When the Chicago Bulls were on the clock back in June 2013, with the 20th pick of the draft, I expected them to take a big man. I was hoping for Gorgui Dieng. Instead, they opted for another wing, that being Tony Snell.
If you follow me on Twitter, or if you’ve read much of my work here at BbtH or elsewhere, you’ve probably noticed that I have a certain fondness for younger players. I have, at various times, sung the praises of Jimmy Butler (good), Malcolm Thomas (jury’s still out) and Marquis Teague (not good, though I haven’t given up hope yet). This year, minus a brief affair with Jarvis Varnado, the main target for my affection — besides Jimmy, obviously — has been Snell, though that has as much to do with the relative lack of young guys on the Bulls this year as my actual love of Mr. Snell.
The early returns have been … mixed. On one hand, Snell already has played three times as many minutes this season as Jimmy did in his — admittedly lockout-shortened — rookie season, so he’s clearly doing something right if Tom Thibodeau is willing to play him. On the other hand, he’s been shooting right around 40 percent from the field all season and currently sits at 38.4 from the field and 32.9 from deep. That’s not great, especially for a guy who was always billed as a shooter.
But on the other hand, the Bulls perform much better this season when Snell isn’t on the floor, scoring just 94.7 points per 100 possessions when he plays and 100.7 when he doesn’t. But on the other hand, Snell features prominently in the Bulls single best five-man unit this season by net rating: DJ Augustin, Snell, Mike Dunleavy, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah have outscored their opponents by 34.2 points per 100 possessions this season in approximately 62 minutes. That’s the fifth-best five-man unit in the NBA by net rating this season by a lineup playing 50 or more minutes. So again, he must be doing something right.
I believe Snell can be the answer at shooting guard for the Bulls. Not this year, necessarily, but going forward. Of course, attempting to justify this feeling has proven difficult to this point, so I went on a quest to find the evidence I needed. Let’s dive in.*
*Owing to the simple fact that we only have so much data on Snell in the NBA, assume that all numbers cited in this piece come with an implied “in a very small sample size,” attached.
As stated above, Snell’s reputation coming into the league was that of a knockdown shooter. This has not yet materialized. At least, that’s what you’d think if you just looked at the shooting numbers I cited earlier.
If you drill down a little deeper, you find those stats come with two significant caveats. Number one, Snell’s overall shooting percentage gets dragged down hard because he’s taken well over half of his shots from three point land. According to Basketball-Reference, Snell has attempted 155 threes this year and just 139 twos. He’s shooting 32.9 percent on threes, as mentioned above, but is making 44.6 percent of his twos. That includes a 42.6 percent mark (20/47) on long twos, defined by B-R as from 16 to 23 feet, as well as a 59.5 percent mark (25/42) at the rim. The simple fact is that Snell’s struggles from deep have submarined his overall shooting numbers thanks to his sky-high three point rate.
This brings me to my next caveat: Keep in mind that this is Snell’s first season in the NBA, and that threes in college are slightly shorter than NBA threes. So for all that Snell was a 39 percent shooter from three in his last year of college, it’s a little unreasonable to expect that to translate immediately. Furthermore, even a cursory look at his shot would tell you that there’s nothing broken there. This isn’t a Marquis Teague situation, or even Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, where the shot just looks wrong to begin with. I have faith that Snell will stretch himself out over the course of the next year or two, especially if his long two numbers are any indicator.
This is only tangentially related, but I’m going to talk about it anyway. According to MySynergySports, while Snell is only shooting about 29 percent on spot up threes in the half court, he is shooting 50 percent on threes in transition. I can’t confirm this, but I’m going to say it anyway: my theory is that Snell is more than capable of shooting a high percentage on threes … when he’s wide freaking open. Watching Snell’s transition attempts, virtually every single one of them comes in rhythm, with no defenders in sight. The reality of the Bulls offense is that halfcourt attempts don’t come with nearly those same luxuries. But again, I think that will come with time.
Now, having established my belief that Snell will become an elite shooter, let’s talk about why he’s the answer at shooting guard: playmaking.
Snell is not, nor in all likelihood will he ever be, anything like an elite isolation player. However, that’s not what the Bulls need, as long as we assume that Derrick Rose is healthy and we’re going to assume that because I refuse to think otherwise. What Snell can do, however, is function as a secondary ballhandler on the weak side.
Let’s start with his work in the pick and roll. Synergy says he scores about 0.71 points per play when handling the ball in the pick and roll, which isn’t great. However, when you watch him — and I have — you notice a few things about him. First, Snell shoots a TON of jumpers out of the pick and roll, and he shoots even more when you add in dribble handoffs, which Synergy classifies separately. I’m going to guess about a third of his pick and roll possessions result in pull-up jumpers. Now, the numbers the NBA provides from the SportVU optical tracking cameras say Snell shoots 40.4 percent on pull-ups this year, which isn’t that much worse than Steph Curry, for whatever that’s worth. So considering that most defenses will go under screens against Snell and that he’s hitting those shots at a decent clip, it’s far from the worst shot in the world.
Having said that, it’s when Snell gets into the lane that he’s most impressive. I mentioned his 59.5 percent mark at the rim earlier, so he’s capable of finishing. He’s also flashed a nice hesitation move a few times to get into the lane, which isn’t something you see from a lot of rookies. But he’s also a great passer, and he seems to have figured out how to draw the help from the big man at the rim before dropping a pass off for a dunk. He and Taj Gibson have flashed some nice chemistry with the pick and pop leading to Taj getting an open jumper on the baseline.
Even outside of the pick and roll, Snell shows decent playmaking skills on his own. He’s proven adept at attacking hard closeouts and either scoring or finding his teammates, as the Orlando Magic found out back in January.
His vision generally is impressive for such a young player. And while his handle isn’t anything to write home about, it’s competent.
Basically, I see Snell as the type who can spot up on the weak side of a Rose-Noah pick and roll, and then either shoot or drive out of the spot up, or run a quick-hitting pick and roll of his own after a ball-reversal. That’s one of the many reasons that the San Antonio Spurs have been so good the last several years. The ability to reverse the ball and put pressure on the defense is huge, and Snell can do that.
There’s not a whole lot to be said about Snell’s defense that hasn’t been said since the draft. He’s long but skinny, so he’ll get beat in the post by bigger wings. He has trouble staying in front of quicker guys too, which means there really aren’t too many players he can be reasonably expected to stop on a regular basis.
That said, you can see the potential. If he puts on weight, he easily could guard the Joe Johnson and Carmelo Anthony types that aren’t much of a threat to beat him off the dribble. He has some trouble staying down on pump fakes, but that — hopefully — will come with experience. He does have quick hands, but doesn’t seem to be able to take full advantage of them just yet.
Off the ball, he still gets lost occasionally, but you can see glimpses of the anticipation that a guy like Jimmy Butler has in terms of jumping passing lanes. He won’t ever be nearly as good as Jimmy at that, I suspect — I mean, who could be? — but he’ll be OK, I think.
Hopefully, another year or two at Thibs Academy, with Jimmy as his erstwhile mentor, should give Snell the tools to be a solid defender down the road, if not better.
There’s not a whole lot else to cover here. Snell’s by no means a tremendous rebounder, but he’s not terrible. On a team like the Bulls, that’s a fairly superfluous skill anyway.
The main thing Snell has going for him is what I’ve been calling his “feel for the game,” for lack of any better terms. He hasn’t adjusted 100 percent to the speed of the NBA, so you’ll see him occasionally make a pass he shouldn’t because he saw something a little too late to take advantage of it. But I choose to be pleased he saw it at all, and as I mentioned earlier, he seems to understand the cause-and-effect relationship inherent in getting into the lane and drawing help defense. That’s a big deal for a young player, and one that will serve him well going forward.
One final thing, if I may: I know there was some consternation back in June and earlier in the season that the Bulls took Snell over Tim Hardaway Jr., and while THJ certainly has shot better this year — 42.9/37.3/83.0 to Snell’s 38.4/32.9/75.8 — Hardaway has yet to show anything other than scoring ability. He barely rebounds (3.9% total rebound rate to Snell’s 5.9), doesn’t create for others (1.3 assists per 36 minutes) and isn’t very good defensively. THJ has been very good by any objective measure, but give me the more complete player over the long term.
Now, if Snell can just get his celebration game together, he’ll be just fine.