Malachi Flynn’s sudden success could not have come sooner.
Toronto’s only true point guard – if you want to call him that – Freddy VanVleet, averages the most minutes (38.2) in the league. Toronto’s second primary ballhandler, Pascal Siakam (37.6), is second.
Freddy, troubled by knee issues, was sent to an underground research facility in Flin Flon, Manitoba for emergency adamantium cellular reconstruction. The Freddy you see on the sidelines is a clone (might be Drake finally making himself useful with a mask). Pascal’s fending off hordes like Leonidas and, mostly alone, probing lines of defences like he’s rushing the Ardennes.
Malachi as a new, reliable scoring and playmaking option was timely, however short-lived it turned out to be.
He’s had ample opportunities, in his two years with Toronto, to be that player, with vacillating results.
Last year, when Toronto “tanked” the final chunk of the season, Malachi flourished, averaging 12.7 points, 4 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.7 turnovers on 45% effective field goal percentage, earning Rookie of the Month props in April.
Year Two can be difficult for sophomores. Teams are better prepared: tricks and tendencies revealed; expectations higher; margins of error thinner. That can weigh mightily on the most confident of egos let alone those with any molecular level of self-doubt.
Certainly, something happened around training camp. Malachi had a promising Summer League averaging 17, 5, and 3 on 41% shooting in four games. He looked ready to back up Freddy coming into the season.
The season commenced, but Flynn didn’t, playing a measly sequence of 3, 2, 3, 11, 3, 7, 7, 4, 3, 22, 3, 8,12, 14, and 15 minutes for the first fifteen games. Malachi’s limited minutes appeared, to me, to be a combination of unfortunate variables (A) Dalano Banton had a better outing at camp and/or Malachi had a bad one (B) Toronto trialled Goran Dragić, and (C) Malachi’s size and style of play did not align with Masai and Nurse’s new Length + Strength plan of attack.
His confidence looked compromised, each miss or mistake compounding his frustration. He played only random spot minutes when Nurse desperately searched for a pulse from Toronto’s mortiferous bench, and in garbage time. And, still, he underperformed.
It didn’t help that Papa Flynn – another tragic consequence of loudmouth, babyboomer shitsticks having access to social media – was over on the digital sidelines squawking about his son’s pick-and-roll prowess and Nick Nurse’s poor coaching.
Another unnecessary dimension of expectation zeroing in on young Malachi.
When Flynn was afforded greater, meaningful minutes, he still floundered. He started against Philly early in the season and finished 2/12. Against, Utah and Memphis, Flynn played 22 minutes in both and went 2/9 and 2/8 respectively.
Any limited success was mostly found in the aftermaths of blowouts, hitting double figures against Sacramento and Charlotte when the game mattered little.
It’s tough for any player to, suddenly, be thrown into the fray – particularly as an inexperienced, smaller point guard – and expected to succeed. It’s what makes an NBA player a true professional: the ability to perform at a high/elite level consistently for however many minutes or games required of them. Few can do it well.
That said, Flynn was in a full-on funk. Even in the G-League with the Raptors 905 – unlike Justin Champagnie, Dalano Banton, and Svi Mychaliuk who had big showings – Flynn was lacklustre. His opportunities running low.
Until February 28th.
After playing a modicum of minutes for another major stretch of the season, and stinking when getting significant ones (2/10 against Atlanta on February 26th), Flynn was, again, called to the front. This time as a starter.
Perhaps, that was what he needed. A shot in the arm, a vote of confidence, an opportunity to breathe easy and do what he knows he can do without the short hook looming from the bench and without Freddy or a hot Gary or a blossoming OG to demand the ball.
Whatever it was, it did the trick.
For four games in a row, Malachi looked like a legitimate NBA point guard. One who, if he had performed as such this entire year, would have played major, important bench minutes, and likely pushed the Raptors over the edge in a few close losses.
Check the difference:
Despite a decline in usage, Malachi scored and assisted at a higher rate, shot more efficiently on more attempts and turned the ball over less over that four-game stretch.
Toronto was starving for a third scorer and playmaker. The burden was too much for Gary and Pascal to bear alone.
There’s some reason to temper our excitement for Flynn. The games were, after all, not against the greatest of competition. That said, watching how he scored and playmaked/made/maded(?), suggests Flynn’s success was both a combination of newfound success and sustainable progress.
The Pick and Roll
Flynn is a scorer. And a darn good one at that. His bread and butter is the pick and roll where he is a master at utilizing multiple bodies to gain an advantage.
This year he used P&R in 34% of his possessions (1.6 possessions per game) – a percentile less than Freddy (7 possessions/game), Paul George (9.5/game), and Zach Lavine (7.9/game) – and scores 0.89 points per possession (FVV: 0.9 ppp, PG: 0.79 ppp, and Lavine: 0.96 ppp) – on 48% effective field goal percentage. An additional 15% of his possessions were in isolation where he scored 0.78 points per possession – similar to the likes of Brandon Ingram, Devin Booker, and CJ McCollum (all of whom take 2 more attempts per game than Malachi).
That scoring efficiency is fine, but Toronto needs more from its primary ball-handler. Someone to hunt and probe and upset defences rather than solo ride into battle like an upset Jon Snow.
The effect is twofold: it creates opportunities for teammates and it, further down the line, allows Flynn to find easier shots for himself – with defences compensating for his playmaking.
You’ll see what I mean here.
Again, early, contested jack here. No one’s moving. Defence can breathe easy. Everyone’s just watching Flynn:
Other times, Malachi’s need for the P&R impedes the flow of the Raptors offence. He often beckons for a screen, announcing to the entire arena his intentions:
This one he, literally, just waits till Boucher marches cross-court:
Flynn rejects the screen and welcomes one of the 3 best defenders in the league to challenge his shot. Boucher is open. Tobias Harris’ back is turned to Gary. Nope.
I admit the plays are cherry-picked as examples. Flynn does succeed in the pick and roll too. He just had not done it at a consistent rate or at a level justifying his lone adventures.
That’s changed in the last four games. Malachi has suddenly transformed from one of the least efficient P&R ballhandlers to one of the most productive.
Now, Flynn’s letting the play itself develop, reading the defence’s response to the initial action and reacting accordingly. You’ll see just that in these two plays below:
Seth Curry goes under the screen, the switch is sloppy, Flynn has an easy pull-up.
A minute later. Curry goes over the screen and recovers, Flynn pocket passes to Pascal for 2.
Mistakes still persist. Curry is screened a third time, this time in a zone. Nicholas Claxton helps high on the screen, Flynn pulls up. Look how wide open Scottie is.
Nonetheless, Flynn’s overall decision-making out of the P&R was substantially crisper and more efficient. He’s keeping his head up and – a sign of a maturing player – foreseeing plays prior to their unfolding.
Flynn’s eyes are on the rim. Mo Bamba is waiting to swallow the floater. Malachi dribbles into a gather, suggesting that very shot, but with the intention of delivering a bounce pass in motion to a rolling Scottie.
Flynn’s shot selection in the past four games also indicates major advancements.
For one, he’s scoring more within the flow of the offence than of his own making. Prior to February 28th, 60% of Flynn’s field goals made were unassisted and 40% assisted. Since then, that ratio’s flipped to 46%:54%.
Other numbers attest to a similar thesis.
Some of that is due to the fact that Flynn’s three-point shooting also drastically flipped from 29% on 66 attempted 3s to 55% on 20 attempts – he’s simply hitting more of the shots he’s given.
Still, the change in catch and shoot, pull-up, and dribbles per shot frequency all point towards a more patient style of scoring.
For two, when Flynn does attack, he’s getting to the rim and in the paint at a higher rate.
Leading up to February 28th, Flynn, among combo guards, was in the 21st percentile for at-rim attempts and 66th percentile for mid-range attempts. Since then, he’s in the 55th percentile for at-rim attacks and 27th in the mid-range.
Flynn’s not only attacking the rim more often, he’s doing it more efficiently too.
|Minutes per Game||Drives||Drive Points||Drive FG Percentage||Assists from Drives||Field Goal Attempts in the Restricted Area|
|Before February 28th, 2022||10||2.3||1.1||53||0.1||0.5|
|After February 28th, 2022||36||8.8||4||66.7||1.8||2.5|
The final and best example of Flynn’s sudden growth is his playmaking.
Look at the difference in passing data.
Flynn distributed more while turning the ball over less on a lesser usage. In those four games, he was at the 100th percentile in assist-to-usage ratio amongst all combo guards.
The sample size is small – though, it’s close to half his total minutes played all year – but counter that with the fact that he’s playing against starters in meaningful minutes and not against scrubbies in meaningless ones.
Again, it’s hard to know why, all of the sudden, Flynn’s advanced as a playmaker. He’s capable, no doubt. You look at his Summer League and pre-season games and you know he can control a game in tempo and in space. He’s just not been able to at the same consistent, efficacy as a Raptor.
Sometimes it’s as simple as the game just slowing down. It’s typical for rookies, generally, and young guards, specifically, to struggle with the speed, size, and strength of the NBA. The skill and athleticism jump from college to the League is across a chasm. It can take some players years to adapt.
Maybe, for Malachi, it took until March 2022 for it to click.
See how simple that was. A moment too soon, though, and the defence doesn’t collapse, a moment too late and he’s in deep doo-doo. That’s what I mean by probing. Flynn just needs to act as the bait, once the defenders respond, it’s an easy kickout.
If you recall, in the first clip of the article against Memphis, Flynn “gets lost in the forest” after a P&R. This time Flynn stays above his opponents:
These are the responsibilities of a ballhandling creator in the Modern NBA. Not only to score, but to use the threat of scoring as a way to disrupt defences and find open teammates. It has taken Flynn some time to figure that out. It’s what he has and should continue to focus on moving forward. The scoring will naturally follow
It’s immensely misfortunate that Flynn got injured when he did. He was a tippy-toe away from jumping the nest. When he returns, he may again regress. That’s how non-linear and touchy these things can be.
Flynn still proved to himself and to this franchise, that he can play in this league and do so in a way that elevates both him and his teammates. Better late than never.