What Really Happens in the Paint?
Since the very commencement of the NBA, the painted area under the basket has always been known as the spot on the floor that turns boys into men rather quickly. It does not take long for someone to get humbled.
From George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain, to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’neal, the low post has always been dominated by strong and powerful big men. You would feel the battle scars the morning after and the soreness would linger all throughout the day. Being an NBA big man does come with the glamour and fame, but it also comes with its fair share of bumps and bruises.
For young bigs, rookies in particular, it’s an entirely new reality that they will have to get used to if they wish to survive in the NBA.
“It’s a lot more grabbing, holding, fouling then it was in college,” said the 2016 Raptors’ ninth overall pick Jacob Poeltl. “I’m still trying to get used to it, trying to get a feel for how much I can do and at what point it’s a foul and the refs are going to call it, but it’s definitely very physical.”
Poeltl’s fellow rookie Pascal Siakam non-hesitantly agreed: “It’s tough. There’s a lot of grabbing and holding, and just pushing around. It’s tough. There’s a lot of physicality.”
Both Raptor rookies got their first taste of the relentless painted area early and often. With the incumbent starting power forward in Jared Sullinger out for a good chunk of the season nursing a foot injury, the development of both Siakam and Poeltl was accelerated. An injury to Patrick Patterson midway into the season and the ineffectiveness of the returning Sullinger only compounded the situation.
Head Coach Dwane Casey had no choice but to push his two young rookies further into the deep end. The combination of inexperience and lack of physical maturity for the two teenagers had forced both Poeltl and Siakam to learn the ways of the low block the hard way.
In Poeltl’s case, he was a natural centre, being forced to play a completely new position, banging it out with some of the more physical power forwards in the league – the Zach Randolphs and the Anthony Davis’ of the world.
“To start the season was a lot harder for me because I wasn’t used to it back then,” Explained Poeltl on the difficulty of getting used to the NBA game. “I think it was actually a preseason game against Washington against Marcin Gortat. That was one of those games where he just had my number because, like I said, I didn’t know. I didn’t have the experience at that point and he used that against me.”
Meanwhile for the New Mexico alum, Siakam was skyrocketed into the starting line-up right at the beginning of the season, slotted ahead of the veteran Patterson. Billed as a high-motor power forward with incredible athletic ability and agility for his size, a lack of experience and maturity has forced Siakam to not only fight to find his keep in the paint, but to realize how much more development he needs in order to become the player that he and the Toronto Raptors franchise expect him to become.
“Every night is a battle,” Said Siakam in reference to getting used to the league’s physicality. “I mean to me, especially coming in as a rookie, you get a chance being there and playing with those guys. Every night is tough for me.”
It really has been a tough welcoming parade for the rookie. With Siakam on the floor, the Raptors offensive rating sat at 105.2, but sharply increased to 113.2 in the time that the rookie has spent on the bench as per NBA.com data. Similarly on the opposite end, the Raptors were a much improved defensive unit with Siakam on the bench, as the high-upside forward produced a net negative in the time he has spent on the court this season.
Showing glimpses of potential is not good enough on this level of basketball and as both continue to grow as players, both learn the ropes and how to prepare for each challenge- understanding the trials and tribulations of each and every game.
“Naturally I look at what they like to do,” said Poeltl. “I try to take away what they try to do.”
Every night sees a new set of challenges and every big man has to be ready for it, especially rookies. Understanding what to do in the paint and who you are going up against is almost as important as physically banging it out with the opposition in the post.
“Definitely,” Said Siakam on whether or not there is a process to how he prepares for every game. “Some guys are more finesse and have a more perimeter game, and there are some guys who are more back to the basket so they are different players. Every night is a different match-up.”
It really is hard to understand how physical the paint is until you live a single NBA game under the basket. Therefore there is no surprise when big man are more than open to their peers stepping out and turning towards finesse, placing interior dominance on the back-burner.
“I like it, guys becoming more versatile,” Said Poeltl on the ever-changing role of the big man. “Back in the day everything was pretty much in the paint, but now big guys can do more than just one thing – they can step back and shoot. You can see it around the league – big guys are shooting threes now. That is a thing I’m working on as well.”
Yes, the big man position is changing, but it is hard to see the essence of the post game disappearing completely. While very physical and a mentally taxing aspect of the sport, it is one of the true beauties of the NBA game and slowly but surely, the two Raptor rookies will learn to cope with it.
The game may very well change, but the paint will always remain under the basket and as long as it’s there, the physicality between some of the NBA’s best big man will live on.