Dancing With Noah

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Category Archives: illinois

Masterpiece Theater feat. Andre Curbelo

Andre Curbelo is 6-foot-1, 175 pounds of point guarding mastery from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, a municipality on the northern coast of the island. He arrived in the US at age-13, in Long Island to be specific, to play basketball to be more specific and to carry on some kind of basketball-playing legacy that began with his father, Joel, also a 6-1 point guard who played professionally for 18 years and was a reserve guard on the Puerto Rican Olympic team in 1996.

While Curbelo arrived in the states in 2014, I first saw him when he was 17, in April of 2019 playing with the world team at the Nike Hoop Summit where he was the second-youngest player in the game. His stats in a limited 16 minutes were pedestrian and don’t bare repeating, but he popped in a way that caught attention with an easy-to-remember and recognize name. So often teenagers imprint basketball games with athleticism that overwhelms or size and skill combinations that exceed their peers. For Curbelo, it was heady basketball and feel: a timely recognition on a give-and-go, drive-and-kicks to the corners, effective screening, textbook fast breaks, and occasional touch.

As I’ve seen and learned more about Curbelo, the 16 minutes at Hoop Summit foreshadowed an impressive development that bloomed throughout his senior season at Long Island Lutheran (LuHi) and flourished into something like a low key cult among some weirdo high school hoops followers on Twitter – a group I possibly belong to.

Here, look:

That play was from July of 2019 when Curbelo was, in my eyes, still going through growing pains which, as a just-turned 19-year-old, there are plenty more growing pains to come, but the leaps he made from July to February of 2020 when I last saw him, were significant.

There is an innateness to Curbelo’s game that is dazzlingly magnetic. His combination of anticipation and awareness make him a highly effective highlight reel despite lacking the requisite size and vertical athleticism so popularly associated with basketball highlights. As I stacked up his game tapes, and saw him repeatedly puncture defenses and beat them with wrong-footed layups, drive-and-kicks, and drive-and-dish, my brain, in its bad habited manner, defaulted to a Steve Nash comparison which is not the same as me suggesting Curbelo will become a two-time MVP who evolves into the engine of a prolific NBA offense. It’s merely a recognition that aspects of Curbelo’s game resemble the great Nash’s and when I think about how a teenage basketball player develops a low-calorie cult following, it’s because there are more than just dashes of greatness in his game.

Of course, where I thought I was semi-original with my Nash comparison was quickly smote as the announcer of his New Year’s Eve day game against St Francis and Dwon Odom said, “I compared him to Steve Nash with how he plays … his game’s a lot like Nash’s.”

If you don’t trust my highly-amateur assessment or that of an announcer from the Beach Ball Classic, perhaps Illinois’ coach Brad Underwood’s comments will come with more credence, “He is an elite passer. I compare him, and it’s unfair because he’s a high school kid, to Steve Nash in terms of his ability in ball screens to make his teammates better.”

High school seniors just weren’t seeing or imagining this pass when I played 20 years ago:

That type of pass is much more a product of a game with an open, spread floor, but to even execute from that angle takes exceptional strength, balance, and awareness. This is normal from Curbelo. In the same piece I linked above, Underwood also said, “I think he is, without question, the best passing guard in the country.”

I’ve seen most every guard in the RSCI top-100 and think the only one who can compare with Curbelo in terms of passing is top-ranked Cade Cunningham who may have an edge that’s based mostly on his height although at six inches shorter, Curbelo is able to sneak and slither into spaces the 6-7 Cunningham can’t. The innateness I referenced above in no way diminishes the work Curbelo’s put into becoming one of the top passers in his age group on the entire planet, but speaks to something flowing through his basketball brain and its articulation through playing the game: this shit is natural for him.

People who are great at their chosen endeavors tend to talk about their talents in matter of fact terms which makes complete sense because it’s their normal, their routine. Curbelo’s discovery, his ability to adapt his game to a successful output and receive praise and attention, his incentive so to speak, gives me Good Will Hunting vibes. When the young prodigy and Southie tough, Will Hunting is sitting with the esteemed Professor Lambeau in the middle of a particularly intense exchange, he shouts at Lambeau, Lambeau the genius, the MIT professor, the Field’s Medal winner, “You know how fuckin easy this is to me? This is a joke!”

In a paraphrase that makes me feel like the scarf-wearing professor: discarded, incapable, unable to see the full chessboard of the basketball court with the same clarity and ease of a young man not even half my age, Curbelo described arriving in the US and realizing the power of his pass:

I knew I was able to pass. Then when I got here, I kind of didn’t know I had that on my game. When I realized I was like, ‘Damn, this is working. I’m getting scholarships and everything. I’m going to keep playing the way I am because the coaches like it, college coaches like it, I like it. I feel great.’ I’m telling you, every time I get an assist, I feel better and happier than when I score myself.”

“Damn, this is working.”

It works for Curbelo because of an interconnectedness of skill, anticipation, and physical ability. His passing happens to be the most obvious output of a hyper awareness that fuels his other strengths: off-the-ball defense, off-the-dribble attacking, and rebounding.

OFFENSE

Curbelo is at his best on the offensive side of the court with the ball in his hands. For a player whose jump shot is still in the work-in-progress stages, he’s remarkably able to marshal that entire side of the floor with the aforementioned interconnectedness. The reason he can beat defenses is his wild array of avenues for attack.

In the half court, he made a habit of exploiting the hell out of klutz-like defensive coverages in pick-and-roll, most frequently with Ohio State commit, Zed Key. Pick-and-roll coverages, even when drilled effectively, create decision points for defenders that involve the whole five-man unit and Curbelo, at 17 and 18-years-old, made it a point of manipulating, reading, and reacting to these coverages and the gaps they created.

It’s not just that he makes the right pass out of the P&R, but his ability to process when to make the pass versus attack the rim versus just pause and make the defense make a damn decision. The first clip here is my favorite of his P&Rs because he’s simultaneously improvising and dictating. As he comes around the screen, he intentionally gets his man stuck on his hip, the two help defenders pause when he pauses and uncertainty descends as the roll man keeps moving and his defender is compelled to drop with him (never mind the baseline defender is at least aware of his help role). In dropping, the help man fails to recognize Curbelo’s man is still in jail on his hip. But Curbelo reads the opening and drops in a floater. I’m not sure I agree, but speaking about that floater, one announcer said, “He may be as good as any point guard in the country at the floater, that’s his go-to shot.”

If the P&R is a scripted run-pass-option of sorts, Curbelo is equally adept attacking on the fly in the half court where he uses a blend of head and eye fakes, quick burst attacks, and change of direction to get into the teeth of defenses. It’s these unscripted scenarios where highlights emerge and cult fandoms are created.

Against Compton Magic in July of 2019, he effectively sold a fake dribble handoff no less than three times – two of them resulted in layups while the third, the clip below, was most impressive because the head/eye fake he put on the sell (I recognize this is an open court move, but it doesn’t diminish the effectiveness):

In this second version, the exaggerated head turn is all he needs to freeze the defender. Once the defender lets up for the slightest moment, Curbelo hits turbo, gets low and turns the corner. In July of 2019 at least, him finishing at the rim over a contest was the exception and not the rule.

And while adding a third variation of the fake DHO is probably overkill, the best he had (and he had a lot in the 10 or so games I watched) was against Walker Kessler’s Game Elite squad where the sell is so exaggerated that he runs the defenders right into each other while taking an easy stroll to the rim:

Alas, we’re talking about a maestro and focusing on just a portion of his oeuvre – the half court and just P&R and fake DHOs so far. These are bread and butter plays/moves that help to lay a pragmatic foundation on which Curbelo’s handle, passing, and processing can excel. As fun as they are, and seeing defenders bite his head fakes is pure entertainment, his improvisational game has touches of flair and proficiency that potentially open NBA avenues.

The sense of audacity and willingness to push passes through tight windows is part of the fun and his effectiveness. But for Curbelo, that audacity extends beyond the pass and into some wild, and occasionally suspect, realms of imagination. Here he is with the baby T-Mac off the glass:

It’s fun to ooh and ahh at these plays and while I have my doubts that he’ll try or be able to execute a pass to himself off the backboard in the Big10, the bulk of his highlights are functional plays executed with panache.

In the sample size that makes up this writing, Curbelo had an expectedly high usage rate and played primarily on-ball. In off-ball scenarios, he was quick to use the set of skills he uses to set up a dribble drive to set up backdoor cuts. Despite being a non-shooter, defenders across multiple leagues deny him the pass or overplay and Curbelo is adept at setting up defenders with hard moves towards the ball before a quick plant-and-burst for the backdoor. As much as the primary action, be it backdoor cut, fake DHO or crossover, takes center stage, Curbelo excels as the setup and the sell.

If we stick in the half court, but shift focus to his shot and finishing, the otherwise radiant aura of his game loses some of the sparkle.

Maybe I made a mistake in looking backwards with Curbelo, but in my tape review, I went from his 2020 high school season where he was, far and away his best, to his 2019 Adidas league and then FIBA games. This does bode well in the sense that he showed significant improvement from summer 2019 through winter 2020. What stood out in the summer of 2019 that was, to memory and notes, was a real and genuine struggle to finish against size and length. This challenge happened most frequently in Adidas and I attributed it to a few key weaknesses:

  • Lack of hangtime – Curbelo is average as a vertical athlete with his leaping most effective rebounding the ball. He has (had?) a tendency to leave his feet around the rim, run out of airspace and outlets and be forced to fling up a shot that would miss wildly or get blocked.
  • Rare use of jump stops – getting downhill, Curbelo’s instinct is to attack off of one foot and leave the ground. While finding effectiveness with this approach, he was frequently off-balance or, as mentioned above, ran out of air.
  • Judgment – I put judgment last, because as he progressed into the high school season, his judgment was much more reliable and consistent. Against Wasatch Academy in December, he struggled against their size and was somewhat in a funk, but it’s the only high school game I saw where I felt like he wasn’t himself.

Curbelo’s shot demands our attention as well and this attention, for me, boils down to a few sources: FIBA and Adidas stats, my own completely unofficial and occasional tracking, my notes, and conversations with other people who may have a better developed eye for this sort of thing.

Within these sources, there are three additional components I want partition: Touch, mechanics, jump shot.

In 60 games worth of stats I have on Curbelo across FIBA (22 games) and Adidas (38 games), Curbelo shot as follows:

It’s not exactly inspiring any Mark Price comparisons and it’s why you can say he reminds you of Steve Nash, but caveat the hell out of it.

The above generally lines up with what I’ve seen from Curbelo which included an unofficial 1-8 or 1-9 on jumpers against Compton where the only make was a head-on unintentional banker from just beyond the free throw line. And while I don’t go too deep tracking pull-ups versus catch-and-shoots, the bulk of Curbelo’s jumpers are pull-ups. The form and release are consistent: he plants hard with his left foot and the bulk of his elevation comes from that foot/leg while the right kicks out and he drifts (typically from left to right) with an ever-present slight recline so his shoulders are always behind his hips. If he’s dribbling forward and stepping into the shot, think pull-up-three-in-transition, the drift is reduced. The release, from my view, is consistent and serviceable. And yet, his jumper is nowhere near reliable through February of 2020. In the clip below, he’s totally in-rhythm, and while the characteristic movement (kicking out right foot, drifting, leaning back) is all there, the mechanics aren’t faulty. (Also, please note how he sets up the crossover with his head/eyes – sheesh):

I’m not sure I believe there’s a disconnect between Curbelo’s mechanics and his shooting percentages, but as friend-of-the-blog, Ross Homan discussed with me, given the non-dumpster-fire state of his mechanics, combined with his free-throw percentages (consistently high-70s to low-80s with volume), relatively low-volume threes attempted, and, finally, his touch, the shooting should be expected to come around. The touch is the key and particularly on the floaters. The floater, combined with touch off the glass, has been a consistent staple of his scoring attack across competitions and acts as an alternative to (currently) less-efficient attempts at the rim.

DEFENSE

This portion will be much, much shorter than the previous section. All the smarts and processing power Curbelo applies to the offensive side of the floor exist on defense as well. He’s a cheater, an opportunist, a sneaker who’s better defending off-the-ball than on it. Through some likely combination of preparation and pattern recognition, Curbelo drifts and rotates to general areas one or two passes away. By positioning himself towards the potential pass and interception, his closeout time is reduced and by anticipating where the pass will go, he’s often more ready for the ball than the opponent for whom it’s intended. And while not being a quick twitch athlete, he’s remarkably quick in his reactions and closing on passing lanes.

The same stalking mentality applies to dig downs on opposition bigs. He uses the element of surprise to feint-feint-dig-strip from angles that the big can’t see a la MJ’s immortal strip of the Mailman from the blindside in 1998.

Depending how you feel about lumping in rebounding as a defensive skill, I’m somewhat indifferent to. For his size and stature, Curbelo is a plus-rebounder. His hyper-awareness and focus allows him to have a nose for the ball and he’s fearless in its pursuit, never shying away from contact and showing strong hands on 50/50 contested boards. Despite not presenting as a leaper in rim attacks, off two feet for rebounds, he shows more functional lift.

IN CLOSING

A couple years ago when I started writing about high school players, one of the first I wrote about was an incoming freshman named Andrew Nembhard who I referred to as a “savant,” which is the same term I’ve applied to Curbelo which makes me think that it’s time to invest in new ideas and a new vocabulary. Self-critiques aside, Nembhard and Curbelo are dissimilar as players, but I’m drawn to them for the same reasons: beyond-their-years feel for the game of basketball expressed through the pass – basketball’s single greatest action. And I don’t denote it as such because there’s some relationship to selflessness and the Judeo-Christian tradition in the western world, but because the best passes, through slivers of space and mazes of giant limbs, are fucking dope and poetic like Walt Whitman’s best poetry and not his shitty racist ideas. Conveniently, both players are also possessed of inconsistent jumpers which lumps them into an odd family of non-shooting floor generals that includes Avery Johnson, Jason Kidd, Rajon Rondo, and my favorite, Omar Cook, among countless others. At similar stages, based on my unreliable recall, Curbelo’s form is the best of this collection of point guards.

About Nembhard, I wrote, “I don’t know if he can think his way into the league, but he can damn sure pass his way into it.” And in hindsight, I think I had that backwards: He can pass his way into it, we know that, but through his beautiful basketball mind, can he think and process ways into the league?

The same questions come to the surface for Curbelo even if, in this moment of appreciation for the pure craft, imagining a singular destination (the NBA) in such absolute terms seems simple in the extreme, the question, in its simplicity, remains: Can Curbelo reach (and survive) the NBA? I know he can pass his way in, but can the same brain/mind/body being that titillates with eyebrow-raising passes and okie-doke fake DHOs affirmatively answer the looming question of his shot and solve the riddle of giant athletes who only go under screens and don’t bite on the fake DHOs because it was clearly called out in the scouting report? In time, it will all be revealed but the answer really doesn’t matter. Curbelo is and will remain a master of his craft, be it in the NBA, the G-League, Spain, Croatia, Crete, Germany, or Puerto Rico.

***

Addendum of sorts:

The University of Illinois presumably is set in its starting back court with senior Trent Frazier (started 76 of 95 games at Illinois) and pre-season All-American Ayo Dosunmu although Curbelo fits the traditional “point guard” job description better than the upperclassman, Frazier.

Dosunmu will spend extended time on-ball and initially projected as a point guard. Thinking and looking long-term, Dosunmu, who dipped his toe in the NBA draft this past extended off-season, can likely develop more playing off of Curbelo, but it remains to be seen if that’s in the best interest of team-success in this basketball year of 2020-21.

Illinois ranks 8th in the AP poll as of this pre-season writing. Covid disruptions not accounted for, they will play Duke and Baylor before the Big10 season.

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