Taran Armstrong's Playmaking | The Friday Screener
Taran Armstrong is the best playmaker in the country because of his creativity, vision, and accuracy.
Taran Armstrong is the best playmaker in the country, and I’m not sure it’s even close. I don’t blame you if you don’t recognize the name, but it’s time to study up because the 6’5 Australian freshman from California Baptist is showing that he has the potential to be a first-round pick.
Armstrong’s box score numbers won’t shock you until you dive into his playmaking numbers. For starters, Armstrong’s 7.8 assists per game rank third in the country, and his assist percentage of 41.6 ranks fifth in the country. When we look at Armstrong’s numbers in a historical context, it further shows the uniqueness of his playmaking talents. According to Barttrovik.com, Armstrong would be only the fourth player to record an assist percentage of at least 40 with a usage rate of at least 20 while also being at least 6’5. I know that’s a lot, but in short, almost no one at Armstrong’s size has been as effective of a playmaker as he is this season. The two players to make the NBA from that list are Denzel Valentine and Michael Carter-Williams, who were in their senior and sophomore seasons, respectively. Not only were both those players older than Armstrong, but they were also surrounded by superior talent in better situations.
To further emphasize the absurdity of Armstrong’s playmaking, I’ll provide a counter to the argument against his lack of scoring reliability. Per Synergy, Armstrong ranks in the 37th percentile in points per possession (PPP) with 0.819. When his assists are added in, though, Armstrong ranks in the 94th percentile with 1.377 PPP. Armstrong’s assists don’t come cheaply. He consistently passes teammates open, manipulates the defense with his eyes, and could deliver precision passes while blindfolded. Armstrong has a tremendous amount of flair, accuracy, and creativity in his passing, making him the most impressive playmaker in the country.
Effective off-ball scorers, especially shooters, will love playing with Armstrong. The situation doesn’t matter much because Armstrong can make the pass if there is a sliver of space. Armstrong’s passes from isolation generate 1.625 PPP, which is an absurdly high rate. Here, Armstrong takes a dribble as if he will attack his defender. Without hesitation, Armstrong whips a no-look backhanded pass to his teammate on the opposite side of the court. Armstrong’s pass is on a rope with no arc, showing the tremendous pace he put on it, and it arrives directly to his teammate’s shooting pocket.
Given his shooting percentages, NBA defenders will be less inclined to jump at Armstrong’s shot fakes, but this is an excellent example of how he capitalizes and manipulates defenses when they make a slight mistake. Once his defender bites on the shot fake, Armstrong immediately attacks the paint. Armstrong keeps his eyes on the rim, which forces the help defender to rotate and the weak side defender to rotate to the block to cover. By keeping his eyes on the rim as he delivers the pass, Armstrong freezes the help defenders for that extra second that will force them to more aggressively closeout. Armstrong doesn’t get credited with the assist as his teammate attacks the closeout to set up the layup, but this basket never happens without Armstrong’s initial manipulation of the defense.
Given Armstrong’s lack of overt athleticism, he will likely rely on and run a surplus of pick-and-roll possessions. So far this season, Armstrong’s passes out of the pick-and-roll are generating 1.167 PPP overall (81st percentile), and his passes to the roller are generating 1.371 PPP (88th percentile).
Here, we see Armstrong expertly manipulate the defense with his eyes and use their rotations against them. As Armstrong comes off the screen, the defense doesn’t switch smoothly, requiring the help defender to leave the shooter and tag the roller. Armstrong knows that the help defender is eager to recover to the shooter, so he leaves his feet to simulate a pass back to his teammate on the wing, who he is staring at. Armstrong’s eyes convince the help defender that he needs to recover back to the shooter, but Armstrong’s initial defender hasn’t yet recovered to the roller. Without looking, Armstrong delivers a perfect pass to his teammate for the open dunk.
Armstrong is also adept at using screens to force switches which further aids his quality ball-handling. Armstrong’s teammate slips the screen, and the defense immediately switches. Armstrong proceeds to use a flurry of dribble moves to get in the paint and entice his initial defender to double. Not only does Armstrong have the awareness to quickly pass out of the double, but he also has the size and craft to change the angle of his release to pass over the defender and set up the foul.
While Armstrong is a master of improvisation, he is also exquisite at executing set plays and passing open teammates. Cal Baptist runs this play after giving up a basket a lot where they lift the center off the block to simulate a pick-and-roll, which empties the paint. Meanwhile, the in-bounder fakes receiving a pass at the top of the key before promptly cutting to the rim. Armstrong begins to make this pass before the cutter has reached the free-throw line. Armstrong quickly lunges into his pass and delivers it at a low angle. This release point lets him avoid his defender’s reach and slide it through that narrow window. Armstrong also puts enough pace on the pass with the backhand release, similar to what we saw earlier with the no-look skip pass, to ensure it bounces high enough for his teammate to easily gather it while also leading him straight to the rim.
Again, we see Armstrong lead his teammates to the rim by using unique angles few players even think about. This time, Cal Baptist runs Spain-action to create some movement and mismatches. As Armstrong comes off the screen, he sees the subtle miscommunication by the defense and that the weak side defender isn’t rotating over. This defensive miscue gives the roller a free path to the lane, but Armstrong has a significantly larger defender impeding his passing lane. Armstrong is unfazed, though, and delivers a perfect pass by changing the angle, using one hand, and putting spin on the pass to set up his teammate.
Finally, Armstrong is also a brilliant passer in the open court. His size allows him to be an impactful defensive rebounder (defensive rebound percentage of 18.3 ranks 15th in his conference), which helps his team initiate the fast break quicker.
Here, we see Armstrong push in transition. As he approaches half-court, Armstrong signals to his teammate to cut to the rim instead of going to the corner. The moment his teammate changes course, Armstrong takes one dribble to the side to give himself a better angle. From nearly 30 feet, Armstrong threads three defenders while on the move with a one-handed bounce pass that hits his teammate in stride and leads him to the opposite side of the rim.
Taran Armstrong isn’t a household name yet, but he should come draft time. Armstrong’s playmaking has a supernatural feel as he regularly makes passes that provoke noises you didn’t know you could make. There is a tremendous amount of flair to Armstrong’s game, but it isn’t flashy just for the sake of being flashy. Every pass and move Armstrong makes has an intention behind it. His utilization of no-look passes ensures he freezes the help defenders, not because they are sexy on the highlight tape (although they are). When he puts spin on an entry pass, it is because the pass is otherwise impossible, not because he thinks it looks cool. Even though he isn’t at a power five program or making national headlines, Taran Armstrong is the best playmaker in the country and worthy of a first-round pick based on his playmaking alone.