Isaiah Taylor was one of the final cuts the Houston Rockets made to get their roster down to the limit of 15 players a few days before the start of the 2017-18 NBA season. It would appear that the decision came down to the young point guard or the 33-year-old Bobby Brown and the veteran got the spot. 48 hours later, Taylor cleared waivers and became a free agent. He signed a contract with the Hawks just one day prior to the team’s opener in Dallas.
During the preseason, Hawks GM Travis Schlenk had hinted at wanting to have a third point guard on the roster as the season approached. When Quinn Cook was waived on the same day that that the Hawks facilitated a transaction in which the Cleveland Cavaliers cleared Richard Jefferson and Kay Felder from their roster, the plan was unclear. But it would appear that the team had their eye on Taylor for the position.
Taylor played in just four regular season games for the Rockets last season. But he was one of the more impressive players in the D League last year when he was there on assignment playing heavy minutes at the point guard position for the Rio Grand Valley Vipers, the best offensive team in the league.
As a college player, he was known for his speed and quickness but was simply not a good enough shooter to warrant being drafted even in a relatively weak 2016 draft class. But he shot 45.7 percent on 3.8 attempts per game with the Vipers last season and now finds an opportunity to establish himself as a rotation player with a young, rebuilding Hawks team.
Taylor was inactive during Atlanta’s first two games of the season and was viewed as probably being the player most likely to be inactive on nights when the Hawks had a full slate of healthy players available. But a slow start by Malcolm Delaney and a brief injury to starting point guard Dennis Schroder opened the door for Taylor and he has thus far taken full advantage. In Monday’s loss to the Celtics, the first game Delaney was available to play after missing a few games with an injured ankle, Taylor was substituted into the game for Schroder before Delaney was inserted into the game.
It would appear that Taylor has implemented the philosophy with which Rio Grande Valley plays heavily prioritizing shots at the rim and from the 3-point line. 24 of his 39 field goal attempts have come from those spots and he has created 28 points on those attempts. He leads all Hawks guards in eFG% and is tenth in the league among qualified guards in field goal percentage (40 or more attempts). And there really isn’t anything seen in his play that does not look reasonably sustainable.
He is a smart, proactive player and consistently demonstrates a constructive type of initiative whether he is playing on or off the ball. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
On this play in last week’s loss to the Bucks, he is playing with Schroder who breaks down the defense with dribble penetration and leaves his feet looking to fit a pass to the weak side corner where Taurean Prince is initially alone as Khris Middleton has to offer defensive help at the rim. But as Malcom Brodgon rotates to cut off the passing lane to Prince instead of just staying spotted up on the perimeter, Taylor (proactively) cuts to the paint and creates a new passing lane for Schroder to get him the ball. The result is a simple pass to John Collins for the uncontested finish.
Later in the same game, Taylor is operating in the pick and roll with Collins. He demonstrates excellent attention to detail as he maintains perfectly parallel depth with Collins as the big man rolls to the rim. This technique stresses John Henson, the big man defending the pick and roll, and forces him to try to stay somewhat attached to both Taylor and Collins as Matthew Dellavedova ends up in a trail position. Taylor attacks the rim aggressively and takes advantage of the leverage he has on Henson to draw the shooting foul.
Taylor’s basketball IQ can be seen in this play as well as a sloppy offensive possession fortunately results in the ball rolling to him at the top of the key as the shot clock hits the 10 second mark. Dellavedova drops his right foot and extends his left arm in an attempt to force Taylor to his left. But as Taylor sees Giannis Antetokounmpo shading help from the wing on his left he uses a simple but quick crossover dribble to attack the paint from the right side. He uses Collins presence on the weakside baseline to stress Henson as a defender again and gets a mostly uncontested runner to fall.
Taylor’s speed and situational awareness can be seen on this play. He notices that if he can use his quickness to get past Nene that he will be able to get to the rim and attack the defensively challenged Ryan Anderson. He does so with ease and converts another uncontested runner. He has a unique ability to help the Hawks as they have lost their best transition scorer from last season, Tim Hardaway Jr. In games in which Atlanta is not able to keep up with an opposing team’s ability to score in the half court offense, these easy points in transition can be very helpful.
This play looks so simple but it is really smart. The Hawks often use this weave action to get into their high pick and roll sets. The congestion causes some confusion for the Rockets as Ariza is working to stay attached to Taurean Prince. After Prince clears to the weak side, Ariza takes one step looking to potentially get switched back on to the Hawks forward. When Ariza takes that step Taylor is still parallel with the half court logo yet he attacks with an incredibly quick first step and gets all the way to the rim for the easy lay up.
While Malcolm Delaney seems to be stabilizing his play working more off the ball now than he historically has done so, Taylor offers something different to this year’s Hawks team. Last year, the team would struggle at times with the stylistic differences of their starting and back up point guards. The foundation of Taylor’s game is his speed, very much like the base of Schroder’s offensive attack. He can help them continue to play fast and remain in attack mode when Schroder goes to the bench.
Delaney is the best defensive player of the three point guards and it’s not even close. So as long as he can find a way to make contributions on offense it would be reasonable to expect that he will continue to get his opportunities. But Taylor does offers a reserve option that can replicate to a reasonable degree the quickness and aggressiveness of Schroder.
It can be challenging at times to find things to enjoy when the team you root for is taking a step back and not competing at the level they have in recent seasons. But watching a young point guard potentially put all of his tools to use to prove he is a real NBA rotation player can be enjoyable. The start has been fun, let’s see if Isaiah Taylor can keep building on the success he has built to this point in the season.