Watch each of Jose Calderon’s 17 assists from last night’s win against the Detroit Pistons and a few things stand out:
- The scorekeepers in Toronto are awfully liberal with the definition of an assist. In the first play, not only does Jonas Valanciunas take a few dribbles against tight defense, he loses the ball and regains it before scoring. But hey, Calderon did have the ball in his possession only about seven seconds before Valanciunas finally scored.
- DeMar DeRozan looks great. Watch him knock down 3′s, hit midrange jumpers as he wheels around curls screens and slash through Detroits permissive defense with long, confident strides to the rim.
- There is almost nothing flashy about Calderon’s assists. No behind-the-back passes. There’s only a single one-handed pass. Most of the assists are just super accurate in their timing and placement.
- Calderon does a lot of gesturing and pointing as he initiates the offense. It’s not just because he’s a continental European, the way he manipulates the offense shows his comprehensive understanding of each play’s options.
It’s these last two points that deserve some attention. Watch the way he delivers a basic bounce pass to a curling teammate. The ball leaps up into Derozan’s hip pocket just as he becomes available, allowing him to keep his momentum and maintain his focus on charting a course to the rim. Calderon knows that his job is to put his teammates in positions to succeed. These are NBA players, not all assists need be wide-open 3′s or layups. Sometimes just getting the ball to a player at the exact moment he holds an advantage against his defender is all it takes.
- Assist 13 to Ed Davis: Calderon hits Davis so quickly as Davis pops to the foul line that the forward’s defender is way, way off him when he turns and faces the rim. Fearing that Davis will drive past him if he closes out further, the defender basically give Davis all the time in the world to square up and shoot the foul shot.
- Assist 14 to DeMar DeRozan: DeRozan curls off a double screen that appears well-defended. But Calderon doesn’t give up on the action and finds a way to slide a pass DeRozan between the hedging help defender and DeRozan’s own defender who is trailing on the play. Suddenly, the Pistons are out of position and it only takes a few strides for DeRozan to reach the rim.
- Assist 16 to DeMar DeRozan. The play is designed for Alan Anderson to come off a double screen on the left side. Calderon senses his defender over-playing that option and unexpectedly drives to the right, drawing the defender of DeRozan, who is stationed on the right wing. Calderon quickly flips to the ball to DeRozan, hitting him right in the chest thus allowing DeRozan to immediately attack the basket and exploit the brief window created by Calderon’s not-so-threatening drive.
That’s what Calderon does as well as anyone in the league, and something Steve Nash has always done well, too.
Of course Calderon is also known for his excellent pick-and-roll passing. Eight of his assists on Wednesday night came out of pick-and-rolls. Calderon’s feel on these plays is exceptional, as he immediately diagnoses the defense’s rotation and connects with his open teammates. The ball handler in a pick-and-roll has the complex task of both pressuring the defense to create opportunities while at the same time accepting the defense’s response and taking the open play.
He keeps his head up at all times, and keys in on the second help defender on the weakside. Whether that’s a big man or the defender checking the shooter in the opposite corner, how that player responds to the threat of the roll man determines Calderon’s decision. It sounds simple, but the trick is waiting long enough for the defense to declare it’s priorities without missing the best chance to find an open player.
Calderon isn’t the overwhelming creative force of some of his peers, but he has his own special way of maximizing the potential of his teammates. It’s a shame that he has for so long played with teammates that cannot exploit the cracks he sees. But even when he’s most successful, he doesn’t call attention to himself. His game makes everyone else look good, which is about the highest compliment anyone can pay a point guard.