In the words of Net Income, “Kenny Atkinson is a mensch.” He’s an intrepid warrior whose best work comes with his back against the wall – with assets depleted, the season on the line, and not one stable veteran to turn to.
Down 78-59 with 3:45 remaining in the third quarter during Tuesday’s national TV game against the Celtics, Kenny Atkinson – effectively – raised the white flag. He made a variety of changes in the next three minutes: out came some of Brooklyn’s elder statesmen (Wilson Chandler, Garrett Temple and Spencer Dinwiddie) and in came Caris LeVert, Rodions Kurucs and, as they say in the film credits, introducing….
Chris Chiozza, the 5’11” point guard from Memphis, Florida and ultimately Long Island had only been with the team for two short months since signing a two-way contract on January 4. He had played a few games with the Wizards earlier in the season. Since then, Brooklyn, Chiozza had played in a grand total 30 total minutes of Brooklyn Nets basketball prior to Tuesday’s big breakout performance. Most of those 30 minutes took place in garbage time, might I add.
Yet there he was, confidently stepping onto the floor in that third quarter, slapping hands with Spencer Dinwiddie, before dialing-in intensely, laser-focused on his goal: grab this plummeting Brooklyn Nets team by the horns and change the course of this downtrodden game.
To be completely transparent with you all, for those first few seconds, my mind was in the same place as (I’m sure) many of you. Who is this guy?, I questioned. What does Chris Chiozza bring to the table?
From his mouth to my ears and now to your reading eyes, I’ll let the man tell you himself, reciting – if you will – his mission statement as a player.
“I always come in and try to play as hard as I can, keeping the energy and the pace high because I feel like that’s to my advantage being a smaller guy,” Chiozza told me on Wednesday before the Memphis Grizzlies game. “I gotta be the hardest playing dude — the scrappiest — and it helps that I’m usually the fastest guy on the court; I use that to my advantage.”
What better place to begin than with his passing, since that’s how Chris immediately caught my eye.
Court-vision is a skill that many hope to attain but very few ever fully master. It’s basketball’s ultimate nature vs. nurture debate. To some, it’s a skillset that is given prenatally; to others, it’s an expertise that is hidden deep down within the soul – a basketball intelligence that takes years and years of nourishing and cultivation to ever fully sprout and harvest. Whatever your stance may be on the synthesis of passing, one thing is undeniable:
Chris Chiozza aka “Cheese” aka “Flash” aka “Chorizo” (really, Twitter?) aka “we need a better nickname for this guy” is blessed with pinpoint accuracy and passing flair, and he made that known loud and clear just one minute into Tuesday’s action.
Receiving the ball off the hand-off from DeAndre Jordan (in his favorite high-post positioning), Chiozza rampaged toward the basket with All-Star starter Kemba Walker stalking like a shadow. The 24-year-old University of Florida alum then arose, contorted, and rocketed a bullet to the weakside corner directly into the hands of Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot.
I, admittedly, leapt out of my seat the second this absolute dime of a skip-pass was launched from Chiozza’s spinning torso. It evoked a feeling I, frankly, hadn’t felt since the days of D’Angelo Russell, a time that grows more and more distant with every waking day. I’m sure most of you can relate; this Nets season has felt grossly monotonous at times, like watching the same movie on repeat – stuffed to the brim with endless downhill drives, packed with a near-surplus of failed alley-oops, and loaded with so, so many one-to-two pass possessions. Yet in that moment, for me at least, those feelings of frustrating stagnation were broken.
Holy crap, I thought, the Nets finally have themselves a pass-first player. Thank the heavens!
That cross-court missile was no mere anomaly. Chiozza’s ability to find his teammates before they even reached their spots was an immediate force multiplier to Brooklyn’s explosive resurgence – a comeback fittingly aired on the TNT network.
Most of Chris’ most prominent traits suggest that he is a “traditional” old-school floor general… his sprawling palette of assists in abundance, his teammate-first mentality, his ability to conceptualize the floor two steps ahead of the defense… but perhaps most evident of all is his commitment to involving each and every one of his teammates, no matter who that grouping may contain.
It’s a talent that comprised the genius of many great point guards before him – Jason Kidd, Chris Paul and Isiah Thomas… just to name a few – and it’s why, for me at least, he jumped off the page almost immediately. Already apparent of where and how all of his new teammates like to score, here, he finds Garrett Temple for one of his preferred wing threes:
Chiozza doesn’t just toss his passes, he flat-out launches them across the floor like a compressed version of Randy Johnson, regularly throwing 100 mile per hour heat. However, Chiozza’s entire passing portfolio comes ready-made with more than just water molecule-evaporating fastballs. Have a look at this and-1 special delivery to Rodions Kurucs…
To start, Chiozza readies his downhill attack, utilizing a Chris Paul push-ahead dribble with extra helpings of English to surge past DeAndre Jordan’s middle pick-and-roll ball-screen. Now in the right short-corner, he brings Boston’s versatile center Daniel Theis away from the hoop, opening up a potential driving lane. Rodions Kurucs, no stranger to backdoor movement, jumps at the opportunity to cut and score in the paint; all the while, at the tail-end of his second crossover, Chiozza flips an underhand softball pass from kneecap level with an almost hilarious amount of ease and precision to Kurucs, who scores plus the foul.
Chiozza makes this Bone Collector-like highlight look like a ho-hum daily chore, similar to you or me brushing those pearly whites, picking out a shirt to wear for work, and whipping up a quick breakfast. But understand that this level of spatial awareness and pinpoint accuracy –- especially for this Brooklyn team that ranks bottom-six in passes per game –- is nothing short of a revelation for on-court synergy as playoff time grows closer and closer in the rearview mirror.
As a passer, Chris Chiozza is basically the ultimate mid-inning reliever; we’ve already seen his fastball, his submarine pitch, so how about a look at his nasty knuckleball: that zippy bounce-pass that barely grazes the floor.
Guarded by All-Defensive teamer Marcus Smart, Chiozza executes a quick behind the back move and maintains a high dribble with the intent of bringing in a second ball-watching defender. It works: Javonte Green gets caught up in the action giving Chiozza just enough space to sling-shot this pristine bouncer to Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot in the corner.
You may have noticed that – through 2 games – TLC has been the beneficiary for a good number of Chiozza’s passes: 23 of them to be exact, the most of any player on this Nets team. I got the chance to ask Chiozza about his early partnership with Brooklyn’s latest 3-and-D wing.
“Just playing with him every day in workouts and practice, I know that he wants to get to that corner (and) shoot threes.” Chiozza continued, “he’s a good cutter and he knows I like to pass just from playing with me every day.”
With regard to this specific play, Chris detailed “it’s just knowing where the defense was at: I know they’re (Boston) a heavy-help team, so I knew that the skip-pass would be open.”
Of course, the undersized point guard can do more than just pass. Although he’s a different look at the point for Brooklyn at least in terms of stature – Sean Marks definitely attended post-grad at “Big Guard University” – his scoring profile greatly resembles that of a Markinson entity: 29 of his 58 total shots have come from behind the arc, 16 from the restricted area, and the mere remaining 13 from the dreaded “no man’s land” of the midrange and non-restricted painted area (or “floater range,” as I call it).
As Chiozza mentioned, he’s typically “the fastest player on the court.” That LaFerrari 0-to-60 speed in combination with his neck-breaking, vacuum-sealed-tight crossover produces some House of Highlights-worthy downhill domination. Notice the breathtaking balletic balance and sudden change of direction in one of the few noteworthy moments versus the Grizz:
The outside shooting is just as juicy. As a 3-point specialist, he’s a total water bug along the perimeter, side-stepping and lurching backwards into open shots, manipulating gravity like a Step Up breakdance finale, and looking the part of a DDR fanatic with a Ritalin prescription.
It remains to be seen if his 3-point proficiency – 41.4 percent on 29 total attempts – remains the norm in the big league NBA. He was a not-so-great 32.7 percent distanced shooter in college and a 31 percent G League deep threat. So I guess, we’ll see.
Defensively speaking, he’s more than held his own. His speed, which could greatly jump-start the pace of Brooklyn’s 16th-ranked fast-break offense, should come in just as handy on the other end of the floor. Dealing with screens has been a bit of pain-point for the Nets’ backcourt defense, as made evident by their awfully dismal 28th-ranked pick-and-roll ball-handler coverage. Chiozza is a physical, tireless defender who uses his pitter-patter footwork to cha-cha slide his way around lumbering big man picks. Never one to give up on the play, he makes his assignment work, sometimes leading to (uncalled) desperate push-offs.
Perhaps my favorite Chiozza defensive possession thus far: Off one of Brad Steven’s well-renowned ATOs, Chiozza mercilessly prowls behind Kemba Walker, sneaking around a titanium Enes Kanter screen before turning around – almost in a taunt – and smothering Kemba Walker into a highly unbalanced catch-and-shoot look.
We’re nearing a dangerously lengthy word-count on Chris Chiozza, wonderful as he may be, so for the sanctity of time-management, let’s close this baby out…
There are so many plays to choose from when encapsulating Chris Chiozza as a player, but one in particular stands out: four minutes and 12 seconds into the overtime thriller versus Boston, the floor general who was found deep in the undrafted haystack pushed the pace up the floor. A pair of crossovers yielded an opportunity for a pull-up floater, which Chiozza accepted gladly.
Ian Eagle said it best, that tear-drop was well short of the target. So, Chiozza skied for the board, and in one swift movement, tapped it to the corner to TLC who reset the play.
This wasn’t a jaw-dropping bucket, a highlight assist or even a game-saving defensive stop like some of the clips above. It simply an understated, high-IQ play – reading the floor almost instinctually to give Brooklyn another shot at a score.
In response to my question about this specific possession, Chiozza replied…
“When I shot it, I knew where he (TLC) was. Once I saw it come off, I knew I probably wouldn’t get the board, so I just tried to tip it out to where I thought he was.”
While listening to this quote in Brooklyn’s media room before the tip of Wednesday’s game, one excerpt stood out in particular.
“I knew I probably wouldn’t get the board.”
There’s something to Chiozza’s careful awareness when analyzing his shortcomings, churning his deficiencies into bona fide advantages. In this case, that meant finding a crevice of space for the ultra-surprising tip-out rather than risking a rebound battle with a larger player. This, of all things, exemplifies who Chris Chiozza is as a basketball player.
Or as he told Caris LeVert on Wednesday...
“Let me bring the ball up, and you’ve got to score. When you get to your spot, you just put your hands up, and I’ll get you the ball.”
Already boasting wisdom that most players could never dream to attain, Chris Chiozza’s career looks bright already; he’s masterfully self-aware.