The Friday Screener: Caleb Houstan's Passing
Caleb Houstan has gotten off to a slow shooting start, but his passing is showing his versatility and ability to make an impact.
Caleb Houstan entered this season pegged as an elite shooter and connecting wing. He could knock down pull-ups, moved well without the ball, didn't hesitate to shoot off screens, and has a picturesque shooting form. Unfortunately, Houstan's shooting has yet to live up to the hype as he is shooting 35 percent from the floor and 26 percent from three. However, Houstan's connecting skills are translating beautifully and are highlighted by his passing.
Houstan won't be an elite playmaker or primary initiator, but he is proving to be an extremely impressive passer. He reliably makes the extra pass, knows how to read the weak side defense, passes while on the move, and changes angles to perfectly set up his teammates. Houstan showed off his floor awareness during his time at Montverde, but it translating to the next level in such a seamless fashion is highly encouraging for his potential role in the NBA as more than "just" a shooter.
One of the most appealing aspects of Houstan's passing is its simplistic nature. Nothing quite dampens the mood like calling something simplistic, but I mean that in the most loving way possible, and not at all as an indictment of the complexity of passes we'll see him make later. When I describe Houstan's passing as simplistic, it's based on Houstan exploiting what the defense gives him. Houstan doesn't force passes that aren't there. Instead, he reads the defense and finds an open teammate. This idea is most evident when Houstan drives from the top of the arc, and the defense either ball-watches or helps off the strong side corner. Given Houstan's size, he naturally attracts attention. Instead of forcing a tough shot, Houstan has an unselfish nature that encourages him to make the simple pass to the open shooter.
When Houstan drives, he is also capable of making more complex reads. In the NBA, off-ball shooters will regularly be rewarded by Houstan if they are willing to relocate. Obviously, at a lesser level because of the improved athleticism and overall defensive schemes, but you get the picture.
Here, Houstan goes through his reads with ease to find the open shooter. Houstan initially dribbles off the screen looking to score, but the defender takes away that option quickly. As Houstan gets to the top of the key, he has already decided to pass the ball and is reading the weak-side defense. Houstan initially looks for Moussa Diabate on the roll, but he sees that the primary defender is in a position to take away a bounce pass, and the help defender is on the backside to take away the lob. Given the coverage, Houstan knows Terrance Williams is lifting out of the corner for the open three.
Again, we can see Houstan process the defense to make the proper pass. This time, Houstan dribbles tighter off the screen, which dislodges his defender and forces the low man to fully rotate to the block. Houstan now has two options: Diabate cutting from the dunker spot or Eli Brooks on the weak side wing. Houstan reads the weak-side defender drop down to the cutter, so he makes the skip pass for the three.
When Houstan attacks, he isn't limited to making skip passes to unguarded shooters. He is more than comfortable threading the needle when getting downhill to set up teammates at the rim. Houstan isn't an explosive athlete, so his ability to create for others in the paint will be necessary for his future impact. This skill frequently shows itself out of the pick-and-roll or when Houstan attacks close-outs and forces defensive rotations.
Here, Houstan manipulates the defense with a well-executed drive. As the ball skips to Houstan, he uses a subtle shot fake to force a long closeout by the defender. Houstan then attacks the middle of the floor while Diabate slips to the area that Houstan's defender just vacated by closing out. Houstan has now beaten his initial defender and forced the defensive rotation. He knows that Diabate is rolling into acres of space, so Houstan changes the angle of his pass and doesn't even need to look to set up Diabate for the easy dunk.
This time, Houstan attacks downhill out of the pick-and-roll with intent. The screen takes Houstan's defender out of the play, and the drop defender allows Houstan to pick up momentum. Since the help defender stays home on the corner shooter, Houstan only has to worry about the drop defender. It is incredibly subtle, but watch for what Houstan does once he gets in the lane. Play it a couple times because it is really cool. I promise I missed it the first time as well. Houstan uses a subtle shot fake where he jerks his head and shoulders back to simulate going up for a layup. This move gets the defender to bite for that millisecond that Houstan needed. Houstan proceeds to make a live dribble wrap-around pass to Hunter Dickinson for the easy score.
Earlier I said that off-ball shooters who are willing to relocate will love playing with Houstan. Seems pretty safe to say that anyone willing to relocate on the perimeter or find open pockets in the lane will love playing with Houstan.
Houstan's late clock playmaking out of the pick-and-roll or by attacking closeouts is lovely. However, my favorite aspect of his passing arises when Houstan is run off screens and put in motion. Michigan is running some of the most NBA-esque offensive actions this season, and this shines with how they use Houstan. Teams like the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz constantly run their wings off screens and allow their high IQ wings to make the proper reads once the defense is imbalanced.
Here, Michigan puts Houstan in a dribble handoff and straight into a pick-and-roll with a backscreen on the weak-side. As Houstan comes off the screen, Brooks slips the backscreen since the lane is wide-open. Houstan sees and rewards the improvisation with a pinpoint live-dribble one-handed pass.
This time, Houstan runs off a pin-down screen into a dribble handoff. Diabate's defender switches to Houstan. At the same time, Williams pops out to the wing after setting the screen, and his defender is caught between two worlds: staying with Williams or cutting off Diabate's roll. Houstan reads the hesitation and sets up Diabate for the easy dunk.
Please bear with me on this momentary detour because I must further expound on that play. While Houstan runs off the screens, Adrien Nunez relocates from one corner to the other. It doesn't seem like much, but it gets his defender to turn his back and drags him away from the paint. At the same time, Brooks sinks to what is now the strong side corner. This move pulls his defender far enough away from the paint that he isn't a threat to disrupt the pass to the roller. If the defender did cheat too far then, Houstan could kick to Brooks for a corner three. If Williams's defender commits to Diabate's roll, Houstan can kick to Williams for an open three. Houstan made the correct read for the easiest basket, but it was a lovely play with numerous options.
Even when running in transition, Houstan sets up his teammates who are willing to work. Once Houstan corrals the loose ball below, he immediately gets it to the middle of the floor. As he pushes, Houstan has his head up the entire time. This awareness allows him to find Kobe Bufkin streaking up the wing for an easy layup. Houstan allowed himself a better angle for this pass and the vision to see it by getting to the middle of the floor.
The comparisons to Franz Wagner feel uninspired, but when you compare their connecting skills and unselfish demeanors, the comparisons feel more apt. Houstan entered this season with top-ten pick potential because of these connecting skills combined with elite shooting.
Unfortunately, Houstan's shooting has yet to come to fruition, and his defense has been a roller coaster, even though I've been mostly encouraged. What has passed with flying colors, though, is Houstan's passing and floor mapping. He makes the simple play, quickly progresses through his reads, and delivers passes in a myriad of angles. If Houstan wants to be the top-ten pick in the he was projected as in the 2022 NBA Draft his shooting will need to come around, but he is constantly proving that he has the connecting skills to fit in any rotation.