This article is a facsimile of an earlier version published on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Folks, please don’t tell my girlfriend, but I’ve fallen in love. It’s that unabashed, head-over-heels kind of love, that once-in-a-lifetime kind of love.
I’m in love with the game of Arizona Wildcats freshman point guard Nico Mannion.
The Wildcats have a top-15 offense, according to KenPom. Synergy’s metrics rank them higher, at sixth overall. Their ascendancy is due not just to shot-making ability but how Mannion runs the show and orchestrates the attack. It’s striking how a non-elite athlete is controlling the offense in literally every facet, especially in today’s game.
He’s got a mastery of little tricks that allow him to mask that mundane athleticism and become an elite point guard. Such a skill is one that I haven’t seen since Steve Nash. While I’m not one to frequently throw around lofty player comparisons for draft prospects and create a narrative that raises their expectations, Mannion’s physical traits and penchant for running a team while only taking a limited number of shots at the rim is eerily reminiscent of Nash’s calling card.
Perhaps I should temper expectations, but I’d rather share these similarities with you. What can I say? I’m in love.
Everything starts with Nico’s ability to pass his teammates open. His similarities to Nash are fueled by his feel for the game and pinpoint accuracy on when to share the rock. He feels the pick-and-roll windows incredibly well, manipulating defenders with his eyes before delivering a dime. He’s a pretty complete passer despite only playing ten collegiate games so far.
Much like Nash, Mannion also plays at his own pace, even though it isn’t predicated on an elite top speed.
Mannion is the basketball equivalent to Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine. A 10-time All-Star with the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, Glavine won over 300 career games and pitched 56 complete games. He maintained a long, healthy career by decreasing his fastball velocity and relying on a great difference between his fastball and change, as well as elite accuracy. What made Glavine effective wasn’t the top speed of his pitch, but how he could vary between velocities to keep hitters guessing.
Mannion has the same skill. His top speed isn’t effective on its own, but he can control the ball while varying it up in great contrast. His hesitation dribble freezes opposing bigs, so his explosion is enough to throw the opponent off-balance:
We’ll revisit that hesitation dribble again later, so don’t forget about it.
While toying with a defender, Mannion has his eyes up and scanning for the right find. He almost never makes the wrong read or decision, which is so incredibly rare for a player of his age. Often, guys try to force off the first or second action, particularly as freshmen. Those players have relied on their athleticism for so long that they expect to be able to bully through people or muscle their way to their spot the first try.
Many of them can’t by the time they’re onto elite college competition, and only the rarest can translate that over to the NBA with any success. Even those guys “reach the next level” of their game when they learn nuance, counters, control and misdirection.
Patience was Nash’s top strength as a ball screen facilitator, particularly with the Suns. Nothing he did was with a great velocity towards the rim, but everything was with pinpoint control. The passes he made to the rollers and around the screen were fabulously timed. There are hours of footage on YouTube, all of which document his genius for “right place, right time” stuff:
Mannion’s lack of sheer speed and vertical burst has helped him develop a feel for the game that others his age do not have, so he rarely is seen trying to jam in plays he shouldn’t be making.
Many of his assists come from circling back around a ball screen for a second time, remaining patient while working to re-screen his defender and create the opening he needs:
Once a ground-bound player like Mannion gets into the lane, the margin for error shrinks. He has to make the right play against the second level of a defense that rotates towards his penetration. He’s absolutely elite at finding the roll man or an open big in the “dunk box”: the area just outside the block on the baseline.
Rollers or dunk box residents are catch-and-finish guys, who always have to be alert for Nico zipping a pass to them through traffic.
He’s mastered the pocket pass, the over-the-top hit to the roller, and some perfectly timed crisp darts through the lane that seem to almost surprise his teammates. Keep your eyes on those hesitations and changes of speed again:
His vision and timing are tremendous. Guys around Nico will love to screen and play through the pick-and-roll when they know he’ll reward them if they get open.
He doesn’t need a great screen, either. His shiftiness allows those lanes to open regardless of bulldozer screens. Mannion should thrive in an NBA where touch-and-go screens are becoming more popular and very little upper body contact is made by screeners.
By playing the roll and keeping his focus on scoring at the rim, Mannion forces help defenders to collapse. Their primary concern, despite his lack of explosion to finish, is taking away layups when he’s weaving through traffic and off-ball screens. As those help defenders collapse, Mannion must play his shooters and the guys on the perimeter around him.
NBA defenses help off the corners, so when Mannion reads the pick-and-roll, he essentially must read the weak-side corner and make a decision based on their positioning. If that defender is late to help, the roller is open. If that defender is early or committing enough to take away the roll, he’ll zip it to the corner defender’s man.
Here’s an example of how quickly Mannion makes his reads and can subtly pick up on tiny movements or commitments from those corner defenders. He threaded the needle late in a tie game against Pepperdine to help orchestrate an uncontested dunk for his teammate:
The assist doesn’t go to Mannion here, but he read the play perfectly.
The small step from the corner defender was all he needed to know not to force a direct pass to the roller. The angle wasn’t ideal for him, but the result of the play was still in the Wildcats’ favor.
Head coach Sean Miller has run a lot of spread pick-and-roll around Mannion to best use his skillset. It’s what Mike D’Antoni did with Nash in Phoenix and would be a realistic scheme for Nico to be leveraged in at the next level.
During spread pick-and-rolls, those corner defenders are concerned with the corner 3 and have larger closeouts, not necessarily guarding a man hovering around the block. The extra space makes cross-court passes more important, as well as simple reversals to the open man when defenses shrink.
As far as the fundamentals go, Mannion is making throwback passes towards that backside off of two feet, snapping overhead with his wrists. He is never out of control, and by playing off two feet, he minimizes the risk for turnovers or having a defender anticipate his kick-out. Think of guys like Jalen Brunson with the Dallas Mavericks or Fred VanVleet with the Toronto Raptors: They frequently pass off two feet and can do so despite being a tad undersized or slower than most point guards.
It’s no different for Mannion, who slices up teams that hard hedge and aggressively play him by throwing it back to the open guy on the backside:
Every single one of these passes is off two feet and balance. Mastering the fundamentals allows players to avoid being drowned by athleticism or length. His pace is his own, on every play.
So we get the deal, there are countless great passers who have sputtered out due to lack of jump shot, so they become easy to guard. They aren’t threats to score in the lane, so defenses refuse to collapse. They don’t have a mid-range game, so teams will chase them over the top of a screen, drop a big to protect the rim and play two-on-two in the middle to force a ten-footer.
None of those scenarios will thwart Mannion.
He’s an excellent shooter. Through his first ten games, Nico is 9-18 (50 percent) on catch-and-shoot attempts. He’s shooting 41.9 percent from 3-point range overall and features an incredibly compact stroke. He’s balanced off two, has a quick release and deep range to boot:
Mannion is simply too good to have defenders go underneath screens and dare him to shoot. Whether it’s the pick-and-roll or a dribble handoff, he is great at recognizing when he’s open and pulling the shot. That rules out containing him and keeping him out of the lane. While elite passers like Ricky Rubio or Rajon Rondo have seen their dynamic nature wane thanks to their lack of elite shooting, Mannion will not suffer from the same plague. He’ll have the lane to work with as a result.He’s not just a three-point threat, however. Nico has an awesome pull-up jumper, particularly when going to his left.
Like Nash was, Mannion’s simply an offense creator. Like any elite guard that a championship-caliber offense would run through, Mannion has the ability to get his own shot late in the clock or late in games. (Because what’s the point of running an entire offensive scheme around a guy that cannot bail you out late in possessions or make the big play?)
Players must justify an expansion of their role and prove they deserve being the focal point. The game is simple at the end of the day: convert on offense more than your opponent. Mannion isn’t an elite defender by any means, so he needs to more than make up for it on offense. That’s where his late-game scoring comes into effect.
Though it’s only been ten games, Nico is the guy the Wildcats default to late in the clock. He gets to his step-back jumper whenever he wants and converts:
There’s been a lot of talk about how Mannion doesn’t finish at the rim in the half-court. Only three of his first 77 attempts came around the basket, an admittedly low mark.
But while three-quarters of his attempts are from jumpers, he’s not that dissimilar to Nash, who took 18.3 percent of his career attempts with the Phoenix Suns at the hoop. Some years—like 2008-09 while playing with an anchored post instead of a spread-and-space 5-out scheme—Nash saw 79 percent of his attempts come from jump shots. If Mannion is still effective, we may be overreacting to a number instead of seeing how it could improve if given different spacing.
Mannion also has developed the perfect counter to avoid drowning himself in the Wingspan Sea via over-penetrating. His unorthodox game fits perfectly with a high-arching teardrop floater that can sometimes be launched from beyond the free-throw line. It’s such a tough shot because of how Nico gets to it with his right hand even while driving left.
Mannion uses his defender’s momentum against them, knowing they’ll try to cut off his angle on the drive. So he almost always has enough room to cross his body and loft up a floater:
Mannion is especially reminiscent of Nash with these extended touch finishes.
While Nash was a crafty finisher one-on-one against contact (with over-the-head flips and acrobatic maneuvers), he was also smart enough to know that he needed an extended layup game in order to preserve his body and keep his percentages high. Mannion’s floaters and teardrops come at a faster pace than Nash, who was a champion of the one-legged pull-up floater.
Their effect is the same, especially when going left:
Now let’s revisit those change-of-speed plays that turn Mannion from a slow guard into a deceptively quick one. He has one of the best crossover bursts I’ve seen, where he can go from left-to-right or right-to-left by exploding through his move. He pushes the ball out far, controls his footwork and uses that burst in a controlled manner to get to his finishes:
Other intangibles point to a successful career ahead. Mannion’s cool as a cucumber under pressure, he isn’t a terrible defender (he’s at least always positionally sound off-ball) and he’s got a professional pedigree thanks to his parents’ professional sports backgrounds.
Mannion is on pace for per-40 minute totals of 20.5 points and 7.7 assists. The only other freshman to average over 20 points, 7.5 assists and shoot 40 percent from 3 in college? Markelle Fultz, a top overall draft choice.
What Mannion is doing to fuel this Arizona offense is nothing short of jaw-dropping, and it deserves some serious consideration when placing him in the draft discussion. He'll likely regress to the mean as a scorer, but his shooting and playmaking is truly special.
That same discussion shouldn’t sell him short due to his athleticism. He’s as crafty and multi-faceted as a former two-time MVP that overcame many of the same limitations during his Hall of Fame career.