coaches are presented with a talented player they want to get on the court, the easiest way to use them is to treat them like a big man.
That’s what Brown and Nash discovered in Brooklyn, and many coaches followed suit. But fitting into this archetype isn’t easy.
The ask of smaller players in this role is significant. They must be physical, effective finishers who can also rip rebounds from the branches of the tall trees above them. Because they are going to often get the ball off a roll or cut, they must be high-IQ decision makers who can read defensive help and make the right pass.
It certainly doesn’t always go as brilliantly as it did for the superteam Nets. To see why, it’s easier to take a look at a situation where it failed. Last postseason, Phoenix started Josh Okogie most of its second-round series against the Nuggets in order to deploy Okogie as the point of attack defender against flame-throwing scoring guard Jamal Murray.
But when the Suns were on offense, Denver matched up by having Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. guard Okogie. In practice, “guard” wasn’t the right word to describe how Denver approached that matchup. The Nuggets’ bigs roamed off Okogie to help at the rim or simply took defensive possessions off altogether — because the Suns allowed him to by leaving Okogie out there.
In response, Phoenix adjusted by using Okogie as a big man (a screener in this case) to bring Jokic or Porter, relatively weak defenders, back into the play. However, because Okogie is not an elite finisher or proactive passer, those plays fizzled and Denver won the mini chess match.
Payton is valuable because he has what Okogie does not. If he couldn’t play offense with a high degree of feel, he never would have gotten minutes on the Warriors in the first place.
During the 2022 postseason as Golden State came together for its fourth championship, Payton tallied 16 assists compared with just six turnovers and shot 72 percent on 2s. Despite getting hot on minimal attempts from deep, Payton primarily played inside the arc and was able to stay on the floor because he could thrive as a screener, roller and passer for the Warriors’ motion system.
Even for smaller players, one replicable aspect of big man play is functional strength. Other What Do You Want To Call Hims include Lu Dort, who may have graduated out of this roll after coming out guns blazing in 2023; Aaron Gordon, who has found nirvana alongside a stretch center with a PhD in passing; and Josh Hart, who buzzes around, moves the ball and shoots around 60 percent inside the arc every season. These are some of the best defenders in basketball who found a way to get minutes by playing bigger than they are and affecting games with their physicality.
The Basketball Ball Hawk featuring Ausar Thompson
When you think of a non-shooter, this is what you think of. The defensive specialist who tends to fall in the NBA Draft despite piling up astounding steal and block numbers at lower levels, flashing absurd athletic instincts, and wowing you every time you watch.
This is the archetype the NBA nearly killed off. What may have saved them is just how good the offensive killers got in the meantime.
In a league where even middling offenses are now more efficient than the dynasty Warriors, equally important to keeping pace with the flamethrowers is having an extinguisher. These hawks swarm their matchup selflessly and can be the centerpiece of a defender gameplan even from the perimeter.
Thompson turned heads in Detroit to start the season compiling box scores that hoops fans had never seen: five blocks in his NBA debut, four steals and blocks apiece in his seventh game, 16 rebounds in his 11th. In an interview early in the year, Thompson called himself a unicorn for his performances.
But an executive at Overtime Elite, where Thompson honed his unique skill set, got to the root of what made Thompson special in the modern era.
“He can never have a bad game,” Overtime GM Damien Wilkins told The Athletic. “There’s always something that he’s doing, stuffing the stat sheet, aside from scoring.”
This is how the Basketball Ball Hawk stays relevant. The defensive floor must be consistently high for a player like this to earn minutes and impact winning, because typically the offense is a rollercoaster. These guys fly around the court, disrupting even the most carefully crafted opponent possessions and creating chances for their team as a result.
However, like the previous gaggle of non-shooters, these guys can struggle when opponents guard them with a center. In a recent matchup against Philadelphia, the 76ers put Joel Embiid “on” Thompson and used him as a rim protector.
Even more than Jokic guarding Okogie, this strategy recalls one of the bigger inflection points in recent NBA history. In the 2015 playoffs, the Warriors deployed defensive anchor Andrew Bogut as a free safety sagging off his “matchup” Tony Allen and blowing up the Grizzlies’ offense.
It’s worth repeating just how high the floor is to thrive as a Basketball Ball Hawk. In addition to Thompson, take Herb Jones in New Orleans or Jarred Vanderbilt with the Lakers. All three players have to share the floor with their star teammates in order to be covered for. Defenses leave them open and hope for the best.
The Pistons and Pelicans are worse with their Ball Hawks on the court, while the Lakers’ halfcourt offense plays in mud most of the time Vanderbilt is on the court.
Lakers half court expected PPP since Vando has returned.
Game: Vando On-Court | Vando Off
HOU: 0.90 | 1.11
PHX: 0.94 | 1.01
NOP: 0.98 | 1.11
IND: 0.75 | 1.09
SAS: 0.88 | 0.88
SAS: 0.86 | 1.07
Total: 0.88 | 1.04 = -0.16 swing
So far this has been masked decently by shot making
— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) December 16, 2023
And while he has made his three-pointers the past two seasons, Matisse Thybulle in Portland has a minuscule usage rate and has never earned consistent minutes in the NBA. Thybulle averages three steals and a block per 36 minutes, but his high turnovers and lack of interior game leave him to a reduced role. Portland gets outscored when he plays.
These players have survived in the NBA, but their future is still tenuous.
Among small Ball Hawks, the most successful modern iteration is likely Marcus Smart, an imperfect yet indicative example. While he has never made enough 3s to generate gravity for his team’s offense, his skill level and driving offensive game allowed Boston coaches to play him in key lineups and win at a high level.
Basketball Ball Hawks must routinely generate extra possessions for their teams while also at least taking threes that are freely given to them.
The Possession Controller featuring Rudy Gobert
Generating possessions is key to any non-shooter playing positive basketball. The checklist for survival among Possession Controllers is lengthy.
Gobert generates a large number of blocks and steals, gobbles up offensive rebounds, and can fill a role on offense. Minnesota’s halfcourt offense is significantly better with him on the court this season, as was Utah’s during his peak seasons there.
The Possession Controller almost has to be a big man. They stay on the floor despite a lack of shooting ability because they can simply control games with their size. Playing a role on offense can mean attacking mismatches in the post, creating space with screens, or making quick decisions. Bonus points if you can do it all.
Until his untimely ankle injury, Mitchell Robinson was graduating into this hallowed club. Robinson hasn’t played since Dec. 8 but is still one of only a handful of players with more than 100 offensive rebounds on the season. On the Knicks, Robinson’s screening ability is key to the separation star guard Jalen Brunson is able to generate leading their offense.
But this may be the most exclusive group on our list. At his peak, Clint Capela was a Possession Controller for the slow, switchy late-2010s Rockets, cleaning up the glass and creating turnovers for a surprisingly stout defense. He could be added here even in his Atlanta form. Bogut helped establish Golden State’s identity by serving as their Possession Controller and boosting the offense with smart passing and a relentless dribble handoff game.
Another key aspect of a great Possession Controller is selflessness. Gobert may get clowned and his counterparts overlooked, but they all had long careers in large part because they were adaptable and did not seek out their own offense. Combined, Gobert, Robinson and Capela barely eclipse 30 points per game.
A Possession Controller survives in modern basketball because they add opportunities for their teams that would otherwise not be there. That job description is familiar for lots of basketball players. Just like peak John Wall led good teams with a weak jumper by igniting fast breaks off opponent misses and stealing the ball, the modern Possession Controller increases the margin for victory for their team.
The Everything But Shooter featuring Bam Adebayo
The cousin of the Possession Controller is the Everything But Shooter. And as we move through our list, the non-shooters get more valuable.
The Everything But Shooter effectively combines most of what the other archetypes do on the court. Adebayo is a Defensive Player of the Year finalist every season, a capable ball-handler and playmaker and a physical rebounder. As he’s added to his game, Adebayo has developed a reliable mid-range jumper he can create for himself or nail off the catch.
You couldn’t imagine the Heat without Adebayo, and he’s played in the East Finals in half of his full seasons in the league. Yet Adebayo has attempted just 68 triples as he nears his 27th birthday.
Such a well-rounded skill set allows Adebayo to be everywhere on the court, effectively serving as Miami’s point guard most of the time. Like the What Do You Want To Call Hims, being strong as hell is an advantage that is hard for Adebayo’s opponents to match.
While Adebayo has always insisted he will eventually hoist it from deep, Miami’s success and team construction probably means he will never have to. Even at 6-9, Adebayo made himself one of the best bigs in the league by making three-point shooting effectively the only weakness in his game. In Year 7, Adebayo is averaging a career high in scoring by driving to the basket and getting to the line more than ever.
Adebayo is in the early stages of the same trajectory Anthony Davis underwent in his 20s.
The nearly-perfect version of Davis who delivered the inaugural NBA Cup to the Lakers in Las Vegas is the quintessential Everything But Shooter. While pundits focus on whether he may ever rediscover the wet jumper that appeared in the NBA Bubble, Davis has rounded out his game.
Davis may be the best defender in the league, completely eliminating portions of the court and deactivating offensive options on a nightly basis. Against Indiana in the NBA Cup Final, Davis owned the interior, shooting 16 of 22 in the paint while helping to limit Indiana to just 62 percent shooting at the rim. Add in his 13 free throw attempts and four blocks (to just two fouls), and Davis’ control over the game was easy to see.
While Davis may have the size and force and Adebayo the passing ability and pure athleticism, both have had to make their game in the shadow of a limited jump shot. Everything But Shooters’ teams may never lead the league in offensive efficiency, but without these players, those teams would fall apart.
A contrasting example comes in the form of Domantas Sabonis, whose game includes everything but shooting on the offensive end. As with his basketball position, Sabonis is something of a tweener among these non-shooting archetypes, but an important one.
Sabonis crashes the glass, sets vicious screens and reads the floor as well as any big man. This season, he is taking a note from his Everything But Shooter counterparts and working in the floater and midrange jumper again after Golden State exposed his reticence to take them last spring. Without Sabonis’ IQ and quick decisions, Sacramento’s pace and shooting prowess would disappear.
Yet Sabonis almost doesn’t belong here because his defense is such a negative. At 6’10 and ground-bound, Sabonis can execute Mike Brown’s defensive coverages and play physically but still struggle to impact the game defensively.
This only serves to help appreciate our other Everything But Shooters more. Without the defensive dominance Adebayo and Davis bring, the Kings appear a long way off from the deep postseason runs the Heat and Lakers have celebrated for years.
The One-Man Offense featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo
This group doesn’t simply survive, they thrive. It’s perfectly fine to be a non-shooter when you consistently create offense for your teammates.
In the past, NBA teams won on offense by dumping the ball into a non-shooter in the post and playing off their scoring and the attention they drew. Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar didn’t need to shoot because nobody could stop them even if the defense knew what was coming.
One-Man Offenses create easy points at the rim, at the free throw line and on simple passes because they are too physically overwhelming to be contained.
What sets Antetokounmpo apart from others in this lineage is that he doesn’t simply operate in the low post. Today’s One-Man Offenses can initiate efficient offense on grab-and-gos in transition, from a triple threat position, or out of a pick and roll. When the floor is spaced and the defense is unprepared, watch out.
Antetokounmpo is not without comparison in the league. The inconsistent Zion Williamson is poised to join the One-Man Offense club if he can ever get out of his own way.
But Antetokounmpo paces the group, shooting 77 percent at the rim and getting fouled on nearly a quarter of his shot attempts. Separate out Antetokounmpo’s paint points alone and he would rank 36th in the NBA in scoring average. Despite making just over one in five triples this season, Antetokounmpo is shooting a career-high 61 percent from the field. In the three seasons since Antetokounmpo won his first NBA title, Milwaukee has scored more than 120 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.
What may lead Williamson down the Greek Freak’s path despite their size difference is Williamson’s development as a passer. Sure, the reads are easier when defenses sag and bring late help, but Williamson is posting a career-best assist rate coupled without much increase in turnovers in his fifth season.
To understand the barrier to entry for this impressive archetype, look no further than Julius Randle. At 6’9 with relatively limited vertical athleticism and a penchant for choosing difficult shots, Randle isn’t efficient enough nor does he draw enough fouls to anchor an efficient offense. Randle is certainly better than anyone in the groups lower on this list, but his play style limits him. If Randle played like Gordon, he could probably win a championship as a role player, too. Instead, during the same two-plus season sample by which we measured Antetokounmpo’s offensive impact, Randle’s Knicks teams have scored just 115.7 points per 100 possessions with Randle out there.
A potential newcomer to the group could be Paolo Banchero. While Banchero has feasted on open triples in Year Two, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which his game drifts inward. Banchero is just behind the previous three from this group in drives per game at 13.8 for an Orlando offense reliant on his rim pressure. Already, he has shown an ability to control games from inside the arc as a downhill scorer and playmaker.
To join this hallowed class of bigs, Banchero will need to channel his force, limit his turnovers, and sculpt a style he has few reference points for.
Even looking at the NBA with a wide aperture, only a dozen or so players appear in this exploration. In Boston, Indiana or Oklahoma City, you might hear an argument that non-shooters are still a no-go. But the reality for most NBA title contenders is that foregoing non-shooters altogether is a needless hindrance — if not an impossibility.
No, the NBA will likely always feature players who struggle to shoot. What Nash couldn’t quite believe about his undersized center in 2021 is evident now: The best players adapt to their shortcomings, and the best teams find a way to maximize them.