When it comes to passing big men, it’s usually the Gasol brothers who get most of the love. After all, they rank second and third among players classified as forward, center, or forward/center by Basketball Reference in assists per game this year. They both also have a strong track record and reputation for being adept as passing, especially from the elbow for high-low feeds.
Joakim Noah is in first with 4.5 per game, the first time he’s eclipsed the rough “three per game is a good passing big man” plateau. Noah has been getting love all season for his phenomenal play, so I won’t expand except to say that, yes, he’s really improved and is a treat to watch and own in fantasy.
It’s the fourth name on the list that I want to talk about, because I think Greg Monroe may be the league’s best passer out of the low post. His 3.4 assists per game are solid and, without digging deeper, show a passing skill most big men don’t have. However, unlike the other names around him on the leader board, Monroe isn’t really an inside-outside big man in terms of the shots he takes.
To wit, look at his Hoopdata page. He actually leads the entire league in field goal attempts per game at the rim with 7.1 and also takes another 2.6 from three- to nine-feet out. In total, he takes more shots inside of 10 feet than any other player in the NBA except for Dwight Howard, Brook Lopez and Nikola Pekovic, and they’re all razor-close.
Monroe proceeds to take just 2.5 shots per game outside of 10 feet, meaning that roughly three quarters of his touches come from in the paint or short out on the baseline. So he’s spending a good amount of time down there.
Of his 3.4 assists, 1.9 of them lead to baskets at the rim. These could be high-low feeds, quick dishes under the basket or passes to back-door cutters when he is facing up. Nearly one per game lead to threes, as well, which are likely passes out of the post and/or passes out of double teams.
It’s difficult, given the current statistics available, to tell where assists come from and which type lead to shots from where. It’s possible that Monroe simply gets a lot of assists when he’s outside the paint and then takes his shots inside, but that doesn’t seem to fly with conventional wisdom and what comparable players do.
For example, Noah’s 4.3 assists are spread more normally across the floor in percentage terms than are Monroe’s, which are almost exclusively at the rim or threes, the best “type” of shots a player can get for their teammates.
One final note is that, as a team, the Pistons shoot the sixth worst percentage in the league on shots at the rim (although that is including Monroe, who is a well below-average finisher himself). They are also roughly a league-average team at hitting threes. So it seems it’s possible Monroe is missing out on assists at the rim that an average team may hit, though it’s difficult to tell exactly.
However, just for confirmation that what I’ve witnessed in a handful of games and see in the stats is backed up by a “Pistons regular,” I asked Dan Feldman of Piston Powered to provide his thoughts, which ran counter to my thinking:
“Monroe works from the high post more than his shot selection would indicate. He's been a hesitant mid-range shooter lately, which has frustrated many fans, so most of his scoring comes in the low post. But most of his assists have come from the high post, from where he hits cutting teammates. I suspect his passing is similar to Noah's and Marc Gasol's.
Has Monroe evolved as a low-post passer? Yes. But was a very good passer at Georgetown, too. As a rookie, the Pistons didn't ask him to do it all. Last year, they did a little. This year, more than he's improved, I just think they're finally letting him loose.”
As Monroe continues to work to refine his game in his third season, some may look at the drop in PER and the slight dip in rebounding and suggest he’s faltered or stagnated. But in at least this one area, Monroe has continued to show growth, or at least unleash a skill that already existed below the surface.
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