Danilo Gallinari has been playing the best basketball of his life this season for the Clippers. He’s healthy and thriving in a role that suits him perfectly, averaging career highs in nearly every statistical category.
He has always been crafty and long, uber-efficient with an offensive repertoire that is seldom found in players his size, but in his 11th in the NBA, he’s displaying his full potential in a league that values shooting and playmaking – particularly in its ”big men” – more than ever before.
He currently ranks seventh in the NBA in true shooting percentage (minimum 30 minutes per game) at 63.3 percent, ahead of both Kevin Durant and James Harden. He ranks second in free-throw shooting (92 percent) and fifth from three (46 percent). He is the only player in the league in the top five of both of these categories; the last player to accomplish this over an entire season: Steph Curry in 2016.
Simply put, Gallinari has re-established himself as one of the premier shooters in the league.
How has he gotten to this point?
For one, he’s taking advantage of a shrinking league. At the beginning of his career, the 6-foot-10 Italian was strictly a small forward, and though he could always use this size advantage to bully smaller wings, he would often play next to two traditional big men that crowded the paint and clogged driving lanes. This season, Clippers Coach Doc Rivers has maximized the versatility of Gallinari and his frontcourt mate Tobias Harris, deeming each starter as simply a forward—and sometimes even slides one to “center.”
As a result, one of the two is bound to have a mismatch on any given play.
“One of them always has an advantage,” Rivers said of his dynamic duo. “That’s what we explained [to them] before the year. I said... ‘There’s a small guy guarding one of you and there’s a big guy [guarding one of you]. The big guy can’t guard you because he’s too slow. The small guy can’t guard you because he’s too small. You guys just have to figure that out.’ And they do. They do a great job of it.”
If Gallinari happens to be the one with the mismatch, his rare blend of size, speed, and ball-handling become more apparent than ever before. The Clippers will often deploy him as their version of Dirk Nowitzki, featuring him on the elbow and allowing him to survey his options depending on his opponent. If he has a smaller defender on him, look for him to post up or simply shoot over the top of him. If he has a big on him, look for him to put the ball on the floor and play-make for himself and others.
The latter is what truly sets him apart from other players his size. Growing up in Italy, he developed guard skills, despite his height that traditionally forced players into frontcourt roles.
“That’s the way they teach us basketball in Europe,” Gallinari says. “It doesn’t matter the size. You find big men dribbling [up] the court for hours in Europe. You can see that in all the European big men [in the NBA], starting with Nikola Jokic, who I played with. Most of the big men are like that. But I grew up playing point guard; I’ve never been a big. Even if I was the tallest one, I’ve always played point.”
Gallinari has had these skills since he entered the league in 2008, and he’s put up similar, if not quite as staggering, numbers in past seasons. But it’s the efficiency and versatility that are making this season a career year for the 30-year-old. Despite his veteran status, teams still don’t know who they’re dealing with because he’s contributing to winning in so many different ways.
He says he doesn’t pay attention to his stats, but it’s becoming harder for the league to ignore.