Leandro Bolmaro's Passive Mindset Holds Him Back

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When the Minnesota Timberwolves flipped the 25th pick and a future 2nd rounder to the New York Knicks in order to move up two slots and select Leandro Bolmaro at No. 23, I was, well, thrown a little bit for a loop.

First, because it was yet another trade in a night where all the 2020 draft assets that were expected to stay in Minnesota moved, while the first overall pick, which had been the belle of the trade rumor ball for months, stayed put. I knew Bolmaro was in that second-tier of foreign-born, non-NCAA playing prospects, behind Deni Avdija and Killian Hayes. But as a rule of thumb these days, I don’t exactly want to learn a lot about foreign-born, non-lottery prospects. Doing your homework when cheering for the Wolves just ends with heartbreak, like when Shabazz “What’s My Age Again?” Muhammad goes a pick before some 6’9” Greek dude that looks fun, or when Gorgui “I’ll Turn 24 Before The All-Star Break” Dieng goes six slots before some 7’2” French guy.

Reminder: Those both happened in the same draft. Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn before Steph Curry might be the bigger meme these days, but in a span of five drafts, the Wolves twice took a burnout who played the same position as a future multi-time MVP literally the pick before that future multi-time MVP heard their name called.

Anyway, enough about the follies of the past, I think I’ve proven the merit to my wait-and-see approach when it comes to all Wolves picks outside of the lottery.

So, imagine my surprise when I fired up Basketball-Reference after the pick was confirmed, only to find out that the Wolves traded up to spend the 23rd pick on a 20-year old player who was 11 for 41 (27%) from the field so far in the 2020-21 season, coming off of a year where he shot 37% in upper-league competition (Bolmero was utilized in basically the equivalent of a two-way contract with Barcelona last season, splitting time between the 1st and 3rd-division teams in Barcelona’s system).

Raw stats aren’t everything, Giannis Antetokounmpo famously only shot 46% from the field in his last pre-draft season with a semi-professional, third-division Greek team. But, he was only 18 years old, had only been playing basketball for six years, grew multiple inches after he got drafted, and his legendary work ethic turned from a scrawny, thin teenager, to one of the strongest players in the NBA. It’s worth noting in this case that Bolmaro plays for Barcelona, one of four teams to play in both the toughest non-NBA domestic league in the world (Spain), and the toughest non-NBA international league in the world (Euroleague). So, while Bolmaro isn’t playing against slouches, 27% is still 27%.

Betting on any one player who shoots that poorly from the field in pre-NBA play to develop so dramatically that they become above-average NBA scorers, well, that’s a really bad bet. We remember all the players like Giannis or Paul Goerge, the few who are able to pull it off, while it takes an insanely high draft position or such an incredible surprise selection to make names like Dragan Bender or Bruno Caboclo memorable amongst the pile of poor stats no-show in NBA history. Few remember Nemanja Nedovic, despite the viral videos, a catchy nickname (The European Derrick Rose!), and a first-round selection just seven years ago. A poor pre-NBA statistical profile, in which he shot just 37% from the field in his 10 Euroleague games the season before he was drafted, precipitated a poor NBA statistical profile, and he was quietly waved after one invisible season on the 51-31 Warriors’ bench, never to return to an NBA roster again.

So, why take Leandro Bolmaro with the 23rd pick if he’s also shooting so poorly from the field?

Well, this is what a wrote last week when assessing Bolmaro’s place as one of the strands emanating from the Robert Covington trade:

Additionally, Leandro Bolmaro has entered into the Timberwolves’s draft rights ledger, as the 6’7” Argentinian wing was happy to stay in Barcelona with their 2020-21 season already in progress, wisely avoiding a situation in which he would enter as the 5th wheel in the ongoing Wolves wing logjam.

Historically, the 23rd pick is a little high for draft-and-stash candidates, but that’s by no means an indication of guaranteed NBA success, or even arrival. Anzejs Pasecniks made the Wizards wait two seasons for their 25th overall selection in 2017 to arrive stateside, then submitted a downright pedestrian rookie season at the age of 24 last year. But at least Pasecniks finally arrived, as the Spurs are still waiting on 2015’s 26th overall pick Nikola Milutinov to take the plunge. Milutinov, meanwhile, complained to Euro media this summer that the Spurs “were never serious” about rostering him, before signing another three-year deal in Russia.

Bolmaro might be a fine NBA player someday, he’s got decent size for a wing, his change of direction looks pretty shifty on some of his dribble combos, and not to mention his fearless flair for the dramatic with all of his high-risk, high-reward passing exploits. But, when faced with the potential to chase an NBA dream, Bolmaro appeared to not even hesitate to reaffirm his prior commitment to his mere 13 minutes per game stipend in Spain, a decision I have to believe may have been influenced by his 27% field goal percentage so far this season in European play.

And there’s nothing wrong with choosing to self-stash, better to develop over there on taking up a foreign team’s roster spot than to develop here, soaking up a valuable Timberwolves roster slot and starting the countdown towards restricted free agency, especially if the first year involved predictably rotting on the bench next to either an also-rotting Okogie or Culver. Because, hey, there’s always 2023, right San Antonio?

Briefly, this is worth restating, there’s nothing wrong with taking a draft-and-stash player, especially with the present uncertainty of our COVID-19 world. However, just because a player is a first-round draft and stash has absolutely no guarantees of NBA success, or that they’ll ever even be rostered. Fran Vazquez announced his retirement in May of this year at the age of 37. He retired as the Spanish League’s all-time leader in blocked shots, and without ever joining the Orlando Magic, who drafted him 11th overall back in 2005.

From the very jump, the idea of Bolmaro needs to be thought of as an “if,” not a “when.”

And, first and foremost, Bolmaro’s three-point shot needs to be thought of as an “if,” not a “when.” Check out his form, here:

Bolmaro makes the shot in this example, but this is pretty gross, especially from the waist down. I don’t love shooting form where the player moves the ball to about or behind the plane of their forehead, especially not when the entire shot hinges on the consistency of a long and isolated elbow action, but there are players who have been successful shooters with upper-body motions like this. The real problem is that the direction that his feet are pointing aren’t in tandem, which makes his knees bend deeply inward on his load up, and the unnecessary movement of his legs coming far, far apart in the air. Bolmaro is shooting from an unstable base, and there is a lot of post-release movement that serves no practical purpose, and the nature of physics is that the force we see moving the legs apart needs to be generated somewhere.

The good news is that correcting Bolmaro’s feet, their placement, and the direction they’re pointed, can streamline this shot and make it more efficient from a physics standpoint, which will lead to softer landings that don’t require this needless movement after release. The bad news is that Bolmaro is 20, and he’s still shooting like this. It can change, but it would be fantastic if he had already changed by now. The result is that across all levels of play in his budding professional career, Bolmaro has shot 70 of 250 from three, which is only 28%.

Anyways, with that requisite analysis out of the way, and it is requisite for analyzing any roster decision in today’s spacing-educated NBA, let’s break down the paragraph of quick analysis I wrote last week:

“Bolmaro might be a fine NBA player someday, he’s got decent size for a wing, his change of direction looks pretty shifty on some of his dribble combos.”

When trying to write about somebody who currently looks like a throw-in extrapolated off of a previous thrown-in of the Covington trade, I tried to leave some nuance left unsaid. I probably overrepresented his size, as 6’7” would make him big for a shooting guard, but definitely undersized as a small forward. Given that he’s listed at only 200 pounds and doesn’t really use his body as leverage around the rim, he definitely forecasts more as a shooting guard than a small forward offensively. However, I might’ve undersold his on-ball change-of-direction abilities, as even though there’s an argument to be made that Balmaro dribbles a little too high or too loose, his ability to stop-and-start is clearly already NBA level. Creating separation will catch the eyes of GMs all over the NBA, as it’s unlikely to ever go out of style — certainly not in the next 5-10 years.

[…] and not to mention his fearless flair for the dramatic with all of his high-risk, high-reward passing exploits.

There’s an argument to be made that I undersold Balmaro again, here, at least if you’re an optimist. Watching all of his assists so far this season, you’ll quickly notice that he’s comfortable passing with either hand, possesses fantastic game-sense as well as anticipation skills, and isn’t scared trying to throw through tight windows as long as there’s a high-quality shot waiting on the other end. Bolmaro’s assists hit his target in their hands, and he modulates his velocity on passes nicely, without ever carelessly hanging a pass that needs to be lasered through an attentive defense. However, flipping over to his turnovers, watching all of them in a row will quickly have you questioning if everything kind I just said about Bolmaro is just confirmation bias. Simply put, the flashes are there, but there is no consistency to be found in any aspect of his passing. You’ll see whatever you want to see, and making an ironclad prediction for what he’ll look like if he’ll ever join the NBA is pretty pointless.

Anyways, here’s a pass that will get you dreaming about what he could be:

But, watching all of these passes and turnovers together at once is a bit of a strange viewing party when considering that this is a player who is shooting 27% from the field. While the clip I just pulled does not fall into this category, so many of his passing turnovers seem to come from just being gun shy at pulling the trigger on wide-open, high-quality shots, and instead opting to string the play out too long and trying to get cute with an extra pass that developed so slowly that the defense can recover back into the play.

Take this play for example:

Everything about this play is so fantastic… up until the moment that Bolmaro takes that extra dribble in the restricted area, and decides to loop this play around on the backside. Just because his matchup jumps into the air doesn’t mean this is the right decision, it means that even the defender knew he was so cooked that he might as well gamble with trying to perfectly time his jump and get a block. Bolmaro has only himself to blame for this awkward position, as his inside, left foot step as he enters the paint is just awkward. It’s too far away from his defender, and it’s going to carry him to where the lane line meets the baseline, an angle not conducive to finishing at any level. Worse, he has now blown his chance to initiate contact against his defender in an attempt to win the leverage battle as he goes into his finish. You need to push off from your inside foot to fight off pressure from the outside, not the outside foot to fight off pressure from the outside. It’s something small and subtle that could be chalked up to inexperience, but this is something intuitive that young players eventually learn through trial and error… if they are looking to score.

Feel for the game, anticipation skills, size, quickness in both straight-line driving and changing direction are all fantastic, but this play was blown up because Bolmaro treated calling his own number as an afterthought, and it shows in his process. So, when he springs dramatically open, he doesn’t know what to do, leading to this forced pass back through the now collapsed teeth of the defense. When Steve Nash made looping fashionable, it was useful as a counter to teams sending taller, mobile defenders, players who were used to defending pick-and-roll in bursts, to smother the athletically-challenged Nash. The loop is meant to turn defending the pick-and-roll into a war of attrition, making those defenders sustain their pressure on Nash, who waited for any momentary slip-up with an arsenal of finishes, pivots, and stutter-steps waiting to be deployed at the drop of a hat. The loop was simply never meant to be a counter to the already desirable option of a wide-open path to the near side of the rim, especially if there wasn’t an athletic 7-footer laying in wait, able to block lofted finishes that undersized guards might attempt. For a 6’7” wing player to be successful in the NBA, they have to be ready to finish these promising situations off, not string them out.

You can like Balmaro for being selfless in his approach but still be grounded enough to acknowledge that players have to be ready to call your own number when you have to. When the ball’s in your hands on the basketball court, you’re temporarily the quarterback of the team, so there’s no need to throw to a wideout when the end zone is a foot away and you have a clear path in. It’s so frustrating because this tendency to over-pass is murdering Bolmaro’s pick-and-roll efficiency this season, despite playing with so many capable offensive threats and his own great feel for the game. Instead of being below-average in efficiency on a per-possession basis among his peers in the Spanish League with a decent sample of pick and roll possessions, Bolmaro could easily be an above-average threat, if he would only become more confident with calling his own number in obvious shooting situations. It’s not unlike a different player who also wore No. 9 for Barcelona and was drafted by the Timberwolves.

I’ll leave everybody with this though, this is why GMs can fall in love with guys who shot 27% from the field:

These are the types of finishes that Bolmaro needs to be ready to attempt. Where was this on that last turnover? Can you imagine how good Bolmaro might be if he’s able to get strong enough to attempt to cut the wind from out of the defender’s sails before the shot, but stealing his leverage by veering into him before he jumps in situations like these?

That would be a player who would be fun to watch in the NBA… if he ever decides to come over.

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