Donovan Dent: How He's More Than Just the Best Playmaker in the Country
Donovan Dent has been one of the most imaginative and effective creators in the country this season.
Being a point guard in the NBA is incredibly hard. The position has evolved to a point where simply being a table setter isn’t enough, and being an immediately positive contributor is essentially unheard of. Now, point guards have to be able to create their own shot, create for others, and score in all three levels. Oh, and making it while being under 6’3” is incredibly rare now without an elite skill. Despite all the hurdles in front of him, Donovan Dent continues to trend towards being not only a legitimate prospect in the 2024 NBA Draft but the best playmaker in the country.
Do you remember the Netflix hit show from a few years ago The Queen’s Gambit? It starred Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon who was a chess prodigy. One of the recurring scenes was Beth lying in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, and playing game after game of chess against herself while imagining the pieces moving on the ceiling. She was planning, anticipating, and reacting to every move she’d ever studied, used, seen, or heard of. It allowed her to anticipate how every game she would play would go before a single piece was moved. That’s how I imagine Dent approaches his playmaking.
Dent’s playmaking engenders a sense of creativity and wonder that very few prospects do these days. In a world where so many of the offensive decisions are scripted, or at most a multiple-choice test, Dent is consistently improvising his own story. He has a way of manipulating and moving defenders that is exceptionally rare. A few years ago, Sharife Cooper took the draft community by storm through his bewildering playmaking, and Dent’s creation ability deserves to be put on the same pedestal.
So far this season, Dent has an assist rate of 38.9, which ranks 14th in the country on Barttorvik’s database. Spraying the ball around the floor is impressive, but that mindset is typically accompanied by high turnover numbers. Not with Dent who currently has a turnover rate of just 15.6 (which is lower than all but one player ahead of him in assist rate: Reece Beekman) and an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.67. To further illustrate the impressiveness of Dent’s raw numbers, if he keeps up this pace, he would be just the 13th player since 2008 to have an assist rate over 38 and a turnover rate under 16 (Beekman would also join him in this club). For a player like Dent who doesn’t focus on his scoring, we’ll get to that later, being able to consistently create for others while also taking exceptional care of the ball is of vital importance.
Aside from the efficiency of Dent’s playmaking, it’s his versatility that also stands out. Per Synergy, Dent ranks in the 90th percentile with 1.358 points per possession (PPP) plus assists overall, the 72nd percentile (0.975 PPP) in the pick-and-roll including passes, and the 71st percentile in isolation including passes (1.000 PPP). No matter the situation, Dent is consistently finding a way to set up a teammate for a quality look.
Given that the NBA is a pick-and-roll heavy league, it is encouraging that Dent is already so comfortable running it as 50.3% of his possessions (99th percentile in frequency) come in the pick-and-roll. Here, Dent showcases the immediacy of his processing speed, his quick first step, and his penchant for flair. As Dent comes off the screen, he turns on the jets to split the defense and attack the lane. The quickness of this move has now disposed of two defenders and created a three-on-one situation on the strong side of the court. Dent’s drive now forces the second help defender to rotate. Once Dent is satisfied that the help defender has fully committed, Dent leaps to his right to avoid the charge and freeze that defender for an extra split second before delivering a no look dump off for the easy dunk.
Here, we see Dent yet again create for a teammate at the rim, but this time by manipulating an off-ball help defender. As Dent comes off the screen, he immediately processes the drop coverage and puts his primary defender in jail by not letting him recover rim side. Dent continues to probe the lane and has now attracted both pick-and-roll defenders while creating a two-on-one situation on the left side of the court. Dent could easily make the kick out for the open three, but he wants the dunk. To dispatch the pesky help defender, Dent stares down his teammate on the wing. This look sends the help defender reeling to the perimeter while Dent delivers a no look pass for the dunk.
Even when Dent is faced with more competent and stubborn help defense, he still does a brilliant job of keeping the play alive and creating easy looks. Dent dribbles off the screen, and New Mexico State immediately switches while tagging the roller. So far, there’s no clear read for Dent. As Dent attacks the opposite block, his initial defender has maintained his pursuit, the initial drop defender has stayed attached, and now a third help defender has felt the need to make his presence felt. Instead of killing his dribble or taking a bad shot, Dent circles out to his right, acting like he’s going to reset the play. This move sends both help defenders back to the paint in search of their assignments and positions Dent’s defender in a spot that surrenders the baseline. Dent quickly crosses back towards the rim, which sends the help defenders into a tizzy desperate to find a man. In the chaos, Dent’s teammate is forgotten under the rim until Dent gifts him an open layup.
While Dent is more than adept at creating for teammates around the rim, he is also highly proficient at finding weak side shooters with ease. Here, Dent rejects the screen before it’s even set and drives baseline. His quick first step forces an early rotation by the low-man and frees up his teammate in the opposite corner with acres of space. With zero hesitation, Dent delivers an absolute laser of a live dribble skip pass to set up the three.
The play itself is beautiful, but the two most important factors of that pass are the velocity and accuracy with which the ball is delivered. By delivering the ball on a rope, Dent guarantees that the lone weak side defender has zero chance of even getting a contest on the shot. Additionally, Dent’s placement of the pass allows his teammate to get into his shot with obscene comfort. The shooter doesn’t have to adjust his feet, alter his balance, or reset in any way.
This time, Dent gets the switch in the pick-and-roll and catches the weak side defender sleeping. As Dent gets the help defender on his left hip, he has now created a narrow passing lane to the opposite corner. In this alley, Dent can see his teammate, but also the weak side defender who has both feet in the paint and is ball watching. Dent delivers another laser through traffic for the open three.
Dent’s ability to control pace and direction out of the pick-and-roll is special, but his first step allows him to regularly beat his defender with or without a screen. Here, Dent leaves his defender in the dust before forcing the rotations by two help defenders. The first help defender lazily swipes at the ball instead of dropping to the block, while the second help defender properly rotates to the rim. Dent elevates and extends the ball as if he’s going for a floater to guarantee that the defender jumps with him. Knowing that the defense didn’t properly execute their assignments, Dent bails out of the shot at the last second, drops it to his teammate, and sets up the easy layup.
Dent’s playmaking is one of the most surefire elite skills in the country. In a draft with so many question marks and lack of elite skills, Dent’s playmaking alone could see him start to climb up draft boards. That said, there are still plenty of hurdles for Dent to overcome.
The first glaring hurdle for Dent is his lack of size. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot that he can do about that. Standing at just 6’2” and 170 pounds, Dent doesn’t scream NBA size. While it’s really difficult for players under 6’3” to carve out a consistent role, it isn’t impossible. This year, there have been 39 players under 6’3” who have played at least 10 games. Some are seasoned veterans, while others are point-of-attack defensive specialists. Most, however, have grown into really prolific shooters and/or scorers.
This leads us to hurdle number two: Dent rarely looks for his own shot. On the season, per Synergy, Dent has 141 field goal attempts. Only 36 of those have been jumpers while 93 of them have been at the rim. For a 6’2” point guard, that’s not an ideal distribution or one that is likely to translate to an efficient level to the NBA. On the bright side, though, Dent is shooting 55.9% at the rim which isn’t a far shout from Isaiah Collier’s 61.9% or DJ Wagner’s 54.7%.
Dent’s at-rim finishing is eerily similar to his playmaking. He uses his burst to put himself in advantageous positions. He has really good touch and the strength to finish through contact. Even though he lacks elite size, his athleticism and understanding of angles allow him to adjust midair to finish with either hand.
Unfortunately, Dent’s outside shot is much less inspiring. So far, Dent is shooting 37.5% from three, which is an inspiring number and much improved upon the 21.1% he shot last season. Unfortunately, that 37.5% mark is on only 16 attempts, which is only three short of the total amount of threes he shot last season. Additionally, Dent’s free throw numbers (a widely used indicator of future shooting potential) leave a lot to be desired. After shooting 68.5% from the line last season, Dent is down to 64.7% this season on over double the attempts per game.
All of the indicators with Dent’s shot are worrying. The volume is low, the success is limited at best, the free throw numbers are low, and it looks like a last resort when he does take them. Dent doesn’t get much elevation, and the ball tends to come out flat. By no means is Dent’s shot a lost cause, but it certainly isn’t falling into the strength’s column at this time.
The final hurdle that Dent will have to overcome is the defensive questions. The main issue with Dent’s defense is simply his size. He won’t be switchable and will regularly be targeted at the next level. Despite his physical limitations, Dent’s defense has been quite sound. He holds his own at the point of attack and is extremely opportunistic. Small defenders aren’t asked to do much more than that in the NBA.
Even when we look at Dent’s defensive numbers, they stand out. When Dent is on the floor, New Mexico’s defensive rating is 90.6 (12th). When he’s off the floor, that number leaps to 100.6 (101st). Dent isn’t the sole cause for that disparity, playing a lot of his minutes with JT Toppin certainly helps, but he more than contributes. Additionally, Dent currently has a steal rate of 3.3 and a block rate of 2.2. Currently, there are only seven other players in the country who are 6’2” achieving those marks, and only 20 others have done it dating back to 2008. While Dent likely won’t be a world class defender, he may not be the pushover that some may expect.
In a draft class that is full of frustrations and question marks, Donovan Dent could continue to ascend the ranks. The questions about his size and shooting are legitimate. However, his shot feels workable, there are encouraging trends on defense, his at-rim scoring is creative and effective, and he’s the best playmaker in the country. As the season progresses, Dent could be a sleeper in the 2024 NBA Draft if he keeps this up.