Thabo Sefolosha signed a three-year contract with the Hawks in the summer of 2014 as a defensive stalwart off the bench who could make the occasional three but was certainly nothing special from behind the arc. For $4 million per year and on the wrong side of 30, the Hawks certainly weren’t looking for Sefolosha to be a starter, but in the third and final year of his contract, Mike Budenholzer opted for Sefolosha to step into a consistent starting role for the first time in his Hawks career. The Hawks are 16-8 since Sefolosha was permanently moved into the starting lineup in early December and Kyle Korver, the former starter ahead of Sefolosha, was shipped out of town for Mike Dunleavy and a protected first round pick.
Sefolosha’s defensive mindset has helped the Hawks in this 24-game run, but he’s become an underrated offensive option for a Hawks team that needs as much production on that end as he can provide. He’ll never be the primary or even secondary option, but having a tertiary wing who can handle the ball and run an occasional pick-and-roll has been a boon for Atlanta. This didn’t happen overnight; Sefolosha wasn’t a particularly capable ball-handler when he arrived, but he’s improved greatly in the two-and-a-half years in the Hawks’ renowned development system that has spit out success stories like DeMarre Carroll and Kent Bazemore.
In his first year in Atlanta, Sefolosha played under 19 minutes per game and ran just 58 pick-and-rolls the entire season. He called his own number on 23 of those and scored an abject nine points, placing him in the fifth percentile across the entire league. Sefolosha went to the basket with abandon, without an ability to pull up for a jumper or hit a short floater over a shot blocker. There were simply far too many missed and blocked layups for Budenholzer and his staff to trust Sefolosha with the ball in his hands:
Sefolosha loved to take on shot-blockers at the rim and it very rarely worked out for him. Even in his athletic prime, he never had the explosion or coordination in the air to finish over bigger players. Another staple of his game was the running hook:
Despite being right-handed, he loves to drive left and is a more natural finisher with his left hand. However, he’d become over-reliant on it and when he couldn’t get to the basket, he’d prefer a running lefty hook over pulling up for a short jumper or floater with his right hand. This sort of shot, even for someone who finishes well with his left hand, is extremely difficult.
This year, the Hawks are seeing a more varied offensive repertoire from Sefolosha and he’s being rewarded with higher usage in pick-and-rolls. He’s smarter about which shot to pull out of his bag of tricks:
When he wasn’t crashing into shot blockers or throwing up running hooks, he was turning the ball over. Sefolosha had a turnover rate of 15.5 percent on pick-and-rolls in 2014-15. He had trouble dribbling in traffic and threw wild jump passes. Two years later, those turnovers have been largely cut out of his game, even with an increased usage in these situations. In 2015-16, he turned the ball over on 12.0 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions and that rate has fallen even further in 2016-17, all the way down to a fantastic 6.6 percent. He’s improved his handle immensely and although he still likes to get into the air before passing the ball, there are far fewer turnovers once he does so.
Going behind the back to shake a defender and burying a pull-up jump shot just isn’t something Sefolosha was doing two years ago. Neither is this:
Look at that shake! This is hardly the same guy who was fumbling the ball in a pick-and-roll two years ago.
Sefolosha has increased his pick-and-roll usage every year he’s been with the Hawks. 19.6 percent of his possessions are pick-and-rolls, up from 15.8 percent and 16.5 percent in 2014-15 and 2015-16, respectively. In his particular case, it’s more instructive to look at his usage in these situations, rather than his actual efficiency, because of the change in his teammates over the years. By raw points per possession, Sefolosha is actually worse this year than he’s ever been, because the team around him has gotten worse each year. In 2014-15, the Hawks scored 54 points on his 58 pick-and-roll possessions, putting him in the 72nd percentile in the NBA. This year, they’ve scored just 65 points in 76 possessions, the 37th percentile. This dip isn’t Sefolosha’s fault; he’s shooting better in these situations than in previous years and turning the ball over far less, but his teammates aren’t knocking down the shots that he’s giving them. One look at the numbers might indicate that Sefolosha hasn’t improved his pick-and-roll game, but it becomes more obvious when the context of the team is taken into consideration.
Another area Sefolosha has improved is his ability to drive on closing defenders. Despite not hitting 40 percent of his threes since 2012-13, he still has a reputation around the league as a 3-and-D specialist. Sefolosha’s driving game is aided by his ability to finish with his left hand; defenders are taught to close out to a shooter’s strong hand to both contest the shot and contain the drive. Sefolosha is happy to have defenders close to his right hand, as it allows him to go left and get right around them to the rim.
Detroit’s Tobias Harris closes out to Sefolosha’s right hand, so he dribbles to his left and gets the layup. Sefolosha is varying his finishes more this year than in the past; he’s able to keep it close to his body for more control or stretch it out in front of him to keep it away from the trailing defender, like he does here.
Nowhere is it more apparent that Sefolosha has been working on his ball handling than when he decides to hit the circle button on a defender. Check out this clip from 2014:
The layup goes in, but it’s a slow spin and an ugly finish that happens to go down. Two years later, this is what Sefolosha’s spin look like:
It’s like night and day between 2014-15 and 2016-17, which just goes to show that you can always teach an old dog new tricks. Between the ages of 30 and 32, when Sefolosha is universally considered to be past his prime, he’s improved immensely as a ball-handler on drives and in the pick-and-roll, increasing his usage and efficiency in both areas as he spends more time in Hawks University. Sefolosha will be a free agent this summer and may be looking for one more multi-year contract and these developments in his offensive game will certainly help him garner a larger contract.
All stats provided by Synergy.