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Breaking Down Jett Howard's Off-Ball Movement | The Friday Screener
Quality off-ball movers regularly generate scoring opportunities, and Jett Howard is excelling with his off-ball movement.
Jett Howard has quickly emerged as one of the most scintillating freshmen in the country due to his hot start for the Michigan Wolverines. Howard showed tremendous promise in his final season at IMG Academy, but his role was a bit more limited due to the tremendous talent that surrounded him. So far this season, Howard is a focal point for the Michigan offense, and he’s thriving. Howard’s tremendous offensive production is a symptom of many things, but his off-ball movement has been a main catalyst.
In the draft community, offensively focused wings are too often judged solely on the basis of if they are a primary initiator or not. At the very top of the draft, that is a skill set that should be sought after, but after the first couple of picks, that expectation should be minimal. This isn’t to say that players can’t develop into that role or that judging players on their ability to fill that role is wrong. Instead, it shouldn’t be the determining factor in evaluations as it so often is. The threshold of being a primary initiator in the NBA is so astronomically high, and there are myriad ways that players can take over a game without being a primary initiator, as Howard is quickly proving.
When off-ball movement gets mentioned, the vast majority of people immediately picture JJ Redick curling off screens for movement threes, or Richard Hamilton incessantly running through the floppy action for the Pistons, or Steph Curry covering every inch of the court in a single possession. The point is that off-ball movement comes in many forms and can be utilized in any way you can imagine. The thing with elite off-ball movers, though, is that it often takes time to master. The experience of recognizing defensive patterns, implementing subtle idiosyncrasies to their movement, and having a complete understanding of the floor is something most young players lack through no fault of their own. What Howard is quickly proving, though, is that off-ball movement is second nature to him and that he is more than comfortable leveraging it to create easy shots for himself or others.
Here, Howard only moves a few feet, but it makes all the difference on the play. The play starts with the ball rotating to Kobe Bufkin at the top of the arc and Howard above the break on the right wing. As Bufkin drives, Howard’s defender digs aggressively. Instead of staying put, Howard instinctively slides to the corner for the open three.
This movement may seem minimal, but it comes so naturally to Howard. If he had stayed where he was, Bufkin would’ve had a much more difficult kick out. By dropping to the corner when he did, Howard created an easy pass for Bufkin, ensured that his feet were going to be set for the shot, and increased the distance his defender had to cover on the recovery.
Again, we see how Howard instinctually moves just a few feet to create an open shot and easy passing lanes. Once Hunter Dickinson gets the ball in the post, the entire defense shifts their focus to him. Dickinson makes the safe kick out to the top of the arc once the double comes. As that pass is being made, Howard is simultaneously lifting out of the corner. This movement creates a passing lane that was previously blocked by the defender at the top of the zone, and it allows Howard’s initial defender to get impeded by the cut/makeshift screen.
This instinctual relocation ability is the baseline for successful off-ball shooters. Nothing that Howard did in those clips was extraordinary, but it does show his already innate understanding of floor spacing and positioning. Where the great off-ball scorers separate themselves, though, is that they can be put in motion on sets and relied upon to make a variety of decisions based on how the defense responds.
Here, and we’ll start with a basic one, Howard sets a lazy brush screen before sprinting to Tarris Reed at the top of the arc. Howard’s quick burst creates separation, and he receives the handoff. Howard doesn’t hesitate and shows his competency to knock down movement threes.
This time, Howard is coming out of the corner and running a give-and-go with Dickinson. Dickinson’s screen on the handoff creates space between Howard and his defender, forcing Dickinson’s defender to shade more toward Howard. Once Howard sees that Dickinson’s defender has two feet in the lane, and that Dickinson has disengaged from the screen, Howard promptly slips a pocket pass to Dickinson, who finishes through contact.
Plays like that are really encouraging for the type of player that Howard will grow into. He easily could’ve taken the deep mid-range pull-up, but instead, he displayed his basketball IQ by reading the help defender and setting up his teammate for an easier score. Instead of running Howard off of screens with the sole intention of shooting, he can be used to shoot, attack, or playmake, which opens up endless possibilities for the offense.
Here, Michigan starts their offense by running a dribble handoff on the right side while Howard runs off a pin-down screen on the left. Howard circles to the top of the arc for the handoff that then turns into a high pick-and-roll with Reed. As Howard comes off the screen, Reed’s defender meets him at the elbow. Howard immediately processes this and reads that the weakside defender isn’t tagging Reed. Howard quickly makes a perfect pocket pass that leads Reed to the rim for the finish and the foul.
Theoretically, we can imagine the different options that Howard could explore based on how the defense reacted. Thankfully, Michigan likes this play.
Here, they run the exact same play, but Pittsburgh switches at the handoff with Howard, so the defender is a step closer to Howard this time. As Howard curls off the screen, Reed’s defender drops to the lane to take away the roll, and the help defender digs at Howard. Howard does an excellent job of securing the ball to avoid the dig while accelerating to the rim for the easy finish.
Howard likely won’t grow into a true primary initiator, but he still frequently acts like a quarterback. Regardless of the play he’s running, Howard is constantly going through his progression and reading the defense. He has the scoring ability to finish at all three levels, and the passing skills to find teammates.
Here, Howard sprints off a pin-down screen and curls toward the middle of the floor. Howard attacks the lane and sees the rotation from the weakside defender. Instead of barreling to the rim, Howard has the body control, awareness, and passing ability to kill his momentum to avoid the charge and kick out to the open corner shooter.
Running the same plays repeatedly is often a killer for offenses. It’s easier for the defense to find counters, and most teams don’t have players who can process numerous reads in the blink of an eye. Well, Michigan seems to have one of those players in Howard, and they liked this play so much that they ran it again on the very next possession.
Now from the other side of the floor, Howard goes through the same process of attacking the middle of the floor. As he drives, the weakside defender stays home on the corner shooter as he’s not eager to relive the wide-open three he just surrendered. The only help defense that comes is a lazy swipe. Without hesitation, Howard attacks for an easy layup.
Too often, the descriptor of off-ball player is viewed with derision. All successful teams have off-ball players who make significant impacts through scoring, passing, and defending. In the 2023 NBA Draft class, there aren’t many prospects who are proving to be as versatile, mature, and effective with their off-ball play as Jett Howard. Howard’s ability to score in all three levels and create for others makes him one of the more fascinating wings in the country.