Everyone knows Pat Connaughton embraces the dunk. He loves to show off his 44-inch vertical leap and has yammed it home 42 times this season-more than doubling his career high of 20. That’s more than players like Andrew Wiggins, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook and Donovan Mitchell. However, the real secret is just how he gets so many dunking opportunities.
When you’re 6-foot-4 and a slightly below average three-point shooter such as Connaughton, you have to work extra hard for good looks at the rim. His constant motor gets him those opportunities and is never more evident than when he’s cutting to the hoop.
As a team, the Bucks don’t cut very often at all. Even though they are extremely efficient when, Milwaukee chooses to do so on only 6.1 percent of their possessions which ranks just 23rd in the NBA. Instead, they prefer to line the perimeter and give Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon maximum room to work.
Connaughton is the Bucks’ Energizer Bunny, as he’s one of their most active players. He more than doubles the team average, as he cuts on 14.2 percent of his possessions which just about equals one time per game. Plays like these aren’t out of the ordinary when Connaughton is on the floor:
Tim Frazier quickly pushes the ball up the court and finds himself in trouble following a jump-stop in the middle of the lane. As Khris Middleton and Nikola Mirotic spot up in the corner and the top of the key respectively, Connaughton almost settles on the wing. However, he recognizes his teammate is in trouble and hits the turbo button to jet toward the hoop. Frazier, desperate for help, scoops the ball to him in rhythm and he rises for the two-handed tomahawk slam.
The five-out offense the Bucks run under Mike Budenholzer is one of the keys to Connaughton’s success when he slashes to the basket. It not only creates plenty of lanes for the ball-handler to leverage, but the off-ball players as well.
Here’s what the lane looks like in the moment before a swift backdoor:
Defenders hugged Middleton and Mirotic in the corners while Willie Cauley-Stein teetered dangerously far away from Lopez. Bledsoe’s man picked him up on the three-point line and ditto for Connaughton’s. All of this tight man defense establishes a wide open painted area. Although Budenholzer prefers his ball-handlers to be the ones that penetrate, cutters can do the same.
As soon as Bledsoe brought the ball up the court, Connaughton hesitated for just a moment acting as if he’ll catch the swing pass the Bucks so often execute. Instead, he zoomed toward the rim. Cauley-Stein, who would typically be in help position to deter the layup, took a step toward the perimeter in anticipation of Lopez catching the swing pass. The empty lane allowed Bledsoe to snap a slick one-handed bounce pass right into Connaughton’s hands for the hoppy layup.
Even though Budenholzer’s system creates plenty of potential for cuts, the players have to be careful they don’t overdue. it. The primary purpose of the spread offense is for the ball-handler to take initial advantage of the empty lane. If there are constantly players flying through the paint it diminishes the driver’s ability to get to the hoop without running into the help defense.
This opportunistic cutting is what Connaughton is best at. Even though he averages fewer than one per game, he makes the most out of his decision to go. He shoots 75.5 percent on these cuts and averages 1.47 points per possession which ranks in the 87th percentile in the NBA.
Of course, slashing to the hoop is a lot easier when the defense is hyper-sensitive to everything Antetokoumpo does. Regardless of if he has the ball, the Greek Freak often draws two or even three defenders when he’s in the paint. This creates chances for his teammates to inflict damage and take advantage of the lack of attention.
The Brooklyn Nets are playing zone here, but the concept is the same as any man defense. As D.J. Wilson and Frazier are playing hot potato at the top of the key, Antetokounmpo is positioning himself at the weak side elbow. As soon as Frazier catches the pass, he attacks to the strong elbow and the defense converges on both him and Antetokounmpo. That’s when Connaughton strikes.
Instead of lurking in the corner where he’s only connected on 32 percent of his three-point attempts this season (19th percentile for wings according to Cleaning the Glass), he bolts toward the baseline. If you scroll back up to the video, you’ll see how he widens his spacing instead of going straight to the hoop; this creates more room and allows Frazier a cleaner passing lane. Connaughton finishes the play with some very nice touch on the reverse layup in front of Jarrett Allen’s face.
An extremely underrated aspect of the game is players reading defenses and processing multiple complexities at once. Even though he may be overeager every now and then, Connaughton does a great job of going to the hoop at opportune times.
It takes a certain fearlessness to want to take your chances at the rim among the trees. However, he’s shown a type of bravado rarely seen in smaller wings. Of course, his 44-inch vertical helps as well. Connaughton may not always cut to the basket, but when he does he prefers to do so effectively.