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Clippings: Behold, the passing of the Clippers big men

Serge Ibaka and Ivica Zubac are flashing some passing flair.

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Minnesota Timberwolves v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Much has been made of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s playmaking to start the season, and for good reason. In lieu of a traditional point guard, the Clippers are putting the ball in the hands of their superstars and relying on their scoring gravity — and their improving passing instincts — to generate offense.

It’s been an undoubtedly successful formula thus far, as the Clippers lead the league in offensive rating. But though Leonard and George are the primary creators on the team, almost everyone on the roster can pass and move the ball to generate assists, even the centers Serge Ibaka and Ivica Zubac. Their assist rates pale in comparison to the perimeter players, but they’re still important parts of the offensive flow.

Ibaka has 25 assists on the season, which may not sound like much, but his 10.3 assist percentage (the percentage of his teammates’ made shots that he assists on) is easily the highest of his career and places him in the 66th percentile among bigs. It’s been a steady progression for Ibaka on the passing front, as his assist percentage has improved from 4.3 in 2017-18 to 7.6 the following season and 8.8 last year before reaching a high this season with the Clippers.

Given that Ibaka plays a large chunk of his minutes with the starters, he runs a lot of pick-and-roll with Leonard and George. Defenses often trap the two wings, so they get the ball to Ibaka in the middle of the floor, also known as the short roll, since Ibaka hasn’t made it all the way to basket. From there, Ibaka has to survey the rest of the court to figure out what to do. Since the defense has rotated to cover him and the ball handler, there’s usually an open man, and Ibaka is getting pretty good at finding him.

Leonard noted that it makes sense that Ibaka has grown his game in this particular fashion because he has spent essentially his entire career — with the exception of one half season in Orlando — playing with star ball handlers.

“He’s been playing with guys of my caliber his whole career, starting off with (Russell) Westbrook and KD and moving over to Toronto with (DeMar) DeRozan and Kyle Lowry,” Leonard said last week. “He’s used to seeing guys get trapped or blitzed either in a pick-and-roll situation or in their isolations. I think he’s doing a good job this year. When me and PG are getting blitzed in those pick-and-rolls, finding open guys, and yeah, he’s doing good.”

Zubac can pass out of the short roll, too, but since he comes off the bench, he spends a lot of time with Lou Williams and Luke Kennard as ball handlers. Those two aren’t as threatening as Leonard and George, so they don’t get trapped as frequently. As a result, Zubac’s passing often comes out of dribble handoffs. The handoff essentially functions as a screen, and Zubac is a massive body for the trailing guards to get around. That gives Williams and Kennard have a lot of space to work with in the middle of the floor.

This is a great way for the Clippers to use Zubac not only because it takes advantage of his size, but also because Zubac doesn’t have to make any catches in tight spaces, which has been challenging for him in the past. However, the Clippers still work on the short roll with him in practice, and in the one game Zubac started in place of Ibaka against Indiana, he made multiple reads out of that action.

“We know that a lot of teams are going to blitz Kawhi and PG, and we have been working on it almost every practice,” Zubac said after the team’s latest win over the Kings. “Bigs, we have been short rolling and trying to make those passes and trying to make those reads. I feel much more comfortable now than at the beginning of the season just because we work on it all the time. I feel super confident, I feel like I can make the right read, I can make that pass. And if they don’t step up, I can take it to the rim.”

Of the many ways Zubac and Ibaka affect the game, passing is fairly low on the list. Zubac knows that his rebounding his key for the team, and Ibaka’s floor-spacing helps the starting lineup more than his assists. But it helps for every player to be a little more well-rounded, especially for a team that’s been preaching player development since the offseason. That applies to young players and veterans alike, and Zubac and Ibaka have both taken that mantra to heart.

During the playoffs last season, the Clippers looked a little lost when their first option was cut off. Now, they’re working on the play after the play, and having more players on the floor who can make those reads can only be a good thing.

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