Back to school: Pairing up current NBA stars with their ideal mentors
Without fail, every NBA offseason brings news of some current player seeking advice or instruction from a basketball legend. Given the wealth of knowledge and experience that the league’s Hall of Famers possess, it makes sense that Dwight Howard would seek out renowned post doctor Hakeem Olajuwon, for instance, or that John Wall would look to learn the particulars of smothering defense from Gary Payton. The implications of that tutelage might be narratively overblown, but these masters of their craft have plenty of insights to offer — even in the context of short-term training sessions.
It’s in that spirit that I offer a few hypothetical pairings of eager stars and basketball legends — each designed to impart particular hardwood wisdom. We begin with the re-assignment of Howard to a new mentor, with all due respect to Hakeem:
Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets
Dream Mentor: Karl Malone
While Howard’s post game could certainly use fine tuning, I’d be much more interested to see how effective he could be if he set harder, cleaner screens. Howard is already one of the best pick-and-roll bigs in the league, a physical specimen that offers an easily accessible passing target (due to his ability to move, reach and leap to corral an interior feed) and a devastating finisher at the rim. He manages such success in spite of his skimping on the front half of that sequence. Howard often begins his roll to the hoop without ever allowing his screen the chance to really make contact, a choice which moves him into action more quickly but limits the sequence’s full potential.
A more committed screen would free up Howard’s ball-handling teammate more, further stretching the attention and resources of opposing defenses. Everyone would benefit. Howard could see clearer lanes to the rim (or segues into post-up opportunities) as the defense rotates to the ball, Houston’s shooters could get more open looks due to the defensive urgency of stopping dribble penetration, and the ball-handler in question would generate momentum en route to a good look at the basket if not defended fully. All it would take is a little patience (and a bit more contact) in Howard’s screen-setting. Who better to learn that timing from than Karl Malone, who served as the finishing half of arguably the best pick-and-roll duo of all time?
Malone could teach Howard plenty of tricks to help maximize his abilities as a scorer, but this strikes me as a means of accentuating something Howard already does well. It would be a master class befitting a student of Howard’s already remarkable proficiency. All that’s needed is a slight technical change, if only as a change-up counter to Howard’s fastball rolling style.
Tyreke Evans, New Orleans Pelicans
Dream Mentor: Scottie Pippen
Evans isn’t the first physical freak of his kind in the NBA, and could learn a thing or two about making optimal use of his strength, size and playmaking ability from one of the most accomplished point forwards of all time. Pippen didn’t have some innate feel for running the triangle offense, but was empowered to grow into that role and molded his uniquely versatile game accordingly. One can see traces of the same flexibility in Evans, albeit on a lesser level, and it’s amazing to think what counsel from a similar positional anomaly might do for his approach. A few sessions with Pippen wouldn’t disable some of Evans’ more problematic tendencies, but perhaps this kind of mentorship could put the Pelicans’ talented wing on course to better balance his game.
Thus far, Evans has had a difficult time creating offense in a way that is wholly beneficial to his team. He drives well, but often does so too bluntly and drifts away from his responsibilities as a passer. He can set up his teammates, but doesn’t see the floor fully enough to be a first-option playmaker. That puts Evans in a curious space, one that Pippen could presumably help him navigate. As the operator of a complex offensive system and running mate to a ball-dominant superstar, Pippen has extensive experience in bending his skill set to fit the team’s needs. If Evans could bring even the slightest bit of that quality to his tenure with the Pelicans, he could eventually become the necessary glue for a talented core.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Dream Mentor: Moses Malone
One could pick a few different skill-specific mentors for Griffin, many of whom would address his most obvious weaknesses. Instead, I’ll opt for fine-tuning an already-promising area of Griffin’s game: face-up post work. Griffin’s back-to-the-basket endeavors are a bit shaky, but when spinning on his pivot and attacking his defender head-on, he better leverages his remarkable speed and body control. He scores efficiently enough through those means, but in a way that demands a ton of improvisation. Griffin would be well served by having just a few more default options when facing up opponents on the block or the lower wing.
In that, NBA great Moses Malone would seem able to oblige. Malone was a remarkable athlete for his time, and maximized that advantage through varied means. Among them was a game of quick, controlled drives starting from just outside the lane — the kind of bursts off the dribble that Griffin already uses so well. Both are similarly creative finishers, and for that reason I’d love to see this pairing come to pass, if only for a discussion of potential gaps in coverage to exploit and possible avenues to the rim to consider. It was a different game when Malone tore through the league, but there are some basic universals to his face-up approach that could be adapted by a player as clever as Griffin.