This season's rookie class could be something special. There is talent and depth, size and skill, and the promise that there could be a few transcendent players in the mix. Oddly, though, some elements of each player's game and physical presentation feel familiar. Rookies Deconstructed is a series that means to take each rookie apart, identifying the building blocks we know and the natural comparisons that emerge while appreciating how they come together in ways that are radically and invigoratingly new. Because these are rookies, with just under half a season under the belts, some comparisons are necessarily forward-looking.
Brad Miller And The Serious Pump Fake
There are two kinds of unstoppable basketball moves. The first are the unexpected: think a Jamal Crawford crossover or a Steve Nash bounce pass, or pretty much everything Jason Williams ever did. The others are the moves everyone in the arena knows are coming and which nevertheless, whether through precise execution or some inherent physical advantage or both, simply can't be countered. Unstoppable is probably too super a superlative to bestow upon Brad Miller, but the man did have a serious pump fake. Defenders could see it coming a mile off and it didn't matter at all.
Brad Miller was 6-foot-11 and molasses-slow even as a young player, a stretch big man back when that was still a positional curiosity. He leveraged the threat of that jumper into some of the most effective lumbering the league has ever seen. Miller's pump fake was low, shoulders and knees, sold with the head and eyebrows. The ball had to stay close to the floor to preserve every fraction of a second he gained against a staggering defender. From there, it was two steps to the rim for a surprisingly adept finish or an intricate drop-off pass to a waiting teammate. If someone told you that Miller was actually a victim of dark sorcery—some arcane curse that left Jeff Hornacek trapped in Greg Ostertag's body—you'd at least have to give it some thought.
Frank Kaminsky is a direct aesthetic descendant of Miller. He's got the small-ball skills in the big body, the touch, the jumper. And, most promising of all, he has that Medusa pump fake that turns bigger, quicker, stronger defenders to stone. Frank the Tank is second in the league in drives among seven-footers, and ahead of the next closest colossus by a full 20 drives. Nearly a fifth of the points he's scored this season have come on those drives. Kaminsky's not breaking ankles with fancy handles, either. He's a seven-footer with a respectable outside shot, and he's happy to remind you of that fact before sashaying past on his way to the basket. If one could somehow rig up a mental microphone to pick up the defender's internal monologue, it would sound something like this:
"Don't bite, don't bite, don't bite, don't bite, don't bite, sonofabitch."
Rik Smits And Being A Lever
To refresh the long-ago basic physical science class that probably marked the last time you thought about a lever—it is a rigid piece of material rotated around a point, or fulcrum. Force is applied to one end and an object is moved at the other. The closer that object is to the fulcrum the less force is needed to lift it, although that force has to be applied over a longer distance. Science.
Now, Rik Smits. To refresh: he was a 7-foot-4 Dutch center who spent his entire 1990s-spanning career with the Indiana Pacers. Smits was agile and had a soft jumper, but primarily he served as the low-post scoring compliment to Reggie Miller. He was Indiana's fulcrum, the point around which Reggie's wild succession of off-ball screens, feints and counter-feints revolved.
In the post, Smits wasn't strong enough to bounce defenders out of position, or fluid enough to fake them out of position with a Hakeem-ish sequences of up-and-unders, shakes, and twirls. His height meant shooting over the top was the preferred mechanism, and he did that by using his body to lever a defender off the spot he wanted to shoot from. Again, science.
Kaminsky doesn't quite have Smits' height, and so relies on a slightly fuller bag of tricks in the post. In establishing his initial position, though, he's positively Dutch. You could use a straight edge to trace the path from one foot to the opposite outstretched hand, at roughly a 65 degree angle. The geometry is precise, with the other arm holding off the defender and the other leg slightly bent, a fulcrum around which more than 80 inches are applying force. This geometry, body as lever, is somewhat anachronistic relative to the low, wrecking-ball approach so many other bigs use to hold position. It served Smits well and seems to be moving Kaminsky in the right direction as well.
Sam Perkins And The Set Shot
Sam Perkins made 849 three-pointers in his career, which is more than John Stockton, Jeff Hornacek, Clyde Drexler, or Chris Mullin. He probably jumped a grand total of seven inches off the ground in making all those triples. By the end of his career, Perkins was still raining in threes, as a center no less, but the last bits of jump had gone out of his jump shot. The set shot that was left intact was both painfully slow and casually lethal. Across the last eight seasons of his career, from 1994 to 2001, Perkins shot 38.2 percent on three-pointers.
Kaminsky hasn't quite worked himself up to that level of accuracy yet, but it's coming. And every time he winds one up, you know Sam Perkins and his half-lidded eyes are smiling and nodding. Size forces a certain amount of geometric overlap between the shooting forms of big men. For people of that size, there are only so many angles from which a shot can be launched without the ball ending up in the 15th row. But, beyond that, Kaminsky and Perkins also share a certain languid sleepiness in their ground-bound shots. You can almost see the kinetic energy travel from feet to ankles, ankles to knees, knees to torso, torso to arm, and project out through a softly spinning orange basketball.
It is the three-point shot that allows Kaminsky to be effective in so many other offensive areas. The threat of Kaminsky launching from deep makes him merely raising the ball a disorienting experience for a defense. It gets him some extra space and some extra time, and he needs it. Kaminsky entered the draft as a boom-or-bust prospect, and all those prospects converge, to some degree, on "bust." He is adequately athletic and little more, and his college accolades were earned through size and precise execution of a range of offensive responsibilities. Players in this mold don't have a great track record in the NBA.
And yet the idea of Kaminsky busting is looking increasingly silly. Attention to detail and the same precise execution has allowed him to do many of same things he did in college against the NBA's bigger, more athletic, and more talented competition. On offense, his versatility has been enormously important for the Charlotte Hornets, and it all traces back to that outside shot. Kaminsky can pump-fake like Miller and produce in the post like Smits, in large part because he can shoot like Perkins. It's a good start.