When the Oklahoma City Thunder signed restricted free agent Enes Kanter to a four-year, $70 million contract at the start of this summer, analysts almost unanimously balked at the size of the deal. As talented as Kanter is as a post scorer, his infamous lack of presence on the defensive end makes him an incomplete player, and now with a contract that’s hard to swallow.
Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey saw that gigantic contract coming, and he stayed a step ahead of the curve — as is his usual mode of operation — by dealing Kanter to the Thunder at last winter’s trade deadline. Although the usual headline for the trade is the (protected) first-round pick that the Jazz will receive from Oklahoma City in 2017 or later, stashed draft pick Tibor Pleiss (selected #31 overall in 2010) could also prove to be a significant component of the trade.
This month’s FIBA EuroBasket likely marks the first time that Jazz fans have attentively watched Pleiss. After Pleiss spent five years being abroad, Utah signed him to an NBA contract only five months after acquiring his rights. Seeing as the Jazz will pay Pleiss, the presumed backup center, more in his first two NBA years ($6M) than Rudy Gobert will earn in his first four NBA years ($5.5M), Utah fans suddenly had a rooting interest in the German national team, who went into the tournament with Pleiss as their starting center.
As one of the tournament’s host countries, the German squad was no doubt disappointed that they were eliminated from the tournament after group play with an underwhelming 1-4 record. Still, the German team played much better than their record would suggest: the team had a cumulative plus/minus of -9, losing two of their games by a single possession and sending a third into overtime. (That was a better plus/minus than what Turkey managed: the Turkish team went -30, but advanced to the knockout round by somehow compiling a 3-2 record.)
Jazz fans also had to be impressed by the performance of their new rookie. Pleiss has limitations that certainly make him a role player and not a star, but it was easy to see why the Jazz pursued Pleiss on the trade market, and how he could become an efficient every-night player. Although Pleiss finished third on the German team in scoring average, behind legend Dirk Nowitzki and the thrilling team leader Dennis Schröder, Pleiss often looked like the team’s second-best player, as Nowitzki uncharacteristically struggled to a 36.4 field goal percentage. I’ll go over Pleiss’s limitations in a future post, but here’s a look at the strong points I saw in his game.
Outstanding Individual and Help Defense
Much like his new teammate Gobert, Pleiss thrives on the defensive end, working through every possession with attentiveness and a high motor. Pleiss is quick to provide timely help defense, but he especially shined when defending individually in the post. Opposing centers with NBA experience like Miroslav Raduljica (Serbia), Semih Erden (Turkey) and Pau Gasol (Spain) all had possessions when they were shut down attempting to score on Pleiss one-on-one.
Pleiss’s rebounding numbers were solid but not spectacular, as he averaged 6.2 a game in 20 minutes per contest. But Pleiss is extremely diligent in boxing out opponents whenever a shot goes up. With his man taken care of, Pleiss’s teammates were free to gather tons of rebounds that wouldn’t be available to them otherwise. In the example below, Pleiss bodied up on his man (Turkey’s Ersan Ilyasova, #8 in red), allowing Schröder to collect an uncontested board on the other side of the basket:
Free Throw Percentage
This is a small part of the game that can translate into huge dividends. As we’ve seen with stars like Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard, poor free throw shooting can force a team to take its best players off the floor in the crucial moments of the fourth quarter. Pleiss shot 92.3 percent from the charity stripe in this month’s tournament and 85.9 percent last season in the Spanish ACB. Seeing as Gobert has shot 59.8 percent in his young NBA career, Pleiss’s excellent shooting could be his route to playing in Utah’s closing unit.
Off-Ball Movement and Vision
Although Pleiss converted a few post-ups in this tournament, the vast majority of his points come from tip-ins or from beautiful finishing moves like this:
The rim-rattling slam aside, this play showed great mobility and vision from Pleiss, as he moved from the top of the arc to the rim with fluidity while the Spanish defenders appeared to be stuck in mud.