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Deep-dive: There are levels to Ryan Rollins’ potential

A closer look at why the Warriors wanted to draft Rollins.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 08 Northern Illinois at Toledo Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The initial intrigue surrounding Ryan Rollins stemmed from the Golden State Warriors shelling out $2 million in cash to move up seven spots to grab him.

What did the Warriors see in Rollins — a sophomore prospect from Toledo — that was, in their eyes, worth upgrading their draft position?

A look at his college tenure reveals the promise he brings on the offensive end of the floor: a potential three-level scorer with the shot-creation chops to supplement an equal-opportunity offense. Coupled with a physical profile that can be shaped into a sturdy defender, Rollins is a high-upside project that may turn into a sleeper hit.

Rollins averaged 18.9 points — 4th in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) — on 47/31/80 shooting splits. His 56% True Shooting mark was an indication of a scorer who could one day evolve into the upper echelon of efficiency — that is, if he manages to improve the one glaring shortcoming of his scoring arsenal.

Level 1: Outside shooting

Rollins’ 31.1% shooting on 4.4 threes per game isn’t ideal. But it is by no means a lost cause, considering that he shot 80.2% on nearly 5 free-throw attempts per game; an above-average free-throw mark is a strong indicator of a shot that can develop into a potent outside threat.

Flashes of Rollins’ long-range potential came during pick-and-roll situations. On-ball defenders who were tasked with navigating around ball screens tended to duck under such screens for Rollins, with their big-man partners mostly in a deep drop.

Until Rollins becomes an above-average pull-up marksman around ball screens, teams will continue to opt for conservative coverages and dare him to pull the trigger; whenever he did pull the trigger, Rollins has occasionally maximized the space afforded him.

If made to pay on a more consistent basis, opponents may swallow their pride and stray toward the more aggressive spectrum of pick-and-roll coverages, in an attempt to shut off Rollins’ pull-up space.

If he finds himself with two bodies trying to cut off his looks, it only serves to unleash another aspect of his offensive repertoire: his pick-and-roll passing.

Threading passes through small windows is well within his wheelhouse. He senses where help is coming from and reacts accordingly: if help comes from stunts and digs at the nail, he whips the ball to the open man on the wing; if the low man commits to tagging Rollins’ roll-man partner, he takes full advantage by making skip passes to the weak-side corner.

(Make no mistake — Rollins is primarily a scorer, with passing an auxiliary aspect of his skill set. While he averaged only 3.6 assists during his sophomore season, he did lead the team in assist rate. Forcing him to handle primary playmaking responsibilities may be too much, but in a pinch, he can generate shots for his teammates.)

There are instances where he sheds the need for a ball screen. Starting from a triple-threat position, he can dig deep into his bag of ball handling and shiftiness to break his man down at the point of attack. This includes an ability to create ample separation through jab steps, step-backs, side-steps, head and ball fakes, etc.

Rollins may see some time as a secondary ball handler, shot-creator, and playmaker in bench lineups, but the plethora of options the Warriors have in terms of on-ball creation will most certainly result in a usage dip. That makes his development as an off-ball threat and floor spacer all the more crucial.

Catch-and-shoot possessions remain an inconsistent part of his shooting arsenal — he converted 30.9% of his catch-and-shoot threes during his sophomore season. Rollins needs time and space to set his feet, while his motion involves a glaring dip that makes the whole process somewhat of a deliberate endeavor. But despite the mechanical warts, his shot is decent enough for the developmental process to shape it into something more consistent and repeatable.

Level 2: The mid-range

Rollins’ inconsistency with his long-range shot may be glaring. Taking a step or two inside the arc transforms that inconsistency into what is arguably his greatest weapon as an offensive player.

As aforementioned, opponents will throw a heavy dose of conservative coverages his way. Pull-up threes will be there for the taking, but it also opens up space for Rollins to rise for long two-pointers — a shot that has a somewhat controversial standing in certain basketball circles.

A common misconception surrounding the analytics movement is that it treats the mid-range jumper as a pariah, something to be shunned as it runs anathema to the concept of efficiency. What genuine analytics proponents say, however, is if a player has proven to be an above-average mid-range operator, he is more than welcome to incorporate those looks within their shot diet.

That is why the Warriors — despite their reputation for revolutionizing the three-point shot — are still reliant on mid-range shot making, especially during the playoffs, where they ranked 6th in terms of mid-range shot frequency.

Rollins could be the latest in a line of Warriors mid-range merchants — Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Shaun Livingston, to name a few — whose number can be called to get a bucket in a pinch.

His mid-range chops arguably shine the brightest during switches against disadvantaged defenders. Several instances of forced switches were coaxed through a pet action Toledo liked to run for Rollins: “Miami” action, which involves a wing dribble handoff (DHO) followed immediately by a ball screen.

The lack of classical burst and first-step explosion has forced Rollins to rely on off-beat shifts in tempo and cadence. He creates space through all sorts of handling craft: hesitations, hang dribbles, crossovers, stop-and-gos, etc.

When presented with a mismatch against smaller guards, or when positioned deep enough within either block, Rollins has the chops to warrant low-post isolation possessions. He can use his size to power through mismatches, or unholster a nifty turnaround jumper that is difficult to affect by outmatched defenders.

Level 3: Finishing at the rim

Rollins’ lack of burst, straight-line speed, and vertical athleticism could be concerns when it comes to finishing at the rim. He’s shown enough guile and craft to compensate for his first-step deficiencies, enabling him to get to the paint with both feet. But when presented with challenges from opposing help defenders and multiple bodies thrown his way, the problems start to surface.

The threat of his layup getting blocked has made him reliant on off-beat attempts off of one foot, in an effort to get the ball past outstretched arms. That can result in shots that fall short of their mark, or shots that are too strong or too high up on the glass whenever he’s compelled to rush his forays to the rim.

But not everything is doom and gloom. Rollins’ varying tempo occasionally works to his advantage, especially when attacking a defender’s front foot. His rim attacks are most effective during transition situations, where he builds a full steam of momentum going downhill against opponents backing up.

Rollins uses the same bag of off-beat movement during pick-and-roll situations. He freezes drop-back bigs in their tracks with his hesitations, allowing him the briefest of windows to blow past them on his way to the rim.

Curiously enough, just like his new teammate in Jordan Poole, Rollins has a preference for rejecting ball screens and zigging when the on-ball defender is zagging. It’s a nice quirk to have to keep defenders guessing.

Per InStat, a majority of Rollins’ possessions came as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll (27%) — he scored a gaudy 1.16 points per possession on such play types. Of those pick-and-roll possessions, 33% consisted of drives to the rim, where he scored 1.52 PPP.

(Take note, however, that such numbers are against relatively weaker competition in a mid-major conference. They are by no means meaningless metrics, but quality of opposition should be taken into consideration.)

If Rollins can shore up his deficiencies as a rim attacker, those numbers may be an indication of his rim-pressure potential. More capable rim-pressure threats on the roster is an extremely welcome development, considering that those profiles don’t readily grow on trees.

Secret Level: Defensive upside

At a height of 6’3”, Rollins was measured to have a wingspan of nearly 6’10” — a plus-7 differential that’s considered above average for his position. His length advantage over opposing guards gives him the potential to be a swarming on-ball defender.

What jumps out at this stage, however, is his disruptiveness in the passing lanes. His anticipatory guile allows him to intercept skip passes with relative ease. He has excellent ball-tracking skills that enable him to beat opponents to the ball. When involved directly in aggressive pick-and-roll coverages, he uses his long arms to deflect release-valve passes to the roll man.

Flashes of his length disrupting smaller opponents during 1-on-1 situations are testaments to his potential, but he largely has had difficulty trying to keep his assignments in front. A notable area of improvement for him is his close-outs. He still lacks the fine body control necessary to prevent being overly zealous on his close-outs.

His lateral movement leaves a lot to be desired, which often enables opponents to turn the corner on him. He can lose battles of physicality underneath the rim, allowing himself to be jostled out of position by body bumps.

Arguably the most glaring weakness of Rollins’ defensive ability at this stage is his screen navigation. He still lacks the technical knowhow in terms of properly getting over screens. If he doesn’t completely die on them, he has a tendency to get caught up long enough for assignments to either pull up for a shot, or use the delayed recovery period to make use of the open driving lane created.

These defensive shortcomings shouldn’t be too much of a concern, considering that Rollins can be considered an overall “neutral” defender during college. Given the proper environment to develop his defense — something the Warriors can provide — he can graduate his way toward positive contribution as an NBA-level stopper.

Unfortunately, the recent news of Rollins missing Summer League due to a stress fracture in the fifth metatarsal of his right foot likely means that we won’t be seeing him until the start of training camp. There’s no pressure for him to contribute out of the gates, with a depth chart that places him well beneath the pecking order. That gives him a front-seat view to learn from his veterans and immediate second-year superiors.

Whenever Rollins returns, he will get an opportunity to showcase why the Warriors were willing to part with cold cash to draft him. Whether that’s on the 15-man roster, a two-way deal, or as a G League mainstay, he will get all the time in the world to make mistakes, learn from them, and use it as a springboard toward future rotation minutes.

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