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Larry Nance Jr.’s passing is how he makes himself different

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Nance talked about expanding his game over the summer, and he’s doing it by moving the ball.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Larry Nance Jr. is part of the Cavaliers’ future. The moment he signed his four-year extension with the Cavs, he became part of the plan. Nance, at 26, is older than Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman and whatever 19-year-old player the Cavs end up taking next June. And by locking him up for four years, Koby Altman and the front office that they were comfortable with Nance as he is now growing with the post-LeBron rebuild.

But the Cavs also had to hope Nance would grow too. And he seemed to have the same goals for his season. At summer league, he talked about wanting to expand his game and become more than the Tristan Thompson-lite he had been to date.

At the time, that seemed to mean he’d start taking three-pointers — something he’s said he wanted to start doing for a few years now. And Nance is shooting threes. Kind of. He still dribbles into long two-pointers on occasion and is only taking one three-pointer per game. The jury is still very much out on if this is real and opposing defenses are fine letting him take threes. He’s not really scoring much more either. As a scorer, he probably will stay what he is now.

Where Nance has grown is as a distributor, and it’s what makes him different from Thompson. So far this year, he’s averaging three assists per game — more than double his best mark to date, per basketball-reference. That’s the best average among Cavs who have played more than a handful of games.

Three times since Nov. 26, Nance has tied his career-high in assists with seven. On three other occasions, he’s had six assists in game. It’s not by accident that he has a career-best assist percentage of 17.8 percent, per Cleaning The Glass. By comparison, Thompson is averaging 2.1 assists per game with an assist percentage of 10.5, per Cleaning The Glass.

He’s also doing it on his lowest usage rate since his second NBA season, per basketball-reference. Somehow, playing with Jordan Clarkson and Collin Sexton has resulted in Nance having a lower usage rate than he had with LeBron James.

Now, Nance hasn’t become a new Timberwolves-era Kevin Love or anything. But a large chunk of his assists, and the plays Larry Drew calls for him, come on actions designed to him to use his passing skill. Nance will get the ball on the top of the key, hand the ball off to a guard and set a screen to create a three-point look:

One wrinkle he’ll have with Sexton is the same basic set-up, but Sexton rolls to the rim instead of popping out:

But he has actual court vision. This is a hard pass to make accurately:

And a pass like this shows that Nance is anticipating passing and making it part of his game. This isn’t Nikola Jokic-esque awareness of where other players are on the floor, but it’s not nothing either:

And, perhaps most interestingly, Nance has been given the freedom to push the ball up the floor off of rebounds. By doing this, he can help the Cavs speed up and at least try to create easy looks that won’t be there if he passes to a guard and gives the defense a few seconds to get back and set-up.

Cleveland needs him to play like this too, at least right now. Sexton’s biggest weakness may be in his floor vision. Clarkson is a black hole. Rodney Hood and Alec Burks aren’t exactly creating for others either. With the roster as is, Drew needs to rely on Nance to help create looks even a little bit; it’s functionally the same set-up Thompson has been used in since Love went down, except Nance is better at it.

The Cavs are 26th in the league in half-court offense at 89.5 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. Cleveland is near the bottom of the league just about every passing statistic. This is a team that needs all of the easy buckets it can muster and Nance’s passing helps.

Nance’s role when Love and Thompson are back remains to-be-determined — perhaps Drew can design some high-low action for Love and Nance together. When he’s played with another big this season, he’s been more often treated like a guard and stationed in the corners instead of being involved directly in sets in or near the paint.

But on a team full of players with sticky hands, the Cavs need guys who can keep the offense flowing even a little bit. This is, maybe, how Nance makes himself stand out.