Debate raged regarding Joel Embiid during the majority of his rookie contract. Embiid’s believers would point to his otherworldly numbers to show his potential for dominance. Others would point to columns such as games and minutes played to reinforce a narrative that Joel could never be counted on to carry an NBA franchise.
Boban Marjanovic, 30, has similarly outstanding advanced metrics. The limiting factor for Marjanovic, so far in his career, has been scheme and conditioning related more than health. Still, with the time he is given on the floor, the numbers are striking.
“Bobi,” as Tobias Harris affectionately calls him, is Serbian and has played professionally since he was a 6’10” 14 year old. He entered the NBA in 2015 and scored 18 points for the San Antonio Spurs against a seemingly helpless 76ers team in December of that year. Anyone who stayed until the end of that early season rout (guilty) witnessed a player who was overwhelmingly massive. But his size was just part of the equation. He also displayed a deft and soft touch anywhere within 15′ of the rim. At times, he appeared to simply place the ball in the basket from 8′ away.
Since that debut, Marjanovic has been mainly used as a specialist in very limited minutes. He has averaged just 9 minutes per game in his NBA career, which represents basically third stringer status. But when you look at the numbers when he is on the floor, something fascinating happens. Turns out, Marjanovic is really, really good….
Comparing the Numbers
Let’s do a silly exercise with numbers to have some fun. Let’s compare Marjanovic with Karl Anthony Towns on a per 100 possessions basis.
So let’s look at this for a moment. Adjusting for play time, Marjanovic is an extremely effective player. In fact, in his time on the floor, he scores as much, and has a more positive impact on his team on both ends of the floor as Karl Anthony Towns.
No, I’m not suggesting that Boban is a better player than KAT, but this comparison serves to illustrate just how effective Marjanovic can be when used correctly.
Increasing the Sample Size
Take Thursday against the Heat for example. Marjanovic started and played well in 27 minutes. Brett Brown spoke about figuring out just how much Boban he could get. “I said before this game started, the tolerance level that I intended to have with, say Boban [Marjanović]. At what point, does [Kelly] Olynyk punish that matchup? So, you’re learning. I wanted to take it as far as I could, so that we have a chance to learn what do we have in Boban.”
Marjanovic scored 19 points on only 7 shot attempts with 7 free throws Thursday. He was a plus 10 in his 27 minutes in a 4-point victory. He also added 12 rebounds, including 4 offensive boards, in the game. So this begs the question, can Boban be counted on to play more?
“Well, initially, I was always curious about his conditioning. Is he going to be able to sustain whatever period of minutes that I was giving him?” said Brown. “I think I said pregame, I hope I’m going more like five-minute clumps, six-minute clumps. I’m not worried about if it ends up thirty minutes, but I am the duration.” In other words, Brown believes that quick rotations in relatively short spurts are the best use of Boban’s availability.
“He kept telling me he was fine, and the game spun out in that first period and he was really good…in general, I thought that he was really good.”
Why it Matters
Brett is taking the next week as Joel Embiid rests his sore knee to figure out just how far he can expect to push Boban. It’s also probably fair to guess that Brown wants to see what other teams do to exploit the skilled but not lightning quick 7’3″ big man. This will be key to seeing just what types of situations that the Sixers can expect to put him into in a playoff series.
“There were times that you knew the matchup was unfavorable and so we got him out,” Brett said in deference to the very real issues in lateral pick and roll and screen movements that Bobi has. Teams who are able to run heavy pick and roll can exploit Marjanovic’s lack of quickness.
Brett is looking to have credible play at all roles for 48 minutes. You assume that Joel will play 32-35 minutes per game in the playoffs. This discovery process is really intended to figure out what options the team has for the balance of those center minutes in any given matchup.
Styles Make Fights
On Saturday afternoon, Boban struggled along with the rest of the Sixers in a matchup of size versus skill. The Portland Trailblazers used a number of screens and lateral actions to force the Sixers to defend in space. The results were problematic. Boban was a -7 in 19 minutes played with just 4 points and 5 rebounds. Unfortunately, Jonah Bolden wasn’t much better and sat the second half.
Saturday was an example that teams who can play “5 out” can pull Boban away from the rim protector anchor “Batman” role that the Sixers firmly believe in. The Sixers defensive philosophy starts with an anchor to drop in coverage and not allow easy looks at the basket. Joel Embiid is quite mobile for a man his size, but that combination is extremely rare. It appears that Brown is hoping that, as backups, the tandem of Boban and Jonah Bolden will give the team options to play against different matchups and play styles in the postseason.
Bolden is viewed as more mobile, more able to step out and defend in space but doesn’t have the experience or sheer massive size that Boban does deep in the interior. The team also has Amir Johnson who played in Delaware Friday night 2/22 to stay in shape. Amir lacks both the size of Boban and the quickness of Bolden but is a crafty veteran who knows where to be. The challenge is getting there in time. Amir was on the floor for the bulk of the big third quarter run that the Trailblazers made to blow the game open Saturday. Johnson was a -10 in just 3 minutes played.
Things got so bad that Mike Scott was called in to play center against the Blazers.
But for the first two games, at least, Boban has mostly passed the test and proved he can play. Bobi is just flat-out good.
“I thought, in general, he was very good, and he was our bell-ringer tonight.” -Brett Brown after Thursday’s win