Nick Calathes and the Art of the Assist


Putting up big assist numbers is nothing new to Nick Calathes. He was one of the more productive per-minute passers in NCAA basketball for the University of Florida Gators before his professional career began and has been consistently productive across his nine seasons as a pro. His vision and ability to make creative passes have been an asset to every team he’s taken up with for over a decade. Even with that being the case, the 29-year-old has continued to evolve as a playmaker over time, and his performance this season stands above anything he’s accomplished in his career as a floor general.

Nick Calathes and the Art of the Assist euroleague basketball panathinaikos bc pao basketball giannakopoulos sports marketing fox sports stories fox sports foxsportsstories sports management sports business

As the table above shows, Calathes’s passing production in his six EuroLeague seasons can be conveniently broken up into three segments, all with Panathinaikos. He was a steady passer in a limited role backing up Dimitris Diamantidis in his first three years as a pro; emerged as one of the EuroLeague’s better playmakers in the first two years after he returned from stints in the 7DAYS EuroCup and the NBA; and has earned recognition as one the competition’s top passers of all-time with his record-breaking play this season.

A few things stand out about the season Calathes is having passing the ball. First, he leads the EuroLeague in transition assists by a comfortable margin. Almost 25% of Calathes’s assists have come in transition this season up from 18% last year. One of the key reasons he’s been more productive this season as a passer overall has been how aggressively he’s thrown the ball ahead to create fastbreak chances for teammates, regularly whipping lead passes the length of the floor, sometimes without taking a dribble after retrieving rebounds himself. A pass few players even try to complete, Calathes has made the “touchdown pass” his own this season. Even with how aggressive he’s been moving the ball ahead over great distances, that has not cost him in the turnover column as his 5.1 assist-to-turnover ratio in transition is off the charts.

In the half court, almost exactly half of Calathes’s assists have come on direct passes out of the pick-and-roll. His 1.98-meter height allows Calathes to throw passes that other guards cannot; he uses his eyes to deceive the defense; and he throws pinpoint lob passes with great touch to Panathinaikos’s athletic frontcourt. But more often than not the pick-and-roll has been the platform on which he has showcased his creativity this season.

The Rise of Pick & Roll Play in the EuroLeague: Part 2

The number of assists Calathes generates out of ball screen actions is not surprising. Pick-and-roll play is as important as ever in the EuroLeague, especially as a means to generate offense for others.

Nick Calathes and the Art of the Assist euroleague basketball panathinaikos bc pao basketball giannakopoulos sports marketing fox sports stories fox sports foxsportsstories sports management sports business

The graph above charts the number of points scored by every player to use a possession handling the ball in the pick-and-roll in the EuroLeague this season against the number of points those players have created for others with their passes out of the pick-and-roll.

The axes use the same maximum in an effort to help illustrate that the majority of players in the EuroLeague create more offense with their passes than they do scoring the ball. On average, EuroLeague teams get 12.5 points per game from their ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll per game compared to 18.3 points per game created by the passes of those players.

Players like Cory Higgins and Errick McCollum rank among the EuroLeague’s most efficient pick-and-roll scorers and their approach attacking ball screens and placement in this graph reflect that, but they are more the exception than the rule as even Alexey Shved—in the midst of an all-time great season scoring the ball—creates more points with his passes in the pick-and-roll than he scores himself.

Circling back to Nick Calathes, his current placement as the ninth-most productive pick-and-roll passer in the EuroLeague is intriguing given his huge assist numbers, as he is on the low end of the spectrum with half of his assists in the half court originating from the pick-and-roll. Thomas Heurtel, Calathes’s main competition for the EuroLeague assist crown this season, for example, generates two-thirds of his assists with passes out of the pick-and-roll and is a better reflection of the league average among the league’s elite shot creating guards.

The rise of pick-and-roll play as the staple of EuroLeague offenses continues to shift the demands placed on the competition’s guards. Not only are they responsible for controlling the tempo and flow of the game and initiating their team’s offense, but an increasingly significant portion of their contributions are rooted in their ability to manipulate defenses and make reads passing the ball in the pick-and-roll. With so many team’s operating heavily out of the pick-and-roll and ball-screen action driving the assist numbers of the competition’s best guards, players like Nick Calathes are redefining what it means to be an elite passer, as the demands of being a top passer have shifted steadily over the last decade.