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Thunder rookie breakdown: scouting Alex Abrines

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Is Abrines the 3 and D answer we need?

This article is the first of 4 scouting the players added to the OKC roster this offseason. Look for scouting reports on Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, and Ersan Ilyasova to come soon!

Alex Abrines, formerly of FC Barcelona, joined the Oklahoma City Thunder this offseason on a 3-year deal. The 32nd pick in the 2013 draft, Abrines brings an offensive spark that will likely allow him to make an early and consistent impact. In an effort to gain insight into Abrines potential contributions, I scouted the available footage and statistics to discover his strengths and weaknesses.

Offense

Shooting

Abrines is most known for his ability to shoot from the outside. During his time in the Euroleague, Abrines shot 40% from 3-point range. Even more promising is the yearly improvement. While he shot only 25% from deep his first season, that number steadily rose to 43.5% this past season. His volume of shots has also increased steadily, rising from just 61 in his first season to 207, or 4 attempts per game, this past season. The shooting skill is clearly developed already.

Abrines should be able to make an immediate impact with his shooting skills. The Thunder is largely bereft of marksmen, with only Morrow, Ilyasova, and (in small quantities) Kanter being above average 3-point shooters last season. In order to give Russell Westbrook and Victor Oladipo the space required for them to maximize their offensive impact, Coach Donovan will be forced to find minutes for his shooters. However, they all come with glaring weaknesses that aren't likely to improve significantly. Abrines offers the same skills with the possibility to shore up his weaknesses in the immediate future. His potential should earn him time above the other shooters.

Catch and Shoot

When playing with Westbrook and/or Oladipo, many of Abrines' attempts will likely come via kick-out passes. That means that his ability to catch and quickly get a shot up is extremely important to giving those guys space to get to the rim. While the Euroleague doesn't track stats for types of shots, catch and shoot 3s are often regarded as the easiest of the long range shots. The FIBA 3-point line is at just over 22 feet from the basket, the same distance as the corner 3. As a result, Abrines ought to be particularly effective at catching and shooting from the corners.

This gif shows Abrines ability to catch and shoot. While he has time in this instance to gather prior to the shot, it does show how tight and clean his shooting motion is. This allows him to be a consistent shooter, as there are less possible sources of inaccuracy.

This is closer to what Thunder fans should expect to see from Abrines. While the pass isn't inside the shooting pocket, he is able to get it into his motion quickly and efficiently. He beats the closeout for a clean shot. These two clips also show his comfort in shooting at different points around the arc. From the limited footage, it appears that he prefers the left side of the court, but that isn't conclusive. The important thing is that he is a capable shooter off of kick-out passes, which will be useful in giving Oladipo and Westbrook space to operate.

Off Screens

When running with the second unit, it's likely Abrines will have more plays drawn up specifically for him. He moves extremely well without the ball, and shoots well off of screens. This movement can be useful for wearing out defenders, as the mere possibility of an open shot forces continual mental and physical exertion. While it's hard to determine for certain, he appears to be more comfortable shooting while moving to his left. This is often the case for right handed shooters, so it isn't surprising or concerning. He has also shown himself capable of shooting while moving the other direction, so he can be used on both sides of the floor.

This type of pindown play could be extremely effective in tandem with a great screener like Enes Kanter. In fact, it would not be surprising to find this being a staple of the bench offense. Shooters in this mold are especially useful because they can draw fouls on outside shots, something that is demoralizing to the defense.  It's almost impossible to defend, as well, as the shooter only needs inches of space to get the shot off.

This play looks like an attempt to run an elevator door screen for Abrines. Two screeners pick up both the initial defender and the help defender, allowing Abrines ample space to get off a shot in rhythm. This set should be a part of the bench's offense, used to get him looks. Abrines has both the speed and shooting stroke to make it quite effective. Abrines also shows NBA range here, shooting well behind the shorter FIBA arc.

Easy opportunities

Another area that Abrines could excel in is finishing opportune plays. When playing with an elite offensive rebounder like Enes Kanter, it is common for outside shooter to find easy looks. If Kanter can learn to pass to the 3-point line after offensive rebounds, Abrines could cash in easy looks. These types of shots can be absolute backbreakers for defense; the offensive rebound is demoralizing enough, but the resulting easy shot can break the will of a defense.

Other chances for opportune looks can come off of smart cuts. Defenders will have to guard Abrines closely on the perimeter to prevent easy shots. If they lose focus and ball watch, this gives Abrines an easy opportunity to cut behind them. That 1 step advantage can result in lobs or dump-off passes.

While this play is in transition, it shows Abrines athleticism. A shooter being able to finish a lob like this is encouraging. In this play, the pass is actually thrown poorly, forcing Abrines to get higher than expected just to catch the pass. While he isn't an explosive athlete, he is plenty capable of finishing lobs at the rim should a defense lose focus.

Another area that could be ripe for exploiting is in transition. Abrines runs the floor well and could find it paying off in open looks. Players like Westbrook and Oladipo will draw the attention of the defense in transition, allowing someone like Abrines to spot up. These open 3s may not be frequent, but they can certainly add up. In games that are often decided by single possessions, these could be extremely beneficial.

Dribbling

Abrines is not a great ball-handler. He tends to be a little bit loose with the ball, making his dribble less secure than is optimal. However, he is capable of putting the ball on the floor, especially in a 1 or 2 dribble move to the basket. This is especially useful when tied to his shooting prowess; he can use a pump fake to put the defender a step behind on the drive.

Once at the basket, Abrines has shown a variety of finishing moves. While he isn't strong or exceptionally athletic, he has finesse and skill that allow him to function inside. When the defense collapses, he has the basketball IQ that Euroleague players are known for, making a smart pass to the open man.

In this first clip, Abrines is catching a pass off of a screen. The defender is already compromised, forced to overreact to a slight head fake from Abrines. Abrines takes the open path to the rim, finishing with a nice dunk despite being fouled. This counter to his shooting should translate easily, although the help defense will likely respond faster. His decisions will have to be made more quickly in the NBA, but the skills are transferable.

Here, Abrines actually misses the smart play (passing to the baseline cut), but is able to beat the defense and finish a tricky reverse layup. He shows great balance and touch to finish this layup. With more practice, it's likely he will see that pass for an easier layup. Either way, this kind of attacking facilitates ball movement, which will open up better looks.

This time, Abrines makes the smart play. He draws the help defender in the paint, allowing the simple dump off pass to the big man for a dunk. This may seem simple, but these are the sort of decisions that have often been lacking from shooters on the Thunder roster. Morrow can rarely break down the defense, and when he does, it usually results in a floater or pull-up midrange shot. Abrines brings a fraction of the driving skill of OKC's ball-dominant guards while being a great shooter. This balance could make him an important part of the reserve's offensive attack.

Intelligence

One of the most common traits of Euroleague players is their intelligence on the court. Often, the players are on an even playing field physically, forcing them to work better as a team. Rarely is a single player so dominant as to win games singlehandedly. As a result, players learn to use each other to generate offense. This can come via passing or via screens and movement. Abrines is capable of both.

We've already seen how Abrines moves to generate open shots. This shows him bailing out a teammate with a well-timed cut. While many shooters would stay where they are most comfortable (the 3 point line), Abrines sees that his man is standing in that passing lane and hits the gap, allowing an easy pass for a layup.

Abrines is also capable of delivering well-placed passes. While it's difficult to judge a single player's ability based purely on counting statistics and dangerous to use single instances to make a case, this pass does show his ability to read a defense and place a pass in a small window. He reads the box-out screen set in the paint, allowing his big man a path to the basket. The only available pass is a lob, though, and it requires a tight pass. He places the ball right above the fingers of the defender for an easy dunk. He is capable of throwing good passes, whether he does so consistently or not.

Defense

Abrines biggest weakness is definitely on the defensive end of the floor. The NBA game moves much faster than European basketball. It's difficult to know how big of a sieve he will end up being. It's quite possible he becomes a neutral defender within a few seasons, but it is hard to project. But let's look at what we know.

Heart and Hustle

One of the points mentioned in his DraftExpress profiles years ago was his "great effort" on the defensive end. The will to defend well is one of the most important traits in being a good defender; it requires a focus and mindset. It appears that Abrines has that part of defense covered. This is encouraging, as it points toward him improving on that end of the floor.

This play shows how extra effort can generate extra possessions. Abrines misses the shot initially, but chases the rebound, swiping at the ball just after it's secured. This is often when the rebounder has the weakest hold, and Abrines is able to knock it loose for an easy layup. This kind of motor makes a defender pesky, if not effective. If he isn't defending one of the first options for the opponent, that may be enough to make him passable.

Physical Attributes

Abrines genes aren't helping him on the defensive end. He is only 6'5", which is acceptable for shooting guards in the NBA, but significantly undersized for the small forward spot. However, he isn't lengthy, and is quite thin for an NBA player. His lack of length and strength will be detremental on the defensive end. Fighting through screens, defending in the post, and boxing out will all be more difficult due to these physical weaknesses.

Abrines is athletic enough, though, to be effective against similarly built guards. He has decent hops and is reasonable quick. While the speed of the game will likely have him playing behind early in his career, he could learn to use his athleticism to its maximum level, making him a neutral defender.

Positioning

Ultimately, Abrines effectiveness on defense is going to depend on his positioning. Poor athletes have been able to overcome their weakness by always being in the right place (see: Collison, Nick). Abrines has been playing in a league where movement and passing is stressed to a greater level than in the NBA. It's likely he will find the positioning aspect of the game as easy here as he did in Europe.

Here, he uses good help position and just enough vertical jump to block a shot at the rim. While he would probably get dunked on in the NBA here, the timing and positioning is good.

Ultimately, don't expect Abrines to be a positive defender, especially early in his career. In fact, I would consider it a success if he ends up as a neutral defender in his career. It will come down on his ability to counter his athletic weakness with intelligent positioning.

NBA Player Comparison: JJ Redick

I've seen many people go with Rudy Fernandez as Abrines' player comp, but I'm not sure it fits. Fernandez was a good but not great shooter, and seemed to play inside more often. While he was before my team and footage was limited, I don't think it's the best fit.

In my opinion, Redick is a much better comparison. While I don't expect Abrines to be as effective a shooter early in his career as JJ is now, I think they share some traits.

Both players had questionable handles coming into the league. They relied on shooting to score points; getting to the rim was the last option. This means the shot distribution was heavily weighted to the outside. Read this excerpt from Redick's DraftExpress profile:

"Being a good, but not a great ball-handler, Redick is not a player who can create his own shot at will without some help from his teammates and a smart coach's game plan, and therefore might not be able to fit seamlessly into any NBA system. The team that drafts him will need to take advantage of his strengths and be prepared to do what it takes to mask his weaknesses, which means calling plays for him to make sure he gets involved, ideally as a 2nd or 3rd option offensively."

Both players also are questionable on the defensive end. Their entire reason for being on the floor is shooting. Athleticism is the primary reason for this weakness. Again, from Redick's profile:

"One part of his game where his weaknesses will almost surely be exposed is on the defensive end. Redick is just an average defender at the NCAA level already, and this is an area where things can only get worse in the NBA. His lack of height likely means that many 6-7 shooting guards will be able to just elevate over the top of him to get their shot off, while his lack of lateral quickness could make it tough for him to stay in front of his man. In the fairly rare occasion that a taller and stronger player decides to post him up on the block, Redick's relative lack of bulk can be taken advantage of."

I mentioned that Abrines is athletic, but not explosive or exceptionally so. He moves more smoothly, and relies on consistent effort rather than sudden bursts. Redick also fits this mold:

"Second would be his athletic ability. Despite not being a poor athlete, Redick does not fit your typical mold of extremely quick and explosive shooting guards who are able to blow by their man at will and get up and dunk in the face of 7-footers with authority. His footspeed is just average, as is his leaping ability, and therefore there will be questions he will have to answer about his ability to translate his incredible scoring ability to the NBA where defenders are generally bigger, stronger, longer and quite a bit more athletic than the players he usually goes up against in the NCAA."

Ultimately, though, their offensive movement is the reason the comparison works. Both players move off of screens so effectively to catch the ball and get a shot up. The force their defender to chase them around the entire court, just to get a shot up in their face anyways.

"Redick's off the ball movement is a thing of beauty. He is one of the tougher players to guard in the NCAA not just because of his outstanding skill level, but also because of how hard he makes his defenders work to defend him. He's constantly in motion moving off the ball, working the entire 25 foot radius around his basket from sideline to sideline which constitutes the shooting range in which he is virtually automatic with his feet set and an inch of space."

JJ Redick last season had a shooting distribution that looked like so: 47.5% from deep, 28% from 15-24 feet, and just 18.5% from inside the FT line. Almost half his shots were from behind the arc. Abrines has taken over half of his shots from deep every season in the Euroleague. It's clear he is most comfortable shooting away from the rim, and that likely won't change in the NBA.

If you were to ask me what Abrines' peak as an NBA player is, I would probably go with JJ Redick. Not a star by any means, but elite in shooting, and effective enough to be a fantastic role player.