Better Than Passing Grades

On The Playmaking of Shabazz Napier and James Ennis
Shabazz Napier and James Ennis
Issac Baldizon
by Couper Moorhead

Youth with potential is a great thing to have in any context. But as soon as that youth is on your roster, the discovery process begins.

What does this potential mean?

How likely is this player to realize it?

From afar, two of Miami’s rookies might appear to fit into fairly typical molds. James Ennis the hyper-athletic wing who slashes to the rim and finishes on the break, and Shabazz Napier the super-quick point guard who makes a living scoring off the dribble. With enough efficiency and effectiveness, each is a useful player type to have in a rotation, particularly in combination with young, energized legs.

Just three games in their first preseason, however, it’s far too early to start worrying about slotting either player into pre-defined roles. This is especially true when each has already shown a more complete skillset than is to be expected in the early hours of the league’s marathon season, and part of that arsenal includes one of the most valuable, yet underrated, skills in the game: passing.

Coming into training camp, most people would have recognized Ennis for his breakaway dunks during the NBA Summer League and a developing – you could call it better than advertised had it actually been advertised – long jumper. Ballhandling, however, was a true work in progress, and you could watch Ennis being drilled in on-the-go passing after morning sessions during training camp.

So it was a surprise when, during the Red, White and Pink Scrimmage a couple of weeks ago, Ennis drove baseline off a screen and, with his left hand, whipped a pass around his back and between two defenders to a diving big man. Given the nature of the open practice, the play was bordering on unnecessary embellishment. Still, it was a pass that many players don’t just show up making.

Apparently, it wasn’t a one-time thing.

“Growing up, everybody used to tell me to be more aggressive,” Ennis said. “I was a pass-first – if I see a guy open that’s where I’m throwing it – that’s just the kind of player that I am.

“I like watching point guards pass the ball and I try to imitate that.”

Coming off a season as a featured scorer with the Perth Wildcats of the Australian National Basketball League, it wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary for Ennis to come out shooting as he adjusts to a lesser offensive role. Apart from an errant shot or two, fitting in hasn’t been a problem whether he’s playing with the rotation veterans or the rest of the 25-and-under club. Ennis is scoring when it’s time to score, but more importantly he’s passing when it’s time to pass.

That’s including moments such as keeping composure during a press break to whip a one-handed pass in traffic.

But also passes in more self-generated, improvisational situations. Paint passing, for example.

And finding open shooters.

You can look at that last play with disdain, as Ennis got himself in trouble as he picked up his dribble and jumped while the defense swarmed.

“It’s basically body control,” Ennis said. “I need to focus more on being fundamental and staying on the ground.”

But you can also see it as a player finding a productive, if risky, out of a tricky spot. Adjusting in the air and firing a pass to the weakside corner is just as impressive as the body control Ennis shows in finishing after contact on the break.

There’s plenty of work to do here, of course – years of it, really. Ennis is only a couple minor adjustments away from some of these plays being turnovers, and his loose handle will get him in trouble against the league’s better defenders. But he’s exceeding expectations as a complete player so far, particularly for someone who claims he basically couldn’t shoot at all until his two seasons at Long Beach State, and with each game it’s looking more and more like he could get a true opportunity to capitalize on his potential.

“It’s starting to slow up, the game,” Ennis said. "Right now, it’s still kind of fast to me. I’m trying to progress, get more minutes, and once things start to slow up I’ll get my [court] vision like I’m usually able to do.”

While Ennis has a clearer shot at eventual playing time with the backup shooting-guard spot a question mark so far, Shabazz Napier, as a first-round pick, has more guaranteed development time on his side. Just as Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole before him, Erik Spoelstra has enrolled Napier in assistant coach Dan Craig’s Point Guard School, where learning how to play among the shotblocking trees of the league is the main course. But while Napier is learning how to get his shot off and his dribble alive, he’s also shown a knack for getting the ball into efficient spaces on the floor.

‘He’s a four-year college point-guard, he should be a good passer,’ you might say. Sure, but the gap between should be and is marks the difference in a professional basketball player. Some guards enter the league making the simple plays, but Napier, no stranger to the pocket pass at the University of Connecticut, has already made some advanced passes that even guards a few years into the league struggle to complete.

Including skip passes out of a pick-and-roll…

Bounce passes in the lane, with a little flash at the end…

And the all-important drive-and-kick…

As with Ennis, Napier is a work-in-progress. As the competition gets better, defenses swarm the passing lanes faster and plays become less obvious. But you aren’t looking for perfection from your rookies during the preseason, you’re trying to figure out what they can and can’t do. In the short time we’ve seen them in a professional environment, both Ennis and Napier have shown potential as at-least-occasional playmakers.

Who they will become is still a mystery, but the type of players they could be is broader than we may have thought. Considering how many rookies enter the league with under-developed passing skills, that’s as good a starting point as any.


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