Has Dorian Finney-Smith been the best Brooklyn Net six games into the season? The answer is a resounding “uh, maybe,” a response that would have either floored or dismayed the Nets fans of two weeks ago, likely both. I’m not here to definitively answer the question, to argue about the impact of Cam Thomas or any other Net, but rather to highlight how well Finney-Smith is playing on both ends of the floor.
When Nic Claxton went down with a high ankle sprain, Jacque Vaughn was faced with a decision: start Day’Ron Sharpe, or embrace a smaller lineup by starting Finney-Smith. When Vaughn opted for the latter, it seemingly signaled a return to a style of play we frequently saw from the post-deadline Nets last season.
Recall Brooklyn’s inspiring, 122-120 victory over the Denver Nuggets last March. Vaughn sat Claxton for long stretches of the second half, and his team switched every action Denver ran. They fought like hell to front Nikola Jokic in the post, doubling when necessary, and covered the weak-side with length and activity. The strategy was quite successful, particularly due to Finney-Smith’s play:
Since Brooklyn has gone small without Claxton, they've turned the defense up to a whole other level: pic.twitter.com/BWEVOoLWbA— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) March 12, 2023
Yet, Brooklyn’s training camp and pre-season were filled with talk of incorporating more drop coverage, keeping Claxton in the paint and asking guards to fight over ball-screens, a tactic we saw in spades against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Opening Night. But with Claxton forced out of the lineup, it appeared Brooklyn’s newfound identity would fall by the wayside.
Not quite. Finney-Smith, guarding opposing centers, is consistently dropping in ball-screen coverage, and with the requisite support from his teammates, is producing admirable results.
LaMelo Ball is a world-class manipulator of 2-on-1 advantages; picture one of his feathery floaters or alley-oop assists against drop. Yet, on this play, Finney-Smith out-smarts the All-Star guard, forcing Ball to travel:
It’s not entirely surprising that DFS has played strong drop coverage, given that awareness, anticipation, and length are tools he’s always had on D. And he hasn’t solely protected the paint this season, still switching onto the perimeter when necessary or simply taking those assignments. Yet, Finney-Smith been Brooklyn’s best defender in large part because he’s doing all the traditionally impactful Big Man Stuff, and doing it well.
(DFS = Damn Fine Stopper or alternately Damn Fine Shooter.)
If you turn your volume up for this one, you can hear him barking at Mikal Bridges to recover to the cutter Bridges just lost, then contesting a Terry Rozier floater:
Said Cam Thomas: “We have a small lineup where you used to switch everything, but you gotta remember that he is the 5 with that lineup. So you gotta be, you know, still pursuing around screens, little stuff like that. That’s the main thing, but it’s impressive though.”
Finney-Smith is limited by his size in comparison to the players he’s often guarded, and has forfeited rebounding position a couple times by jumping for improbable blocks. He’s not a fearsome shot-blocker, and won’t be considered for an All-Defense spot by playing center. But he’s made the transition from prototypical 3-and-D wing to stretch-5 on the fly, far more smoothly than could be reasonably expected.
By rolling with DFS in the starting lineup, Jacque Vaughn added spacing and shooting in Claxton’s stead without abandoning the defensive structure he worked to implement during pre-season.
“Dorian being a pick-and-pop center, effectively, I think has been great for us,” said Spencer Dinwiddie after Brooklyn’s loss to the Boston Celtics.
Let’s talk about the “pick-and-pop” part of that, as Finney-Smith’s offensive play is turning more heads, and rightfully so. That’ll happen when you open the season shooting 49% from deep, as DFS has. After shooting just 30.6% on threes as a Net last season, Finney-Smith underwent corrective surgery on a dislocated finger on his right hand; the procedure appears to have paid dividends. Should his percentage this season settle anywhere near the middle of those two extremes, around 40%, Brooklyn would be ecstatic.
Through six games, DFS isn’t just making his shots, but taking a ton of them, shooting 7.5 treys a night. Claxton’s absence is no boon to Brooklyn, but Finney-Smith has helped his team win the math game as a starter. Their season low in 3-point attempts came on Opening Night, Claxton’s lone appearance this season.
Finney-Smith’s early-season shot-making is even more dangerous when matched up with the traditional centers he's faced. Nikola Vucevic of the Chicago Bulls made the same mistake on back-to-back crunch-time possessions, lumbering back to the paint in semi-transition rather than locating his man, DFS. Old, big man habits may die hard, but when Finney-Smith is shooting like this, they’ll cost you:
You can see how more traditional centers struggle guarding the small-ball Nets in transition. Vucevic automatically runs back to the paint on D, leaving Dorian Finney-Smith two open threes in crunch-time: pic.twitter.com/GCZDT47lP2— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) November 4, 2023
Finney-Smith’s accuracy from deep isn’t necessarily surprising. Six games is a microscopic sample size — 7.3% of the season to be exact, and after his poor shooting stretch in Brooklyn last season plus offseason surgery, you may not have seen it coming. But true clairvoyance would’ve been required to predict this:
Whether attacking off a drive-and-kick or a pick-and-pop, Finney-Smith is handling the rock this season. The biggest flaw in his game is suddenly a talent, at least enough of one to drive through defenders and hit crunch-time, off-foot layups in back-to-back games.
Nikola Vucevic was long the poster-boy of skilled pick-and-pop bigs, with the necessary range to hit 3-pointers over tardy defenders as well as the agility to drive by/through close-outs. Watching him suffer on the other side of that equation while guarding Finney-Smith may have induced more pity if Nets fans hadn’t seen Vucevic kill their team with said ability throughout his career:
If that wasn’t enough, DFS is executing the finer points of pick-and-popping as center, just as he’s doing with his defense.
The Charlotte Hornets evidently weren’t going to stand for Finney-Smith raining 3-pointers on them, so they pre-rotated towards his pick-and-pops. Instead of asking Mark Williams to contain Brooklyn’s drivers and recover to Finney-Smith on the 3-point line, they assigned the latter responsibility to their nearest perimeter defender.
On this play, it’s Ball, leaving his man to sprint at the Nets’ hottest 3-point shooter:
Finney-Smith responds by catching the ball with one hand and firing it across the key to Lonnie Walker, right on the money. That’s a Nikola Jokic type of pass, and as a result, Mikal Bridges is shooting a wide-open corner three just two seconds after a drive on the other side of the court. As far as ball movement goes, that’s as good as it gets, made possible by Finney-Smith making a read before he even catches the ball and executing it beautifully.
Was Dorian Finney-Smith always secretly miscast as a wing rather than a pick-and-pop center? Or did he just adapt on the fly, embracing a new role starting with Brooklyn’s second game of the season?
Whatever the case, count his teammates among the impressed.
“I mean, it’s very impressive, for his size and his ability to just adjust and play the five, it just shows how much of a dawg he is, that he’s the picture perfect definition of the Brooklyn Nets as far as that underdog and having a chip on your shoulder,” said Lonnie Walker IV. “But Dorian’s Dorian. He plays with great confidence, he plays really hard, and having that mismatch really creates a lot of gray areas for other teams.”
When Nic Claxton eventually returns, it will be a welcome sight for the Nets. DFS may keep playing center in limited minutes off the bench, he may return to a more familiar role on the wing. No matter what happens, though, Dorian Finney-Smith adapting and thriving on both ends of the court in a new role won’t be forgotten. It may be the best story of the Nets’ season thus far.