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Tyler Cavanaugh is making the most of his NBA opportunity

Has he become a legitimate NBA prospect?

Orlando Magic v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Tyler Cavanaugh joined the Atlanta Hawks Las Vegas Summer League team as one of the more anonymous players in the league. Before that arrival, he had played two seasons at Wake Forest followed by two season at George Washington but could never be found on any mock drafts, top-100 prospect lists or anything of that sort.

He played in just two games for the Summer League squad and amassed a total of 20 minutes of action. But, in short, something really stood out in his play.

From the first possession after entering his first game, Cavanaugh was giving direction to his teammates telling them when they were in the wrong spot on the floor, etc. It was incredible how much of Atlanta’s system he had grasped with just a few days of practice with players with whom he had never played.

Having had the opportunity to see him play live in the summer league setting, my reaction after seeing him play just a few minutes was “that’s a future NBA coach.” After seeing him play his second game, I said to someone else “He’s going to get that second two-way contract with the Hawks.” It had already been reported that Josh Magette’s non-guaranteed contract with the Hawks would be converted to a two-way contract when the period for converting the contracts arrived.

I don’t include this prediction that Cavanaugh would get the other two-way contract with the Hawks as to pat myself on the back. Because I did so in a disappointed sort of way basing it upon the fact that I viewed him as a player any coach would love to have on the team but that two-way contracts should be used on players that have real NBA upside.

It’s a little embarrassing that I had concluded that Cavanaugh was not a NBA prospect after watching him play just 20 minutes in one of the most unorganized of professional basketball settings. While his basketball IQ was obvious, I thought he had neither the size nor the athleticism to ever be anything other than a 14th or 15th member of a roster, the player that only suits up when there are multiple players unavailable due to injury.

I was wrong.

Looking back, I think what I missed was how broad-shouldered he is. He occupies significantly more space than I had anticipated. I thought he was too small to defend traditional centers and too slow to defend at the power forward position. And I do think there will be match ups that present significant issues for him. But if that were not the case, he would not have been available to join the Hawks via the two-way contract because Cavanaugh is undoubtedly a legitimate NBA shooter.

And he is already producing on offense in incredibly impressive ways. He is one of only 9 players (since 1983 when NBA statistics tracking became a little more detailed) to shoot 49% or better on field goal attempts and 38% or better on 3-point attempts on at least 35 attempts from the 3-point line in his first 17 career games. It’s obvious he is doing that a significantly lower volumes than most of the other players on that list. But that is what the volume is going to look like when in the stretch of 17 games one goes from being an emergency body on the end of the bench to a player that is sometimes now the first player from the bench to enter the game.

In his last five games, Cavanaugh is averaging 23.2 minutes per game while producing 8.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. To put that into some perspective, only eight reserves in the league are averaging those numbers on the season thus far.

He’s not much of a rim protector and might not ever be. But the George Washington product is good defending against the pick and roll, is a mostly passable rebounder (he will struggle against the elite rebounder in the league) and is a plus shooter at his position. He’s not

Let’s take a look at some his action on the court.

Cavanaugh has value spotting up as a floor spacer in the weak side corner. And he doesn’t need a perfectly accurate pass to be able to get his shot up quickly and accurately.

On this play, Cavanuagh is spotting up in the weak side corner again. But his offensive IQ is on display. When Bismack Biyombo slides to the paint to help at the rim Cavanuagh moves up toward the three point break and places himself equally distant from both Biyombo and Jonathan Simmons.

The precision of his spacing creates defensive confusion as to who has the responsibility to rotate out and try to challenge his shot. Both defenders offer about half of a challenge and he is able to get up the uncontested shot.

If opposing centers are going to abandon him on the perimeter to help in the paint, he is going to punish that with regularity by hitting comfortable shots from beyond the 3-point line.

The attention to detail in his play is incredibly impressive.

This play is an ATO (after timeout) that was drawn up by Coach Budenholzer with two seconds remaining in the half in this game. Cavanuagh set the screen to force the switch by Nikola Vucevic and Elfrid Payton. Most importantly, he then seals Payton and then executes the cut to the basket with perfect timing as to get the uncontested layup before time expires.

When your coaching is drawing up ATOs for you as a rookie, that says something about how much trust he has in you. And that is related to attention to detail.

“We feel very fortunate for management, the front office, the G League group to spot him and bring him into summer league and also work with him in open gym and training camp. He’s been a real nice addition,” said Coach Mike Budenholzer in pregame comments on Saturday. “He kind of fits a lot of things we like in our bigs, he’s versatile, he’s smart. He’s a good passer, I think an under-rated passer and decision maker, unselfish. He can make threes himself, he can space the court. He’s got a physicality to him, strength. He just does a lot of things that we are excited about.”

Let’s take a look at what he is able to offer on the defensive end of the court.

On this play, Vucevic is trying to operate against him on the left block. Notice that Cavanaugh gives zero ground and Vucevic ends up taking a turn around hook shot just far enough away from the basket to be a pretty low probability shot.

Here, Vucevic is trying to establish low post position on the right block. But Cavanaugh is strong enough to move him about 5 feet further from the rim. Had he not moved him Vucevic would have had all of the leverage on the play if he were to receive the ball. In the end the Magic abandon the action.

Thus Vucevic gives up on trying to operate in the post. He tries to attack the basket with dribble penetration but Cavanaugh has the agility and technique discipline to get to his spot and get the charge call.

This is a quick look at how Cavanaugh was defending Vucevic in the pick and roll. The screen never happens on this play but Cavanaugh stays connected enough to offer some contest on the 3-point attempt that is missed.

Contrast that play with this one where Biyombo is operating in the pick and roll. It’s completely different. He is not worried about Biyombo as a shooter and notice how much help he is offering on D.J. Augustin as he tries to attack the lane with dribble penetration. His defensive help stresses the ball handler and creates an opportunity for a turnover and a run out transition play that forces the Magic to call timeout and try to regain their composure.

On this play Cavanuagh completely cuts of Augustin’s dribble penetration on the baseline. And he plays with enough urgency about him to get back to Biyombo once he receives the pass. Biyombo tries to make progress toward the rim as he works to set up for a hook shot but Cavanaugh does not budge even a little. Another contested and missed shot for the Magic.

It is noteworthy that a weak side defender did not have to rotate in an account for Biyombo. This is a textbook example of what anchoring a defense looks like.

The Hawks have performed largely the same as measured by defensive rating when Cavanaugh is on the court as when Dewayne Dedmon plays. And that’s saying something for the rookie.

On the offensive end of the court, they have performed like the 6th best offense in the league when Cavanaugh is on the floor.

The Hawks are operating their own G League affiliate for the first time this season and it would appear that they have already produced a viable NBA player almost out of thin air. The Hawks waived Nicolas Brussino on Saturday and it is widely presumed that the move was to create a spot to convert Cavanaugh to a standard NBA contract.

It will be interesting to see how the playing time will be distributed among the bigs once Mike Muscala, John Collins and Dedmon return from injury. But Cavanaugh has surely made a case for him to get the opportunity to continue to compete for playing time.

Note: After Cavanuagh’s contracted is, as expected, converted, the Hawks will be eligible to sign another player to a two-way contract. But that player will not have a full 45 day allotment of days to spend with the parent club. The player would have a pro-rated number of days to spend with Atlanta based upon the date the contract is signed.