Practice Report: Zaza Pachulia

Zaza Pachulia dishes on competing for the starting center position, his experience overseas during the summer, getting on the same page with his new teammates and more.

Ball movement has been at the heart of the Mavs offense under Rick Carlisle during the head coach’s entire tenure in Dallas. But never before has a center been involved in the passing game the way Zaza Pachulia could be this season.

The 6-foot-11 center has averaged just 1.2 assists per game throughout his 12-year, hardly impressive numbers for a big man renowned for his passing. Earlier in his career, though, Pachulia wasn’t asked to move the ball. It’s been during the past two seasons, with the Milwaukee Bucks, that his playmaking duties have been expanded. During that time, he’s averaged 5.3 assists per 100 possessions, third-highest among NBA centers.

Player AST/100 Poss. AST/gm
Joakim Noah 8.0 5.1
Marc Gasol 5.9 3.7
Zaza Pachulia 5.3 2.5
Al Horford 5.0 3.0
DeMarcus Cousins 4.9 3.2

Since the 2013-14 season

Pachulia’s passing talent is a skill most past Mavs centers have not possessed. Tyson Chandler, for example, averaged 1.1 assists per game last season, and current Maverick Sam Dalembert dished out one assist every other game for his club during the 2013-14 season. The last Mavericks center of consequence to average at least 3.0 assists per 100 possessions was Sean Rooks during the 1999-2000 season, Dirk Nowitzki’s second in the NBA.

What opportunities does this open up for the Dallas offense? First, it keeps the pass-happy unit gently humming along. If a player swings the ball to Pachulia, the play won’t break down. The Republic of Georgia native has the smarts to see plays develop and make the right decision on the fly, leading to opportunities like this one.

Whereas past centers would only hand the ball off to the guard — in this case John Jenkins — and set up a pick-and-roll, Pachulia has the ability to hit a cutter with a bounce pass leading to an easy basket. This requires the entire defense to commit to playing off-ball defense no matter who’s on the ball, and the threat of the pass alone is enough to create favorable situations for the Mavericks elsewhere.

It also leads to opportunities to take advantage of broken plays like the one below.

The Mavericks collected an offensive rebound and, with the entire Nuggets team out of position, Pachulia found a cutting Charlie Villanueva right at the rim with a bounce pass. While there is obvious value in a center being able to corral a rebound and give the ball to the point guard to get into an offensive set — something we saw Chandler do time and again last season — Pachulia has the ability to do the same thing but forego a new play all together and generate two easy points.

That leads to another positive element of the center’s floor game: He always makes teammate-friendly passes. Last season Bucks shot 50.1 percent on two-pointers and 37.1 percent on three-point shots following a Pachulia pass, according to NBA.com, good for a 51.3 effective field goal percentage. Shooting guard Khris Middleton in particular benefited greatly off Pachulia’s ball movement, shooting 50-of-104 after a dish from the center, including a stellar 41.4 percent mark on 29 three-point attempts.

Expect to see Pachulia at the elbow early and often while he’s on the floor this season. With Milwaukee last year, he averaged 8.6 elbow touches per game, fourth among all players. That’s where most of his playmaking comes from, as it did in both highlights above. And in a wide-open offense like the Mavs’ will be this season, there should be plenty of passing angles for Pachulia to take advantage of, which could lead to easy baskets for the Mavs’ best scorers.

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