Pablo Prigioni is the personification of the word “oxymoron.”
In his first season in the NBA, the Argentinian point guard has transitioned from intriguing sparkplug in the Knicks’ hot start to little-used afterthought in the Knicks’ midseason slump. Now, as New York takes its season-best 10-game winning streak into tonight’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Prigioni has seemingly become an indispensible starter on a championship contender.
“Pablo always brings energy,” noted Mike Woodson. “He generates defense for our ball club. All of his minutes are productive. Even back when they were small minutes, they were great minutes for our club.”
However, merely appreciating Prigioni for his ability to bring energy to the court is a vast underestimation of everything that he does well.
J.R. Smith agrees with this assessment and says that Prigioni’s value is not limited to his hustle, “He gives us so much versatility on the offensive and defensive end. Having two point guards out there makes it really tough for opponents to defend.”
Prigioni plays a sort of old school style. He always hustles for loose balls. He is unafraid to take a charge. Most importantly, he consistently looks to make the extra pass.
For an old school scout, “the eye test” sees that Prigioni is a fantastic passer who relishes opportunities when he can thread the needle for the highlight reel. On the other end of the spectrum, advanced sabermetric analysis confirms that Prigioni is a highly desirable teammate. For playing in the city that hardly ever misses a beat on anything sports-related, Prigioni’s incredible advanced statistics have miraculously gone unnoticed.
For starters, the most basic sabermetric stat that identifies Prigioni as a special passer is his Assist Ratio. Assist Ratio identifies what percentage of a team’s assists one player is responsible for. For a frame of reference, Chris Paul’s Assist Ratio is 36.6 and LeBron James’ is 23.1. (In case you were wondering, Kobe’s is 17.8 and Carmelo’s is 8.5).
Now, consider this: Pablo Prigioni’s Assist Ratio is an unheard of 42.7.
While most critics would counter by saying Prigioni’s Assist Ratio is only so high because he fails to score at a high volume, the fact of the matter is that Prigioni’s high Assist Ratio makes him perfect for his Knicks team.
“I think that I am a smart player and I know that the team doesn’t need me to do big things like score twenty points a night,” said Prigioni. “I know perfectly well what my role is for the team. I just try to jump onto the court and help the team win in any way possible. We have great players and great scorers. They know that they can score all the time. I think I’m good when I’m on the court because I try to give the extra pass and share the ball.”
Chris Copeland agrees, “He’s just so unselfish. This whole team is filled with extremely talented scorers but I think he’s as unselfish as it gets. He has been that missing link for us on the floor. He is really all about ball movement and making sure everybody gets a look.” Prigioni’s distributing prowess is evident as he leads the Knicks with an estimated 7.7 assists per 40 minutes of action, more than a full assist ahead of Raymond Felton.
Prigioni’s value to the Knicks, however, is not just limited to his passing. While his Assist Ratio would seemingly back up his biggest critics’ claims that he is unselfish to a fault, that is not necessarily true.
In fact, Prigioni is shooting more than he has all season (He’s attempted five shots in two games in April. He attempted 17 shots in the entire month of February) and has actually improved his accuracy exponentially since the beginning of the season.
At the start of the season, teammates had to beg Prigioni to take open looks. Now, the 36-year-old rookie shoots the ball effectively at .381% from deep and boasts an even more respectable .576 True Shooting percentage (an analytic that gives added weight to the extra point produced by the 3-point shot).
You might be surprised to learn this but Prigioni actually has a higher True Shooting percentage than threeKyrie Irving (.567). Granted, Irving shoots at a much higher volume than Prigioni. Still, the only point guards in the league who play more minutes per game than Prigioni and also boast higher True Shooting percentages than him are all extremely respected shooters: Jose Calderon, Steve Nash, Paul, Tony Parker, Isaiah Thomas, Stephen Curry and Mario Chalmers.
“From the first days of training camp, I knew that I needed to work on my shot,” admitted Prigioni. “The European League’s line was closer to the basket. I have worked on it at every practice. Now, I feel much better. I have a lot more confidence now.”
Kurt Thomas has noticed the strides Prigioni has made with his shooting, “He’s been huge. He gives us another dimension out on the floor. He’s a guy who can shoot the ball and stretch the defense.”
While Prigioni is stretching opposing defenses with his sharpshooting, he is also wreaking havoc with his defensive tenacity.
“He picks up full court on defense and makes life difficult for his opponents,” added former Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Camby, “He’s playing aggressive defense, locking down on opposing point guards, and – when they’re not looking – Pablo’s going to take the ball from them. He just seems to have a knack for always getting his hands on the basketball.”
The phenomenon Camby is referring to can be viewed here. Note that even after Prigioni makes the initial successful steal and beautifully leads a sprinting Anthony with a bounce pass, he goes right back to Gary Neal and nearly steals the inbound again. Actually, these kinds of plays happen quite frequently.
This type of relentless hustle and effort has been refreshing to see from an NBA player and is something that Prigioni brings with him to the court each and every night. Prigioni’s tireless motor almost makes you forget that he is older than nearly everyone on the court. Regardless of if the game is tied in the closing minutes or it is out of reach in a lopsided blowout by the middle of the third quarter, Prigioni can be found stirring in the backcourt assuming a full court press.
“I give 100 percent of my effort at all times,” noted Prigioni. “No matter what the score is, when I jump on the court, I feel that I owe it to the team to give my best. No matter if we are up or if we are down, I just try to play basketball and help the team play better.”
Woodson recognized the value of Prigioni’s effort and rewarded Prigioni with a start on March 18th in Utah. At that point in the season, the Knicks were mired in a season-worst four game losing streak and were on the tail end of a West coast road trip that had seen their two All-Stars suffer injuries.
Prigioni turned in as authentic a Prigioni performance as possible that night. Three points, three assists, two offensive rebounds, zero turnovers, and a charge taken. Although he only played 20 minutes, he left his mark on the court. He even instinctively stopped a Jazz fast break by fouling Paul Millsap before the break ever had an opportunity to materialize.
If there was a statistic for “good fouls committed,” Prigioni would likely find himself among the league leaders in the category. Thomas agrees, “He knows when to take a foul. He also knows when not to foul.”
Prigioni’s hustle and strong ability to close out on shooters has had a noticeably positive impact on the team. Over the 10-game stretch in which he has started, opponents are shooting 32.7 percent from three. For the season, opponents had been shooting 36.5 percent from deep against the Knicks.
Still, where Prigioni’s metric value is most dominant and has mysteriously not yet been covered is his offensive and defensive efficiencies.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, for the season, the Knicks have an Offensive Rating of 110.5. This means that per 100 possessions, the Knicks average 110.5 points.
Meanwhile, the Knicks’ Defensive Rating is 106.2, meaning they allow 106.2 points per 100 defensive possessions.
The difference in these efficiencies makes for a +4.3 net score over 100 possessions.
Now, consider this: according to Basketball-Reference’s lineup finder, in the cumulative 278 minutes that Prigioni and Chandler have been on the court together, the Knicks’ net scoring per 100 possessions increases from +4.3 to an astonishing +15.7.
In perspective, when Chandler has been on the floor with Carmelo Anthony throughout the season, the team’s net scoring per 100 possessions is a solid +6.9. However, when Chandler has been on the floor with both Anthony and Prigioni, that +6.9 net per 100 possessions increases to +15.7 as well.
Both Chandler and Anthony’s best three-man groupings with over 150 minutes of playing time together include Prigioni. (Anthony’s best two-man pairing comes with either Kenyon Martin or Steve Novak.)
For Chandler, the explanation is obvious. “[Pablo] just seems to make the right play all the time.”
Perhaps the biggest indicator that Prigioni’s metric stats correlate to what is working well on the court comes from J.R. Smith’s recent surge. Although Smith doesn’t start with Prigioni, the two are finding more time on the court together. In 780 minutes of court time together throughout the season, Prigioni has proved to be Smith’s most compatibly efficient teammate as they average a +9.5 net per 100 possessions. (Smith’s next best pairing is with Chandler at +8.6).
When I told Smith that his best minutes come with Prigioni on the court, Smith responded excitedly but not exactly surprised, “Wow. I didn’t know about that statistic but that’s big. For some reason we gel unbelievably great together and hopefully we can continue that throughout the playoffs.”
Chandler and Smith are not the only two Knicks who benefit the most through pairing with Prigioni. In fact, they are far from the only two:
Raymond Felton and Prigioni in 200 minutes of action have averaged a +19.2 net per 100 possessions. (Felton’s next best pair is with Martin at +10.2)
Jason Kidd and Prigioni in 230 minutes have averaged a +12.7 net per 100 possessions. (Kidd’s next best pair is with Felton at +7.6)
Steve Novak and Prigioni in 723 minutes have averaged a +10.3 net per 100 possessions. (Novak’s next best pair is with Anthony at 9.4)
Anthony, Martin, Shumpert, Copeland, and Camby all have Prigioni among their four best pairings as well. The only three players who Prigioni pairs with less effectively than the team’s +4.3 average are Stoudemire (+1.7), James White (-6.0), and Kurt Thomas (-7.6).
“Somebody brought it to my attention that we are undefeated since he’s become a starter,” Jason Kidd said while grinning when I asked him for a line about Prigioni’s impact. “How about that for a line?”
Prigioni admitted, “I don’t look too much at the statistics like I know everybody else does. I just try to bring the small details to the court like playing good defense, sharing the ball, and playing smart. But if the stats say that I am playing well, then I am happy to hear that.”
In many ways, the personified oxymoron’s playing style is fittingly paradoxical. Energizing yet aging. Consistently smart but not necessarily safe with the ball. If there is one thing that has no contrast in Prigioni’s performance on the court, it is his results. Be it from “the eye test” or from advanced statistics, most Knicks fans will agree that Prigioni has helped right the Knicks’ ship tremendously as they look ahead toward a pursuit of some long overdue postseason success.
Originally published on Sheridanhoops.com on April 5, 2013