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Nicolas Brussino: The next enrollee of Hawks University

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How much do you know about the Hawks’ new Argentine swingman? Well, you’re about to learn a lot more...

NBA: Dallas Mavericks-Media Day Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks claimed Argentinian swingman Nicolas Brussino off waivers on Saturday evening, after the 24 year old was waived on Thursday by the Dallas Mavericks. Brussino spent spent the 2016-17 season in Dallas while playing with Peñarol and Regatas Corrientes in Argentina prior to his rookie season in the NBA.

The 6’8” Brussino averaged 2.8 points per game on 37% shooting from the field in 9 minutes per game in 54 NBA games a season ago.

Now, I’m sure the first thing many Hawks fans did when news of the signing broke was to Google/YouTube highlights of Brussino, because they probably had absolutely no idea who he was or how he plays.

YouTubing players is fine, if you want a basic understanding of a player — usually on one end of the floor — but highlights only show you just that: highlights. They don’t always show you the other good things/bad things a player does and, as a result, you’re not seeing the whole story.

Well, I like to dig a little deeper than the casual fan, so we’re going to take a (much) closer look at the player the Hawks have inherited and will be working with.

With someone who only averages 9 minutes a game in 54 total games played, you might think the sample size to view Brussino on may not be large but, thankfully, that’s not an issue. He started all six of the Mavericks’ deep Summer League run (where he averaged 20 minutes per game) and he started two games near the end of the regular season against the Sacramento Kings and the Memphis Grizzlies (where he played 33 and 37 minutes respectively).

So, let’s get to it: Who is Nicolas Brussino as a player? What are his strengths, his weaknesses? What have the Hawks seen in him that would force them to claim him off of waivers, rather than wait for him to hit free agency?

Passing

This is arguably the strongest aspect of Brussino’s game, and by quite a considerable margin.

Straight off the top, here’s what I would say about Brussino’s ability to pass: he immediately becomes one of the best passers on the roster — he can really move the ball (in a number of different ways) and he’s going to be a fabulous addition to the Hawks’ ball-movement offense... if he plays.

We’re going to look at some film, and you’ll see for yourself how I’ve come to this conclusion.

(Something that will help you: Brussino always wears number 9, so that’s the number to look out for)

Off of the penetration and kick-out from Yogi Ferrell to Brussino, Brussino rinses and repeats the same motion as he puts the ball on the floor, draws the defense’s attention and kicks the ball out to his teammate, who misses the three-pointer (because it’s Summer League, and that’s what happens: a lot of threes are missed).

Many guards in this situation would get tunnel-vision and look to score at the rim, but Brussino keeps his head up, makes the right pass and creates a decent shot opportunity.

Something the Hawks like their players to do is make the extra pass, the swing pass. This is something Brussino is good at and, more importantly, willing to do.

In this instance, Brussino gave and got back but missed the three on this occasion.

Not only does Brussino make the extra pass but it’s also a quick and decisive pass. He sees plays develop and knows what he’s going to do with the ball before/as soon he receives it.

This quick decision making leads to an open three-point shot, but the shot is missed on this occasion.

There were a few possessions where Brussino would receive the ball, wait for the defense to react to/close him out and then find the open man.

This is something I personally loved, that slight hesitation before making another pass — drawing the defense to you before giving the ball up, never with the intention to hit. Giving up a good shot for a great shot.

The Phoenix Suns’ defense did a good job scrambling around to take away the a shot in this particular instance, but Brussino — and his teammates — have the right idea. Move the ball, play unselfishly.

Again, Brussino waits for the defense to react to him and close him out before whipping another pass to an open teammate.

These passes are also on the money, right into the chest where Brussino’s teammates can play as soon as they receive the ball and not have to fumble/gather which would give the defense time to recover.

There’s no end to the variety of ways Brussino can find his teammates.

In the pick-and-roll:

Getting/cutting to the rim/paint:

Coming out of timeouts (directing traffic no less):

And, very impressively in some instances, in transition:

(Ooooooh, with the left hand)

(Again, he knows exactly what he’s going to do with the ball when he catches it)

Here, Brussino hits the Kings with a behind-the-back dribble before finding a running partner in the form of Nerlens Noel.

Some players’ eyes grow real wide as they push in transition, but Brussino keeps his head up as he scans for options as he pushes in transition and he finds one in Dorian Finney-Smith who hits the three.

And how about this left-handed bounce pass to a cutting Harrison Barnes? Brussino knows what type of pass with which to find his teammates in the appropriate situations, and the fact he can use both hands highlights his passing versatility.

Something else that Brussino executes well is the give-and-go-pass.

Here, he finds Finney-Smith with a great bounce-pass and turbos his way to the rim, where Finney-Smith finds him with a nice pass for the bucket.

Against the Kings, Buddy Hield created a problem for Brussino offensively but he connects effectively with Dwight Powell on the give-and-go before rifling a pass to Nerlens Noel who draws the foul.

Something that helps open up Brussino’s ability to create for his teammates is his three-point threat. Though it isn’t a consistent shot, Brussino shoots it well enough to keep defenses honest and make them respect that shot. This keeps defenses on their toes and opens up plays (as you saw above when Brussino was operating behind the three-point line) for others.

Brussino made an impression with the Mavericks with his ability to pass the ball in his short time in Dallas.

“He finds guys,” Mavs leading scorer Harrison Barnes matter-of-factly said of Brussino’s playmaking skills. “He does a good job. You know, he’s confident, and I think it’s just getting him more reps just so he feels more and more comfortable. But it was great for him.”

Mavs assistant coach Kaleb Canales — who Brussino would’ve communicated a lot with as he also speaks Spanish — praised Brussino’s ability to pass the ball, and his comments will add some meat to the bones of the clips we’ve already looked at.

“You know, with his previous team, he played the point a lot. And with his overall game, a lot of it is dictated by him passing, finding shooters and finding slashers that slash to the basket and make plays,” Canales explained. “He loves to pass. And aside from the shooting, he’s a very good shooter, but he just loves to pass the ball to his teammates.”

Brussino can pass the ball in a variety of ways and carries an excellent combination when it comes to his passing package: willingness and ability. Usually a player will possess one or the other of these, few possess both.

If Brussino were to see meaningful minutes for the Hawks, I really believe their offense would be much better with him in it because of his willingness to move the ball, facilitate the offense and his ability to make a variety of passes that lead to scoring opportunities.

You could plug him into the Hawks’ offense and it would not take him long to make an impact. The man can pass.

Off-ball movement/awareness

Aside from passing, Brussino’s ability and willingness to move off of the ball, and his overall awareness on the offensive end, would be his next strongest aspects of his game.

Brussino is a player who likes to make cuts — he’s always moving.

This is a something the Hawks like in their players — the willingness to keep moving off of the ball and keep defenses on their toes. The Hawks do a good job in finding the open cutters and run a number of cutting actions. You probably still remember those famous ‘Korver-Kuts’, and Kent Bazemore makes some good cuts too (some are excellently drawn out of timeouts).

Brussino, if you haven’t gathered already, is a smart player. He reads where the defense’s focus is, and if it isn’t on him...he’s gone.

Here, Brussino recognises that Denzel Valentine is watching the ball rather than watching him, and he makes his cut toward the basket which results in a dunk.

Here, he catches Okaro White doing the same thing, but blows the layup on this occasion.

As is the case with Summer League, the talent around him doesn’t help in bringing out the best of his abilities, similar to Josh Magette in Summer League. On a number of occasions, Brussino made some great cuts but he wasn’t rewarded for his good work because his teammates didn’t see/make the pass.

Here, Justin Jackson loses all track of Brussino, but it didn’t matter as Ferrell has his back turned to the cutting Brussino, and missed his run.

After making a good baseline-cut, Dennis Smith Jr. is too busy spinning to see the position Brussino has put himself into, and the defense is able to recover.

Brussino also used his ability to cut/catch the defense napping to set up his teammates for shot opportunities.

Here, he cuts into the paint, turns around and finds another cutter and a foul is drawn.

Hopefully, if he gets the minutes, the Hawks will do a better job finding Brussino when he makes those cuts but the thing to keep in mind is that, in the NBA, defenders are normally a little more alert than the Summer League crop, and — in theory — shouldn’t lose track of their man as frequently.

But that’s not to discredit Brussino. His constant movement creates opportunities. He’s a good and willing cutter, and this will serve him well in Atlanta, a team who value off-ball movement.

Shooting/offense

I’ve praised Brussino a lot so far, but this is where things will begin to plateau somewhat.

Brussino is an inconsistent shooter, and shot 30% from three in the 2016-17 season with the Mavericks. Though he did shoot 40% from three in Summer League, that number doesn’t really tell you the story of his inconsistency from behind the arc.

He shot 2-of-6 from three against the Bulls, 1-of-5 against the Suns, 2-of-5 against the Heat, 0-of-3 against the Kings, 4-of-6 against the Celtics and 3-of-5 against the Lakers.

An up-and-down performance from behind the arc, but you could draw encouragement from the fact that he ended his last two games shooting almost 54% from three.

Yes, he’s a streaky shooter, but don’t let that distract you from the fact he can shoot the rock and from range too.

But, in the NBA, the consistency is key, and that’s what the Hawks will be looking to improve when he gets to Atlanta.

When asked about Brussino after his career-high 15 points against the Memphis Grizzlies, Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki talked about the consistency that is required in the NBA.

“I mean, it’s hard. The first season is hard, I think, for anybody. The hardest thing to put in your game, I think, is consistency. To bring it every night, to play at a high level every night is hard,” 13-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki added. “It’s easy to have a good game here and there, and then disappear for a week and have another good game. The hardest thing in this league is work yourself up to be a consistent, great player. That’s tough, and it takes a lot of work and a lot of experience. … You know, he’s played international ball for a long time. He can play, he’s a good shooter when he has time, he’s a smart player, and he obviously works hard. You know, every day he comes in and does his work. His English needs some work, but hey, he kept playing. He’s trying to communicate out there, and he was big for us.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement from Dirk and you’d imagine he talked about consistency for a reason...

That brings us nicely to Brussino’s overall offensive package...it’s nothing spectacular.

As a scoring option, you shouldn’t expect too much out of Brussino outside of average/below average three-point shooting, and cutting. And even when he does cut to the rim, he doesn’t always finish at the rim and that happens more often than you’d like to see.

Though, there’s one thing that you could say Brussino does somewhat well on the offensive end outside of shooting and cutting: running the floor.

Brussino shows signs of pace to burn, and presents teammates with an option in transition when he gets out and runs the floor.

He also likes this little flip-shot and gets the ball on the glass in a hurry so that shot-blockers can’t legally block the shot. It is somewhat effective.

His ability to beat defenders off the dribble isn’t great nor can he really shoot off of the dribble, so he has difficulty creating his own offense. Whether this is something the Hawks will want to work with Brussino on remains to be seen, my thinking is that it’s not super important that Brussino is able to create his own offense, more so that he can shoot the ball and finish at the rim.

Overall, Brussino’s ability to score is below average (and there’s nothing hugely wrong with that given his ability to pass/help his team in other ways) and the main things the Hawks will probably want to work with Brussino on are his shooting consistency and his ability to finish at the rim.

Defense

This will be the other aspect of Brussino’s game that will need work, and significant work too.

The one thing that stood out to me was Brussino’s three-point defense — let’s just say it needs a lot of work. Time after time after time, opposing players just hit three after three on Brussino. Some of them he contests decently, others not so.

When Brussino started against the Kings late in the regular season, Buddy Hield hit a number of threes over Brussino, this was just one.

His effort could also be better...

Wayne Selden, in addition to this three, caused another issue for Brussino. Brussino isn’t a particularly strong player with a strong frame, and stronger guards can easily overpower him and get to their spots.

This lack of strength also rears its head when it comes to fighting for rebounding position (he can be easily pushed away), finishing through contact and he can be knocked off of his spots on the offensive end.

One thing I also noticed in Summer League was that Brussino — when a pick-and-roll occurred — just switched and made no effort to fight over screens. Whether that was by design, I’m not sure, but time after time when he switched off of the pick-and-roll he was made to pay.

Here, off of the switch, Valentine drains a three in front of Brussino.

Off of the switch, Cameron Payne beats Brussino off of the dribble to score at the rim.

Speaking of being beaten off the dribble...there goes Paul Zipser with ease:

And Kyle Kuzma:

It’s worth remembering that Brussino isn’t undersized against some of these wings — he’s 6’8”, he has legit size but his average length and burst don’t overly help him.

Brussino’s defensive focus and effort could also do with some work.

In transition, Brussino’s man is the man in the left corner. Brussino then wanders away from his man — and doesn’t overly engaged in the process — and focuses more on ball-watching than where his man is. The ball finds its way to the open man in the corner but, luckily for Brussino, the shot is missed on this occasion.

Against the Kings in Summer League, Brussino loses track of Luis Montero as he dives to his right-hand side. By the time Brussino realises that Montero isn’t using a screen and has already left him in his dust — it’s way too late and the help defense has to commit the foul to prevent a certain two points.

Against the Celtics in the tournament, Brussino shows absolutely zero effort or urgency to protect the rim as the help defender. You can see Finney-Smith try point out to the obvious danger, but Brussino doesn’t seem interested in even attempting to care.

After the basket is made, you can see Finney-Smith motion at Brussino, as if to say “What’s going on? Why didn’t you do anything?”, to which Brussino shows little accountability for.

There are instances of Brussino playing average defense, but it’s never anything outstanding/standout. Whether Brussino just didn’t care about playing proper defense in Summer League is unknown, but he sure wasn’t as poor on defense in the two NBA regular season games I watched of him...coincidence?

Regardless the Hawks will have their work cut out for them to mould Brussino into an adequate defender that won’t be a constant liability on the defensive end.

Overall...

So, where are we after all of this? What have we established when it comes to Nicolas Brussino?

Brussino is a very talented and willing passer, and would be a great fit for coach Mike Budenholzer’s offensive system — the Hawks’ offense would be better with Brussino as a part of it. His movement off of the ball is good and he reads the defense well in those situations which helps create offensive opportunities for himself and his teammates.

While he can definitely shoot the long-ball, his overall offensive package consistency — including his three-point shot — needs work. The journey to becoming a consistent player is one of the toughest steps to make in the NBA as a young player, but Brussino needs to make this step if he’s going to hang around in the NBA.

His entire defensive package needs work and he needs to get stronger in order to better absorb contact on both ends of the court.

He shouldn’t be viewed as a player who’s going to come in and contribute from day one — he’s definitely behind Kent Bazemore, Marco Belinelli, Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry in the wing rotation. He should be viewed as a longer-term project, and the latest enrolee at ‘Hawks University’.

‘Hawks University’, for people who don’t know, refers to Atlanta’s ability (and that of the team’s developmental staff) to take a player (usually a player who has been overlooked/outcast) and help turn them into serviceable NBA players.

Examples include Kent Bazemore, Tim Hardaway Jr., and — to an extent — DeMarre Carroll... players like that.

And I think the Hawks’ developmental staff will really enjoy working with a player of Brussino’s skill-set. You can see why Hawks GM Travis Schlenk wanted to ensure he got his hands on the 24 year old Argentinian before he cleared waivers/ I think he has a future in Atlanta — Belinelli isn’t a long-term fixture in Atlanta and it’s unclear what Schlenk will do with Kent Bazemore’s contract heading into the future. The potential is definitely there.

Nico Brussino may not be a household name right now and he probably won’t see a lot of NBA burn outside of garbage time in his first season in Atlanta but he could well be the next graduate of ‘Hawks University’. And if things go well (and you squint hard enough), he could be the best one yet...