Around a month ago, I wrote an article singing praises about Dario Šarić and his contributions on offense — being a pick-and-pop option, especially whenever he gets paired with Chris Paul on ballscreen actions; being a big-man hub, passer, and decision maker, all of which have been typical traits of a quintessential Golden State Warriors center; and as a spacer who can make himself available on the perimeter.
But the operational word in the paragraph above — “center.” In that same article, I opined on Šarić being utilized heavily as Kevon Looney’s direct backup at the five, and how he has been played out of position despite excelling on the offensive end. As a center on defense, he has expectedly struggled; defending in space on switches and on conventional pick-and-roll coverages such as drop have proved to be difficult endeavors for him.
Per the article:
Kerr is rightfully using Šarić’s talents on offense as a connector, shooter, and passer. What remains to be seen, however, is if he can be put in better positions to survive on defense. The data says that pairing him with a bona fide five and slotting him at the four is the best method of addressing that conundrum.
There have been glimpses of Kerr pairing him with the likes of Looney and Jackson-Davis. Whether that’s a trend they’re willing to explore further is something to keep track of as the season moves forward.
While the overall numbers with Šarić as the four have gone done a bit since last month — with him paired with one of Looney, Draymond Green, or Trayce Jackson-Davis next to him at the five, the Warriors have posted a net differential of minus-0.5 — zeroing in on the numbers with Jackson-Davis as his frontcourt partner paints a highly intriguing picture.
With only 91 possessions spent together prior to tonight’s game against the Washington Wizards, the sample size is extremely small — so take these numbers with the customary grain of salt. But with Jackson-Davis at the five with Šarić next to him at the four, the Warriors have outscored opponents by a whopping 29.3 points per 100 possessions, with an offensive rating (122.0) equivalent to third in the league and a defensive rating (92.6) equivalent to the best in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.
Comparing such a point differential to when Šarić has Green with him at the five (minus-17.9) or Looney at the five (minus-4.9), it’s quite clear that Jackson-Davis has the commanding edge as Šarić’s frontcourt partner.
A simple fact behind why those numbers have skyrocketed to league-best levels is solving the problem of Šarić defending in space. With Jackson-Davis taking the majority of space-defending responsibilities (pick-and-roll and, to a lesser extent, isolation on switches), Šarić’s responsibilities on that end have lessened.
It also mightily helps that Jackson-Davis is proving to be a highly competent drop-coverage big, simply because he can play the middle ground between the ballhandler and the roll man quite well. A key tenet of drop coverage is its ability to prevent teams from being put in rotation and keeping things strictly a two-on-two endeavor — that is, when properly executed.
Proper execution means the on-ball defender must be able to navigate around the ballscreen, while the dropping big must be able to contain the ballhandler while also keeping tabs on his own man.
Both of which Jackson-Davis was able to do on this possession:
Take note that because of Jackson-Davis being able to keep both the ball and the roll contained, Steph Curry doesn’t have to commit to a “tag” on the roll man, which allows him to stay largely home against his own man in the corner. Curry then shades his man toward the baseline, with Jackson-Davis helping behind and protecting the rim.
That stayed largely true with Šarić on the floor next to Jackson-Davis:
In the instance above, it was Šarić who didn’t have to tag the roll man — with good reason. Jackson-Davis is once again able to maintain the in-between space, which allows him to track the ballhandler’s drive to the rim and send it away with a booming block. That allows him to set the drag screen for Chris Paul in transition, roll to the rim himself, and be rewarded with a lob pass.
But also take note of what made the roll to the rim and alley-oop possible. Having Brandin Podziemski and Moses Moody as spacers opens up the floor; Šaric parking himself once pass away on the right wing also creates space for Paul and Jackson-Davis to perform their two-man magic.
The same concept applies on this possession:
With an extra defender showing help against Curry on the switch against Mike Muscala, a lone weak-side defender is zoned up — virtually guarding both Paul and Šaric. Since both can hit those shots from the outside, the defender (rookie Bilal Coulibaly) can’t sink in on Jackson-Davis when Curry blows by and Kispert has to “trap the box” as the next defender.
With no one sinking in, Jackson-Davis is left unattended, allowing him to catch the lob from Curry.
This is the kind of two-way impact Jackson-Davis has brought to the Warriors, most of which has been centered around the concept of rotation — on defense, he keeps the Warriors out of it; on offense, he forces opponents to be in it constantly.
Notice how Corey Kispert — guarding Šaric in the corner — is forced to pinch in due to Jackson-Davis’ roll, made possible after setting the drag screen. Curry finds Šaric on the skip pass, and while he misses the shot, it’s still a good look generated by Jackson-Davis’ roll gravity.
On non-ballscreen half-court sets such as “Pistol Flare” action for Curry, having Šaric off the ball — for example, one pass away on the wing — can have devastating effects on defenses:
When Jackson-Davis sets the flare screen for Curry, Kyle Kuzma — defending Šaric — is compelled to help off at the “nail.” This allows Šaric to 45 cut his way toward the rim, with Curry finding him mid-stride.
Another benefit of having Jackson-Davis relieve Šaric of the center burden — somewhat understated compared to the others that have been brought to the surface — is what transpired below:
With Jackson-Davis being allowed to roam nearby, the Warriors’ offensive-rebounding capabilities turn up a notch, especially if Šaric is the shot taker as what transpired above. While the Warriors’ offensive rebounding rate has been quite decent with Šaric as the center (31.8%, equivalent to third in the league), it skyrockets to a gargantuan number with Jackson-Davis as the big next to him (38.8%, 5.8 percentage points better than the league-best mark).
In nine games and a total of 55 minutes, the Warriors have outscored opponents by a total of 36 points with Jackson-Davis at the five and Šaric at the four. In the grand scheme of things, the sample size is still small — but the upward trend is getting difficult to ignore.
The eye test is also building a steady amount of evidence behind why Šaric must spend the majority of his minutes at the four, with Jackson-Davis as his frontcourt partner in crime. When those are the present facts, faced with current realities that must be solved in order for the Warriors to catch up to the rest of the west, there is little reason to keep that sample size small.