How Dwight Howard can learn from Gustavo Ayon

If you’re a true NBA junky, you should get to know Gustavo Ayon. ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh profiled Ayon’s underrated productivity while explaining why the Mexican big man will be a surprisingly effective replacement for the departed Dwight Howard in Orlando.

But Ayon’s play is worth noting even if you care not what he does on a bad Orlando team. The techniques he uses to find open spaces playing off the ball in pick-and-rolls will be instructive for the Magic player he’s replacing, Dwight Howard, when Howard takes the court with L.A.

Last year’s Hornets used a set that perfectly suited Ayon’s instincts, and could prove wildly effective for the Lakers. It’s a departure from the traditional Princeton, the offense L.A. claims it will pursue, but I’m willing to bet such departures will be a regular occurrence. What’s more,
this is one of the few offensive schemes or sets that can accentuate all the Lakers’ skills at once.

Here’s how it worked in New Orleans: During a middle pick-and-roll, Ayon would stay low on the baseline, ‘circle under’ the backboard (opposite the rolling screener) to put maximum pressure on occupied help defenders and get buckets near the rim.

It’s a simple motion, but with proper spacing and timing, it puts the defense in a serious bind.

Perhaps the best example of the pressure this movement puts on the defense is illustrated by the latter of the two clips against the Clippers. As Jarrett Jack comes off the screen, the hedging defender (DeAndre Jordan) looks to string him out toward the sideline.This makes Blake Griffin responsible for Landry’s half-roll to the middle of the free throw line (a.k.a the nail). Randy Foye, guarding Lance Thomas on the weakside of the play, is now faced with a very difficult decision.

If he stays with Ayon moving under the basket, Thomas will be left about as alone as someone can get in the halfcourt. Fearing that threat, Foye recovers early to Thomas, who lifts behind the screen, leaving Ayon with a layup and his teammate, Griffin, bewildered. Despite Thomas being far from an established NBA scorer, Foye – along with every other defender Ayon put in this predicament – was put in a no-win situation.

Now imagine swapping Thomas and Ayon in that situation with Bryant and Howard. A tough defensive assignment now becomes virtually impossible to defend. A team’s choices are either Bryant roaming totally unchecked on the perimeter or Howard alone with the ball less than five feet from the basket. And even if teams choose to let Bryant free on the outside, there’s no guarantee his defender will do anything to slow or stop Howard from converting a paint catch into a dunk.

Howard and Bryant wouldn’t be the only two Lakers to see good results from this play. In fact, the most likely beneficiary of this set would be the uber-skilled Pau Gasol. He fits perfectly into the role as the screener making that half-roll to the nail.

Gasol can make the 15-footer with regularity and can be trusted to make the smart pass from the middle of the court. In the picture below, you can see how Kaman’s roll forces Ayon’s defender to step up, leaving the circle-under cut available.

In the full clip, you’ll see how this strains the defense. Here, Kenneth Faried commits to Kaman’s catch and leaves open a lane for a nifty interior pass, which Ayon converts into a dunk.

Now if Kaman at that spot on the floor is a headache against a scrambling defense, then Gasol would be a raging migraine. Landry and Kaman both possess accurate jumpers, but neither can match the Spaniard’s effectiveness as a passer. And to top it off, if a lane is available, Gasol can also drive to a rim finish (with either hand!), an additional threat no Hornet could provide.

It’s never easy for a team lacking a true ‘stretch’ big to exert such strain on opposing defenses these days. Thanks to Monty Williams’ understanding of the subtle skills of Gustavo Ayon, the Hornets did just that. Now we’ll see if the Lakers can do the same.

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