Nothing about Larry Nance Jr.’s traditional stat line from last season screams ‘best player on an NBA team’. He finished last season averaging 10.1 points, 2.2 assists, and 7.3 rebounds per game. Those are solid numbers from a bench player, but again, those don’t jump off the page.
What does jump off the page is his versatile skillset. Nance possesses tools that NBA GMs dream of. He has jump-out-of-the-gym leaping ability, can stay in front of his man on defense, has a smooth jumper, can be a secondary creator, and has the ability to attack the basket off the dribble. It feels like that skillset should translate to better numbers than the ones he had last season.
There are many reasons why he hasn’t put up the numbers he probably should’ve. Many players in the league need to be put in a position to succeed in order to be the best version of themselves. Nance has not had that luxury. He spent the first two and a half seasons of his career on an abhorrent Los Angeles Lakers team. His rookie year coincided with Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour which resulted in one of the worst on-court basketball environments ever. Nance spent his next season and a half on an ill-fitting team that was trying to maneuver the salary cap and tank.
Unfortunately for Nance, his on-court situation didn’t get that much better in Cleveland despite being traded to a team with the greatest player of all-time on it in the midst of one of his best offensive seasons. Nance was asked to play center for long stretches of that season — not a position he’s best used as. That entire team was built around creating space around LeBron James at every position and having a center who could set solid screens and rebound.
That isn’t an environment Nance could thrive in given that isn’t his skillset. Nance looked good alongside James for stretches, but he struggled to find an ideal spot in the rotation which caused him to lose minutes as that team progressed in the playoffs.
Things haven’t gotten much better for Nance in terms of on-court fit. The 2018-19 season was a lost campaign in many ways as nothing about that team’s on-court construction was designed for winning. The following season was an improvement, but it wasn’t much better.
Nance is an incredibly skilled player but has never been put into a position to succeed. The NBA is becoming a position-less league, but it isn’t there yet. In many ways, Nance has the offensive skill set of a center with his insane leaping ability and defense breaking gravity as he rolls to the basket. Couple that with a 35.2% three-point shot and you have the makings of a great center. Unfortunately, he isn’t a center defensively. He can block shots, but at 6’7” he isn’t big enough to be a constant rim protector and isn’t a dominant rebounder either. Both skills are imperative for centers. Those limitations make him a five offensively and a four defensively have decreased his overall effectiveness.
Nance will be 28-years-old in a few weeks. It’s easy to write off a guy his age as saying he is what he is at this point. Generally, you don’t see players his age making big leaps. However, I think it’s fair to say that he’s never been put in a position to succeed during his career. Neither of the teams he’s played on has put him in a place where he can be the best version of himself. Maybe that changes this year with J.B. Bickerstaff flirting with the idea to put him more on the wing.
What last season was like
Last season was Nance’s best season as a pro. It was also his most efficient, as Nance posted a 59.6 true shooting percentage thanks to him shooting 35.2% from deep on 2.8 attempts a night. He proved that he’s more than capable of being an NBA shooter from deep. Nance produced career highs in points, rebounds, and effective field goal percentage.
What his role could look like
It appears that Nance will start on the bench behind Kevin Love and doesn’t seem to be in consideration for the small forward spot. That said, we know that Nance will be getting a lot of starts as it was already announced that Love will not be starting back-to-backs. Nance will probably be the guy who gets a start if Love or Andre Drummond can’t go for whatever reason.
No matter if he starts or not, I expect Nance to play about 30 minutes a game in a variety of different roles. Hopefully not having a defined position could help unlock some of Nance’s skills.
Three-point attempts are something that I want to see him improve on. As mentioned above, Nance had his most efficient shooting season from the floor. That was buoyed by shooting 35.2% from deep. Unfortunately, 2.8 attempts per game isn’t nearly high enough. A forward who can is most useful if defenses respect his shooting ability. So far, defenses do not respect his shot.
While shooting ability creates space, just attempting them can create space as well. I call it the “Marcus Smart” effect. Smart is a 31.8% career three-point shooter, but he attempts 4.6 threes a game. While defenders don’t fight over screens to cover him, they also don’t ignore him like they probably should. The simple truth is, NBA defenders will inherently not leave players that they know will shoot.
Nance hasn’t embraced that philosophy yet. While he looked comfortable taking threes last season, he wasn’t looking for them either. I’d like to see him hunt the three-point shot this season. Taking every available three within the flow of the offense is the only way to make defenses respect you as a shooter. The rest of his game will open up if defenses feel they need to respect him as a shooter.
I believe this will be Nance’s best season so far. J.B. Bickerstaff appears to be all-in on trying to find the best way to use him. Nance is one of the most skilled players on the roster. It’s up to the coaching staff to find the best possible way to use his unique skill set. Hopefully, this is the year a team finally does that.