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Why The Most Efficient Scorer In NBA History Is Stuck On The Bench

DETROIT — What if I told you that in today’s stats-obsessed league — where everything, including the arc of a shooter’s jump shot and the length of a player’s stride, can be spliced and measured — perhaps the most efficient scorer in modern NBA history couldn’t get off the bench most nights?

That’s the reality for 7-foot-3 Pistons center Boban Marjanovic, who scores with unprecedented efficiency when he is on the court.1 Among players who’ve averaged 30 points per 100 possessions and played in at least 100 regular-season games, no player has been able to match Marjanovic in points per shot attempt, and those who have come closest are either already in the Hall of Fame or likely will be one day. He also currently leads the NBA2 by a wide margin in points per touch, according to data from Second Spectrum.

The most efficient players in modern NBA history

Leaders in career points per shot attempt, 1974-2018

Player Years Points per shot attempt
Boban Marjanovic 2016-2018 1.62
Adrian Dantley 1977-1991 1.53
Charles Barkley 1985-2000 1.52
James Harden 2010-2018 1.51
Shaquille O’Neal 1993-2011 1.47

For players with a mininmum of 30 points per 100 possessions in 100 regular-season games.

Source: Basketball-Reference

Marjanovic, the undrafted 29-year-old Serb, has accomplished this in relative anonymity. While he might be a favorite among basketball die-hards and members of the Reddit community devoted to him, Boban will not be at the NBA All-Star game next month, and no throngs of teenagers are lining up to buy his jersey at the NBA store. And he’s only played in 13 games so far this season, a clear sign that his scoring touch doesn’t mask his other shortcomings, which are on display each time he steps on the court. Because he lacks foot speed on defense and is largely tethered to the paint on that end, opponents — particularly those with sharpshooting stretch bigs — can exploit him with the high pick-and-roll.

Both sides of the double-edged sword were on display during the Pistons’ loss in Miami Wednesday night, a game in which Marjanovic got his fifth career start while one-time All-Star Andre Drummond sat out with a rib injury. Marjanovic displayed his usual soft touch around the basket, finishing with 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting and nine rebounds in just 22 minutes. That production is in line with his career 1.62 points per shot attempt.

Still, even with that sort of offensive firepower, the Heat — who drilled 17 threes, tied for the most Detroit’s allowed all season — were able to chase Boban off the floor whenever they downsized by playing Kelly Olynyk at center. In fact, Olynyk reeled off eight consecutive points to put Miami on an 8-0 run within two minutes of that shift; the run prompted Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy to call time and subsequently limit Marjanovic’s minutes to whenever Olynyk wasn’t playing at the 5.

Watch here as Miami finds a way to exploit Marjanovic’s presence, or lack thereof, on these three plays. On the first, Miami’s Tyler Johnson comes off a screen, but Marjanovic doesn’t hedge far enough, which forces Pistons guard Reggie Bullock to defend both Johnson and Olynyk on the same play (though he’s too late to do anything about Olynyk’s open shot). During the second play, Marjanovic contains Johnson after a switch, but Olynyk capitalizes on the miss by grabbing the board over the Detroit wings, who are left to fend for themselves in the paint. On the most glaring of the three plays, Olynyk gets a wide-open look in transition after Marjanovic fails to pick him up as a trailer.

That sequence explains how Marjanovic has become one of the bigger chess pieces in basketball the past few seasons — one who can trigger an immediate substitution from one side or the other based on his sheer size and skill set. But his situation as a historically efficient scorer who still doesn’t see consistent playing time also speaks to how the abundance of perimeter shooting in today’s NBA has made life nearly impossible for rim-protecting 7-footers who lack the mobility to come out and defend past the free-throw line.

“It’s tough, because you’re dealing with a lot of guys who can really stretch the floor, and you’ve got to be able to defend out to 25 feet,” Van Gundy said of Marjanovic, who just broke the 100-minute mark for the season Wednesday and has yet to play 1,000 career minutes in three seasons. “He’s worked hard at [improving his lateral footwork], so I’m confident in him being able to play against a lot of people. But when you get really far away from the basket, it’s a little tough on him.”

A few numbers highlight how much Marjanovic struggles with perimeter-oriented bigs. So far this season, he is defending 14 midrange and 3-point tries per 100 shot attempts, the most in the NBA among the 365 players who’ve contested at least 30 such shots so far, according to Second Spectrum. Exacerbating the issue even more: Players are shooting about 15 effective field-goal percentage points better than expected against him from that range, according to Second Spectrum data, the worst gap of any center in the league to this point.

None of this is to suggest that Marjanovic, who signed with the Spurs as a free agent back in 2015, has no skill on defense. Coming into this season, he held opposing players to far less than their usual averages when shooting within six feet of the rim, likely the result of his disruptive 7-foot-8 wingspan and 9-foot-7 standing reach that make him one of the largest players in NBA history. And if he had played enough minutes to qualify for the leaderboard, Marjanovic’s career total rebound percentage (21.9 percent) would put him right behind former Piston Dennis Rodman, who holds the best rate of all time (23.4 percent).

But above all else, Marjanovic is a scorer. He’s very good at establishing position near the basket.

And once he catches the ball, either off an entry pass or after a teammate has lofted it to where only he can catch it, he has an array of moves that make him even more difficult to guard.

Van Gundy said that part of the challenge in playing Marjanovic is timing, adding that he believes Boban matches up fairly well with a number of traditional centers around the league. But if the opposing club starts a traditional big man, then replaces him with a floor-spacer off the bench, that makes it difficult for Van Gundy to find a scenario where he can sub Marjanovic into the action. Doing so would require pulling Drummond, Detroit’s best player, or likely compromising the Pistons’ perimeter defense against a stretch big, as was the case Wednesday with Olynyk.

Marjanovic has long known that developing quicker feet on defense is the key to seeing more minutes. “You can’t make someone tall like me, and you can’t make someone quick like [Pistons guard] Ish Smith,3” said Marjanovich, a gym rat who referenced the time he spent working with future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan in an effort to improve defensively. “But you can make small improvements that help, and you can use your mind to study, so you know what play is coming sometimes.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who coached Boban when the center first came into the league and eventually talked him into taking the Pistons’ far richer contract offer in restricted free agency, acknowledged that someone like Marjanovic probably could have had a lot more success in an earlier era of basketball — when slow-footed big men like Rik Smits, Kevin Duckworth and Bill Cartwright were averaging big minutes each night and seldom drifting from the paint. But Popovich said he respects all the work his former pupil has put in, despite the fact that there’s only so much he can do to fix his weaknesses.

“You am what you am,” Popovich told me. “It’s our job to figure out who these guys are. People talk about players changing. Some some guys add skill, but they don’t change their DNA and their physical abilities and gifts that they have. Some have more than others. And you deal with that.”

Footnotes

  1. Since the 1973-74 season, which predates the ABA-NBA merger.

  2. Among those who’ve played 10 games or more so far this season.

  3. Who, according to Second Spectrum data, is currently the NBA’s fastest player on average.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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