Last week, we broke down this season’s top isolation scorers — the players that are masters of creating their own scoring opportunities. This week, we’re going to focus on the actions made to help teammates score, but rather than looking at assists per game leaders, we’re going to examine the plays that aren’t part of the traditional box score.
We start with the top 10 players in screen assists — the number of times an offensive player sets a screen for a teammate that directly leads to a made field goal by that teammate. These players may not be passing their teammate the ball like a traditional assist, but the space they create for their teammate to knock down a shot deserves to be recognized in a similar fashion.
Utah’s Rudy Gobert leads the league in screen assists (6.7 per game) and points created by screen assists (16.3 per game). Gobert may only average 1.1 traditional assists per game (for 2.9 ppg) with his passing, but his screening is key to Utah’s offense. No team scores more points (26.7 per game), runs more possessions (26.4 per game) or scores more efficiently (1.01 points per possession) on pick-and-roll ball handler plays than the Jazz, according to Synergy play type data. The Rudy Gobert-Donovan Mitchell pick-and-roll combo is at the heart of that success.
Donovan Mitchell & Rudy Gobert power the Jazz at home! 🎷@spidadmitchell: 31 PTS@rudygobert27: 18 PTS (7-7 FGM), 19 REB pic.twitter.com/fSqBBiw2mu
— NBA (@NBA) January 17, 2022
Mitchell ranks second in the league in both points per game (12.9 ppg) and points per possession (1.06 ppp) on pick-and-roll plays among the 84 players with at least 100 pick-and-roll possessions so far this season. If you drop that threshold down to 40 possessions, the Jazz have three of the six most efficient pick-and-roll scorers out of the 153 players that qualify: Bojan Bogdanovic (1st; 1.18 ppg on 44 possessions), Mitchell (4th) and Joe Ingles (6th, 1.04 ppp on 78 possessions).
Gobert is on pace to lead the league in screen assists for the third time in the six seasons that hustle stats have been tracked by the NBA. Additionally, Gobert has never finished lower than second place in that statistic.
- 2021-22: Gobert (6.7), Poeltl (5.9), Sabonis (5.3), Ayton (5.3), Nurkic (5.0)
- 2020-21: Sabonis (6.5), Gobert (6.1), Ayton (5.6), Poeltl (5.5), Wendell Carter Jr, (4.7)
- 2019-20: Sabonis (7.0), Gobert (6.9), Bam Adebayo (5.1), Vucevic (5.0), Adams (4.8)
- 2018-19: Gobert (5.9), Cody Zeller (5.4), Tristan Thompson (5.3), Nurkic (5.0), Jarrett Allen (4.7)
- 2017-18: Gobert (6.2), Adams (4.9), Andre Drummond (4.7), Marcin Gortat (4.5), Nikola Jokic (4.3)
- 2016-17: Gortat (6.2), Gobert (6.2), Zeller (5.9), DeAndre Jordan (5.5). Thompson (4.8)
According to Synergy play type data, pick-and-roll ball handler plays account for 17.4% of all possessions across the NBA. Teams like Utah (24.1%), Atlanta (24.1%), Sacramento (21.4%) and Chicago (20.5%) are on the higher end of that scale and each have a player ranked in the top 10 in screen assists. Brooklyn (12.5%) runs the fewest pick-and-roll ball handler plays, but they also feature three of the league’s top isolation scorers of the past decade.
Jakob Poeltl: Since becoming a fixture in San Antonio’s starting lineup last season, Poeltl’s screen assists numbers have climbed as his minutes have grown. He finished fourth in the league last season with 5.5 screen assists in 26.7 minutes per game and so far this season he ranks second at 5.9 screen assists in 28.8 minutes per game. Dejounte Murray is averaging a career-best 19.1 points per game this season and 8.1 of those points per game come on pick-and-roll ball handler sets.
Domantas Sabonis: Sabonis has led the NBA in screen assists in each of the past two seasons and his 7.0 average in 2019-20 remains the highest mark on record. This season, Sabonis ranks third in screen assists (5.3 per game) and third among centers in traditional assists (4.7 per game). Sabonis creates 12.5 points per game for the Pacers with his screens and another 12.1 points per game with his passes.
Deandre Ayton: Since Chris Paul joined the Suns last season, Ayton has ranked in the top four in screen assists. He finished third last season with a career-best 5.6 screen assists per game and is close to matching that pace this season as he ranks fourth at 5.3 screen assist per game. In addition to the 11.4 points per game that he creates with his screen assists, Ayton ranks second in scoring as the roll man in pick and rolls at 5.8 points per game on 72.6% shooting.
Steven Adams: Adams has played for three different teams over the past three seasons, but he’s racked up screen assists at every stop. He ranked fifth (4.8 per game) during his final season in OKC in 2019-20, was finished 14th (4.1 per game) in his only season in New Orleans in 2020-21 and is fifth (career-best 5.0 per game) in his first season in Memphis in 2021-22.
Jusuf Nurkic: Nurkic is matching his career-best with 5.0 screen assists per game so far this season, despite two of Portland’s key perimeter scorers and key screen partners — Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum — missing extended time due to injuries. Keep an eye on the Nurkic-Anferee Simons screen combo, though: the Blazers’ offensive rating is 112.4 when those two share the court this season.
Clint Capela: Capela is averaging a career-high 4.6 screen assists in his second season with the Hawks. After playing his first six seasons in an isolation-heavy offense led by James Harden in Houston, Capela is now teamed up with the top pick-and-roll ball handler scorer in the league in Trae Young (14.4 ppg), who is adept at scoring off Capela’s screens and finding the big man on lobs as he rolls to the basket (3.5 ppg on 67.8% shooting).
Nikola Vucevic: Vucevic is a strong contributor in both ends of pick-and-roll sets. He creates 10.2 points per game with his screen assists (eighth in the league) for ball handlers, but also leads the NBA with 5.9 points per game scored as the roll man, when the ball handler looks to pass rather than shoot.
Ivica Zubac: Zubac ranks in the top 10 in screen assists for the first time in his career as he is averaging a career-high 4.2 screen assists in a career-high 24.3 minutes per game. Zubac’s screen assists have climbed steadily since joining the Clippers in a mid-season trade from the Lakers in 2018-19: he averaged 2.8 screen assists per game in 20.1 mpg the remainder of the 2018-19 season, 3.7 in 18.4 mpg in 2019-20, and 3.9 in 22.3 mpg last season before this season’s career best.
Richaun Holmes: Since joining the Kings in 2019-20, Holmes has averaged 4.3 screen assists per game each season he’s been with the squad. After starting just 24 of 226 games in his first four seasons in Philadelphia and Phoenix, Holmes has found a home and a consistent starting role in Sacramento. Holmes has started all but six of 133 games played with the Kings and has delivered consistent numbers in terms of scoring and efficiency as well as screen assists.