Player Capsules 2012, #259-261: Zaza Pachulia, Jason Thompson, Nene

As our summer mainstay, Aaron was writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. As the summer dies down and the leaves turn, this quixotic quest of a series has happily reached the last third. But it's certainly not done yet! Today we continue with Zaza Pachulia, Jason Thompson, and Nene.

• • •

Follow Zaza Pachulia on Twitter at @zaza27.

Zaza Pachulia isn't a fantastic player, but he's patently decent -- a proportionally-sized center in a league bereft of them. Last season, due to injuries to seemingly every big man on the Atlanta roster, Pachulia was forced into double duty -- quite literally double, as he played roughly double the minutes per night as he played in 2010 and 2011 combined. Without Pachulia stepping up in increased minutes, the 2012 Hawks could've been a serious disappointment. But they weren't, and Pachulia's strong defensive contributions and ship-steadying efforts were absolutely essential to that team's success. On offense, he's hardly a low-post wizard -- Pachulia shot 55.8% at the rim, which may seem fine at a glance, but ranked well within the bottom 20% of all NBA centers. His 3-9 foot post-ups were even worse, relativistically, and he isn't generally a great midrange guy (although he posted VERY good numbers from midrange and the long two last year that were probably a bit fluky). Where Pachulia really helps a team is on defense, where he isn't afraid to get a bit dirty and muddy the game up. It's a useful change of pace on a team that generally was a bit soft, pre-Ivan Johnson, and by playing as much as he did last year Pachulia totally changed the defensive tenor of the Woodson-era Hawks to a new normal. Whether the Hawks resign him or not, he WILL make money next season as a good defensive scrapper with passable offense. And a nice dude.

Really. Off the court, Pachulia seems to be a genuinely nice guy. Most people know him for his patented combination of a dubious command of the English language with hilarious passion for the game, and honestly, that's a pretty decent summary of it. This all is best exemplified in one of the best postgame interviews in the history of the game, where Pachulia was interviewed after the Hawks pulled the surprising upset in Game 6 of the Hawks' 2008 first-round series against the Celtics. Pachulia had a great game that night, going almost 30 minutes (less than a minute shy of his season high) with fantastic defense and electric hustle to force the would-be champs to a winner-take-all final contest. So, for the first time in his career, Pachulia was interviewed. His response? Ignoring the interviewer's single question, instead taking the mic and screaming to the crowd in a stream of incoherent emotion and love. It was great. It is great. One of the best basketball interviews, for sure. And he seems to be a really nice guy outside of that one moment -- in 2011, there was a single game where Pachulia was given a totally mispelled "Pcahulia" jersey. An Atlanta Hawks blogger promised to give anybody his house if they sent him the mispelled jersey -- Zaza proceeded to send it himself. Pachulia noted that he actually read the blog (!!!), thought it would be a nice gesture to give him the jersey he loved so much, and didn't even want his house!

Modern day saint, I swear. God bless you, Zaza.

• • •

Follow Jason Thompson on Twitter at @jtthekid.

Jason Thompson is an extremely rarely-discussed player, although not without reason. He's started 204/300 career games, but few NBA fans would be able to pick him out of a crowd or say virtually anything about his game offhand. Partly this is a function of his playing style. He's not exactly the most flamboyant of players, and his general style is similar to that of virtually every other nameless bench big in the league. He's also had a relatively small role (despite all the starts) on a team that's been among the worst in the league over his entire career. A related, not-so-fun fact: Thompson has, in his career, been on the court for just 86 wins and 214 losses. Despite being in the league for 5 more seasons than Thompson, LeBron James has only been on the court for 249 regular season losses -- just 35 more than Thompson! That should adequately clue you in as to how Thompson is so unknown after 4 decently productive years. Didn't help that -- as Basketball Prospectus recently noted -- Thompson came from an incredibly small college program at Rider University. When you weren't well known in college and you only arrive to toil in obscurity on one of the NBA's worst teams... yes, you'll generally evade discussion.

His accomplishments last season were rooted in a discovery of distribution -- Thompson finally figured out that he needed to take the ball inside a bit more after years of decently effective long jumpers and one-move finishes, and it caused a lot of good things to happen. One thing that the folks at Cowbell Kingdom mentioned that the tape absolutely bears out is that Thompson finally figured out how to convert with either hand last season. That added skill left him with a significantly easier time getting an open shot at the rim, and forced teams to essentially rewrite the book on how to guard him. The old scouting reports were out of date, so to speak -- most teams either didn't catch on or didn't have a good answer last season, which left Thompson the opening to have his most personally efficient season ever. This spread to many other parts of his offensive game as well -- by taking fewer long range shots, he shot better on them. By actually showing a stronger threat at the rim, Thompson drew more defensive attention and had more opportunities to pass to open teammates, which led to his highest assist rate of his career. He stopped turning the ball over in the post quite as much as he used to, posting a career low in turnover rate.

Defensively, the picture's more negative. Thompson emphatically straddles between positions -- he can't really guard fours well, as he's not quick enough, but he's too lanky to provide a solid post-up defensive threat. He was defensively neutral last season on one of the worst defensive teams in the league, and had no clear position of defensive strength. His defensive footage didn't look awful to me, but it screamed average at best with a tendency towards physical mismatches. At the age of 25, it's tough to really see how he improves on this end -- it's common for big men to build former shaky strengths into better defensive assets as their careers age, but it's quite rare for a big man with no active defensive strengths to do so. Just not much to build on. For this reason, I'm pretty down on the 5-year $30 million dollar contract the Kings extended him during this offseason. It may not sound like that much ("$5 million a year? Not bad!"), but even if he remains at his offensive peak of last season for the duration of the contract, his lack of a place on defense will sabotage any dreams of a larger role. Also: it's early, but the offense itself might've been a bit fluky -- he's had trouble finishing to his left this year, in an extremely small sample. Fans would be best served paying attention to that going forward -- if that talent evades him, his contract has the potential to go from bad to worse extremely quickly.

• • •

Follow Nene by naming your first son Maybyner.

For the longest time, Nene was extremely underrated. The man was one of the best offensive big men in the game for quite some time, with relatively decent defense to boot. When healthy, Nene's got every component of a well-rounded offensive skillset you want a big guy to have -- passable midrange shot, decent longball, and an extremely effective at-rim game that a team can count on for 5-6 shots a night that puts opposing defenders in a blender. His defense has always been decent, if nothing phenomenal -- he's never led a particularly imposing defensive unit, but Nene-led defenses are rarely worst-in-the-league on that end and regularly overachieve. That's primarily due to his excellent habit of switching onto guards and causing havoc in their passing lanes, even if he's no great shakes at guarding strong post-up players that are significantly larger than he is (that is, most centers) or pick-and-pop based offenses. He's no great shakes at blocking shots or rebounding, either, which definitely detracts from his usefulness as a player -- without very strong rebounders around him, Nene's teams have a lot of trouble securing rebounds and generating extra possessions. Which is clearly not ideal. The biggest issue with Nene to me is one of position -- never in his career has he been a particularly effective "true" center, and he's far more of a burly large forward in his sort of game and orientation. In my view, Nene's height and size compared with most NBA centers could be the reason he's spent so much of his career injured.

He's simply very undersized compared to most centers, which led to Nene having to put on more burly muscle and leads to him overcompensating for his lack of size every dang night in the post. Eventually, this takes a toll on your body -- constantly overcompensating for his generally low vertical, his lower center of gravity, and carrying the extra weight to bang in the post has got to be stressful on the body at large. And make no mistake -- more than any other aspect of his game, Nene's injuries are the one that detracts by far the most on-court value. Nene's a good lock to miss 10-15 games a year with various minor bone bruises and nagging injuries he's never quite been able to fix, and that matters a lot for a contending team. Nene should be in or around his prime, but there's a legitimate question as to whether his injuries have artificially closed his window, per se. Will he still be in his prime when he finally plays an uninjured season? Nobody really knows, which is the main reason Denver chose to trade him for the peril and promise of Javale McGee. Which, by the way, I still think was a kind of silly trade even understanding their reasoning. They signed McGee for far too much money without any real knowledge as to what McGee would provide going forward, and if they really wanted to keep contending and knew they were willing to spend that much on McGee, they should've just rode out Nene's injury. He isn't making THAT much more, only a few million a year. Or at least tried to get something better than McGee for him, as they traded him at the absolute nadir of his value. Minor quibble, I suppose, but seriously -- I don't think I like that trade at all from Denver's side.

Most everyone is aware of it, but it's always worth repeating: it's pretty astonishing that Nene is still playing at all. In early 2008, Nene took a sudden and unexpected leave of absence from the Nuggets, with few having any idea why. Three days later, Nene had a tumor excised -- turns out, he'd developed testicular cancer. He came back a few months later, and most of us now look over that fact in passing as we're so vastly separated from his downtime. But it's still pretty amazing. We often forget that one of the bright spots of playing in the modern NBA (for the players, the fans, and society in general) is the constant and mandatory doctor checkups -- it makes it significantly more likely that a sports star's major illness will get caught, were they to develop one. Had Nene been anywhere but a well-funded major sport, it's no given that he would've been able to get treatment as quickly and effectively for the cancer. Sports is an ephemeral, meaningless pastime to many people. And that's fine. But it's worth recognizing that the increased medical attention and focus on health can -- and does -- save lives. It's what kept Jeff Green from playing on an arrhythmic heart, what found Tyson Chandler's foot problem, and (of course) what found Nene's cancer and ensured the big-hearted Brazilian would remain on this Earth for a longer time. And in the big picture, more than any fleeting ring, the lives helped and enriched by Nene's saved one is where the virtues of sport take on the most clarity. At least to me.

Also, there's this...

• • •

At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments.

  • Player #262 has no conscience, and will take shots regardless of the in-game situation or his likelihood of making the shot. He's still extraordinarily effective at it, though, and will probably get a very nice contract next offseason after he playing a strong bench role on a very good team this year.
  • If you rewrote "La Cucaracha" around the name of Player #263, you wouldn't need to change much. Would still have a pretty decent rhythm! Great passing talent, too.
  • Player #264 is about as raw as raw gets. Personally, really hoping he sees more time this year -- his team sure isn't going anywhere.

My apologies if these start taking a turn into some sadness over the coming weeks. I'm really, REALLY trying not to do it... but it's becoming sort of difficult. Until tomorrow.

• • •

7 comments on “Player Capsules 2012, #259-261: Zaza Pachulia, Jason Thompson, Nene

  1. I'd like to change my first answer to Glen Robinson-or as I used to fondly call him during his celtic days, "Automatic Turnover."

    (As you can probably tell, I'm a Lakers Fan.)

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