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FILM STUDY: What to make of Dzanan Musa?

Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

I can see it now. A future that, as these days turn faster and faster, grows closer and closer in the rearview mirror. A greyed, wizened version of myself sits calmly, peacefully, bouncing my grandkids on a knee, telling them tales of the 2019-2020 Brooklyn Nets. Okay… maybe not “telling,” as at that point we’ll be 30 years into communicating non-verbally through Elon Musk’s brain implant devices; plus, who knows if storytelling will even be necessary thanks to the power of a quick-twitch brain-chip internet search on the history of the National Basketball Associa––

*Ahem*, wow, what a tangent. Sorry about that. Where were we? On yeah. The future, bouncing the little ones on a knee, that stuff. I got it. I’m here.

So yes, traveling to the future 40-some odd years, and I’m transcribing (I guess?) a tale of the ages to the brain chips of my little pups. My grandchildren, AX27-TR and BK-12-MLB, sit, mouths agape, learning of the time that the Brooklyn Nets –– a team that had just signed Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, the Hall of Fame relics from my grandkid’s favorite all-inclusive social media app, TwittInstaTikTok –– were forced to deploy a backup backcourt of Theo Pinson and Dzanan Musa just one month into the exciting new era of “Clean Sweep” basketball. The horror!

I catch myself rooting for the underdogs, the guys who are repeatedly counted out, the dudes who find themselves scapegoated when our favorite sports teams underwhelm. Maybe I need to get a little tougher, meaner, more resolute, and punish the underachievers. I’m not sure. But regardless, I feel for guys like Dzanan Musa, submerged under water by expectations, pressed further into the depths of those murky seas by the impatient onlookers who curse the skies after each and every mistake.

Buuuut (and here’s when I fully contradict myself), with all this extra time on my hands, I cannot stop my mind from wandering back to that strange month-long stretch when Sean Marks, Kenny Atkinson and the rest of the Nets’ brass were forced to upgrade the pair of Long Islanders (well, technically a Bosnian and a North Carolinian, but I digress…) to the ever-changing 10-man rotation. While deploying Musa and Pinson for a combined 34 minutes a game didn’t necessarily have much of an effect on Brooklyn’s actual record (the Nets went 9-6 from November 11 to December 12), it did, however, do a number on the sanity of Brooklyn’s most loyal spectators.

Musa and Pinson accounted for a whopping -11.9 win-shares collectively while each shooting under 42 percent in effective field goal percentage according to BBall Reference. Hey @NetsDepiction, go ahead and cue up the “MY EYES” .gif here.

What better place to begin than to backtrack to that fateful day when Dzanan Musa became a Man of Brooklyn Culture: June 21 2018. Draft night. I’ll let The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks take it away with his draft-day thoughts on the Nets’ first-round pick:

“There’s a big drop-off after Doncic in this year’s international class, with Musa, the second European player to come off the board, going at no. 29. While there are concerns about his attitude and his shoot-first, -second, and -third mentality, his talent is too hard to pass up at this spot in the draft. The Nets have done a great job of being opportunistic over the past few years, as they got this pick for taking on DeMarre Carroll’s contract from the Raptors.

Grade: B”

We’re approaching two years to the day since Tjark laid forth his declarative evaluation, and Musa’s yet to shed that nasty bit of criticism regarding his shot selection. That willingness to launch boatloads of shots –– at-ungodly-unrepressed-will –– as if he’s Kyrie frickin’ Irving in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals helped Musa earn his first big league call-out from one of the industry’s brightest… though for all the wrong reasons. Here’s ESPN’s Zach Lowe on Musa’s, erm, fearlessness from his December 6th, 2019 “10 Things” column:

“Hypothesis: Musa has the largest ambition-to-talent ratio of any current player. One of the unexpected pleasures in Brooklyn’s wave of injuries has been watching Musa, thrust into duty, attempting acts of brazen individualism usually reserved for superstars. My man will go 1-on-3 in transition even if all three defenders are taller and more athletic than he is.

Going 7-of-40 from deep (17.5%!) has not sapped Musa’s bravado. Open catch-and-shoot 3s from just beyond the arc bore him. Musa lives for 28-footers.”

Not to pile on but John Hollinger, the former Grizzlies talent evaluator and The Athletic pundit, said similar things about Musa just last month:

“The Nets invested a first-round pick in him and probably would like to ride this out another year in ideal circumstances, but at some point they have to admit that he’s probably not going to make it. His body remains a major concern, he still takes crazy shots, and he doesn’t shoot them accurately...:

Unfortunately for Dzanan, those 28-footers that Lowe so eloquently described are still, to this day, the first thing that comes to mind when reminiscing about Musa’s second season in the association. Per NBA stats, deep threes from 27-feet out and further comprised nearly one-fourth of Musa’s total three-point diet, and on those attempts, Musa was successful just 20 percent of the time. Ill-advised attempts like the ones below completely inhibited the flow of Brooklyn’s offense.

One would think that, given his pedigree of oozing sweet-shooting floor-spacing potential, if we were to run Musa’s three-point diet through a strainer and remove those heinous deep threes, perhaps the kid’s three-point numbers would appear a bit more attractive to the naked eye.

Nope. Still shooting just 24 percent from 26-feet or closer. Crap. What if we also removed the 21-year-old’s “difficult” long-range attempts –– the step-backs, the runners, the pull-ups –– to give us the most purified three-point data set possible? EHNT, buzzer sound, no good! 26.2 percent from 26-feet or closer on a mostly stationary shot diet. Not great.

Pegged as an “excellent shooter off the dribble” by Draft Express’ Jonathan Givony in 2016, it’s troubling to see that this skill, nor really any expertise involving jump-shooting, has failed to translate for Musa here in the States. (Though, to Givony’s credit, he also described Musa as “more of a volume shooter than an efficient one.” Spot on.)

Ideally, shots like the one below will increasingly comprise Dzanan’s long-range bombing as time progresses. But as of now, we’re a ways away from that being the case, at best.

Of course, Musa was labeled as more than just a specialist coming into the league as a youthful brown-eyed blue-chipper. According to the The Ringer’s 2018 mock draft board, the kid displayed “shades of Rodney Hood” as a sparkplug with a “soft floater that’d make Mike Conley Jr. proud.” That nifty in-between game was one of the few areas of offensive comfort for Musa this season. Flipping balanced teardrop floaters and sweeping hooks with both hands –– sometimes even over behemoth defenders –– after being run off the line could be the catalytic skill that furthers exponential offensive growth, who knows.

Musa’s at-rim finishing, however, was a completely different story. Per NBA stats, Musa’s 50 percent shooting from the restricted-area ranked 304th of the 318 players who qualified (minimum 50 attempts). Musa’s rather average athleticism and hunched frame work against him in tandem, mitigating the advantages that his slippery handle would normally provide.

To make matters worse, there’s that immutably dauntless confidence that causes the kid to hallucinate driving lanes off sheer misguided optimism, leading to heaps of weakside rejections from the opposition. A 6’9” player who can readily create for himself shouldn’t struggle so much with having his shot blocked, yet Musa finished third on the Nets in blocked shots against per-100 possessions (to even out for sample size). You’ll see it first hand in the video below; even YES Network’s Ryan Ruocco can’t help but express his displeasure with Musa’s hoggyness (porcine propensity?)

Turnovers also proved to be an issue for Musa in year two, and Dzanan’s 15.5 percent turnover percentage was Brooklyn’s fourth-highest giveaway rate behind Rodions Kurucs, the illustrious Theo Pinson, and DeAndre Jordan, who I wrote about recently. Musa’s live-ball hiccups ranged from traveling violations to outright dropping the ball while trying to beat his defender with flashy dribbles, though his most recurrent mishap pertained to whiffing on passes to shooters moving to-and-from the corners. Utilizing a bounce pass –– rather than the overhead throw-in skip-pass –– would greatly behoove Musa in situations like the ones below. Done correctly, a bouncing, skipping whizz of a pass should be able cross the court completely uninhibited by the tips of defensive fingers.

Like most things Dzanan Musa, his defensive package featured instances of prominence ––– hidden nuggets of potential found deep under the surface of a largely uninspiring whole. In the “on ball” setting, Musa’s size at his position worked well in his favor, and that 6’8.5” wingspan allowed for him to slide in-between his man and the basket should a free lane materialize. His footwork also appeared to be a strength. Notice how, in keeping his hips open, his knees bent, and his center of gravity low to the ground, Musa is able to smother Dallas’ Jalen Brunson in the one-on-one setting in the second clip below.

And now for the other side of the coin: off-ball defense, the main reason the 21-year-old graded out as such a poor 25th-percentile overall defender, per Synergy.

To put it simply, Musa struggled mightily with defending in space and showcased little comfort level with the concept of working with others cohesively on D. Here, after Musa’s man (fellow Balkan Dario Saric) sets a soft pin-down on Caris LeVert, Musa fails to switch out to Devin Booker, giving the Phoenix sniper all the space he needs to rise up in Dzanan’s grill.

And here, the Bosnian digs foolishly at Miami’s Jimmy Butler near the elbow, allowing for Musa’s man, Kendrick Nunn, to rise quietly from the corner to the wing for the easy Pop-A-Shot three.

Like most players his age, Musa is prone to losing his assignments on backdoor cuts. Notice how, in one split-second, after Musa’s scope of vision deviates away from his man and toward the on-ball action, Kendrick Nunn pounces and cuts to the basket for the easy two-point look on the reverse.

And then, from that same accursed game against the Miami Heat, Musa kindly donates a free trip to the basket –– complementary drinks included –– to (sigh) Kendrick friggin’ Nunn after calling for the assignment in transition. This one hurts.

In its totality, Dzanan Musa’s second season in the NBA was far from successful. While there were glimpses of tangible skillfulness on both ends of the floor, Musa’s blemishes still far outweigh his modest positives in the grand scheme of things. One could argue that he’s done very little to tackle his pre-draft concerns: He’s still a pass-aversive player, his 3-point shot is more theoretical than practical, he’s (at this point) a one-level scorer, and he’s prone to defensive miscues like most players his age.

While I do have moderate faith that he’ll improve down the line, given the magnitude of Brooklyn’s championship expectations, it’s unlikely that the unpolished 2018 first-rounder will receive much burn during the next handful of seasons. As of now, I’m “out” on the prospect of Dzanan Musa contributing anything meaningful as a Net, though I do hope the kid proves me wrong. Dzanan, make me look silly.