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Shake Milton has always been a master at hunting space

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A key to understanding just how special this young, lanky ball handler truly is.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Behind Joel Embiid and newly crowned prince Tyrese Maxey, there might be no Sixers player with a higher approval rating than one Malik “Shake” Milton.

And for good reason. That’s what happens when the 55th overall pick — usually a throwaway asset that will be released in two years — turns into one of your team’s three best off-the-dribble shot creators and a legit candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, if not a starting spot on the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Though interestingly enough, the trademark skill that earned Shake rotation minutes in the first place — his 3-point shooting — has tailed off from what it was last year. In 37 games during the 2019-20 season, Milton shot 43 percent on non-garbage time 3s, and as of now, he’s down to a roughly league average mark of 35 percent. That shouldn’t be too surprising considering (a) Shake has taken on a greater load this year and efficiency and volume can often share an inverse relationship to each other, and (b) 43 percent from behind the arc is almost impossible to sustain unless your last name is Curry.

But Shake isn't just a spot-up threat out there to space the floor for Ben Simmons and Embiid. He’s a silky smooth operator who uses crafty change of pace and an inordinate willingness to change hands in order to get where he needs to on the court. The verve and ability to get a bucket when set plays and early shot clock motion aren’t clicking was missing from last year’s Sixers. That issue has been somewhat fixed by the 6-foot-6 guard’s emergence (also due to the improvements of both Embiid and Tobias Harris).

Milton’s is technically finishing slightly worse at the rim than he was last season (down from 67% to 62% according to Cleaning the Glass), but that still makes him a slightly above average finisher for a guard (51st percentile). Combine that with his expertise in the short mid-range area (92nd percentile in frequency, 76th percentile in accuracy), and you get a great paint attacker crossed with a sharpshooter even if the latter hasn’t shone as brightly this season. All great stuff.

One thing that had always fascinated me about Shake was his ability to seamlessly transition to his left hand, both while dribbling and finishing. Yes, NBA players are likely more capable with their off-hands than the average guy at your pre-pandemic rec game, but plenty a young guard in the NBA faces struggles because they are predetermined to work back to their strong side no matter what, trusting what they’re best at over what a defense gives them.

However, even going back to his freshman days at SMU, Shake was never opposed to the idea of going up with his left if that’s the space that had opened up in front of him.

That might not seem like much, and it’s noteworthy that this basket is off a cut and not self-created, but it’s impressive nonetheless. Another young guy might see that lane open up and try to rush a finish on the right side and beat the defender to the rim, which could likely lead to a block. Shake here sees that the paint defender (No. 2 on Cincinnati) is on the right side of the hoop and immediately processes that the opposite side of the basket is where he’ll get an open layup.

Milton’s ambidextrous transitions was one of the keys to his 97th percentile at-rim, non-post up finisher as a mere freshman back in 2015-16, per Synergy Sports (though once again, this efficiency was boosted by having less on-ball load and finishing more off cuts and lob plays than self-created drives).

Take the play below, for example. Coming off a dribble pitch, Shake takes two hard right-hand dribbles, indicating that this is a downhill, straight line finish over the center of the rim. But that’s when the special happens. Shake sees his man sprinting hard to recover and leaning too far to the right, as well as the low man stepping up into the restricted area, and without trepidation, goes to a euro step and lefty finish. His defender is leaning so far in the wrong direction that he bumps into Shake mid-euro, preventing him from finishing the move, but Shake and SMU were probably satisfied with the and-one anyway.

Sophomore Shake didn’t put up as prestigious points-per-attempt numbers at the basket, but that’s likely the result of him being given more on-ball responsibility and thus needing to take harder shots, not any decrease in skill. He averaged 1.103 PPP, good for the 49th percentile according to Synergy, but even with more misses the creativity was evident in spades.

One of the biggest things I noticed during my clip-binge of Milton’s college finishes was how often he jumped off the quote-on-quote “wrong foot”. The static off-left for a righty finish and vice versa has gradually been diminished in the basketball community due first to the advancements of Tony Parker and the acceleration of all-time creative finishers (see: Kyrie Irving), and how developing an ability to go off either foot on either side with either hand is a beautiful skill that throws off the timing of cagey shot blockers. It can be hard to see in some of these clips, but look closely and you’ll see Shake extending through the space of the interior with his left foot planting right before finishing with the same-side hand.

SMU Shake simply didn’t care what move defenses required him to perform. If point X was what was open, then point X was where he was getting with flying limbs, off-foot finishes and all kinds of looping up-and-under’s. Even when he gets blocked in that first highlight, you can still notice how he transitions up from the left foot immediately in a smooth fashion, no concern that he mistimed his steps. Shake never thinks that his pathway to the rim was performed in the wrong way, he merely has to take a unique pathway given the situation, and sometimes those look different than the norm.

Henry Ward wrote a sensational piece last week that touched on the concept of spatial reasoning, and while Henry mainly applied that concept how a player recognizes and manipulates with their passing, it can be applied to how Shake attacks off the dribble. Shake doesn’t have a move he needs to force on his defender, he sees the space and takes it.

Like, what even is that??? The variety of fluid body movements on display here is impeccable, as it’s a step-by-step tutorial on how to react to defenders.

First, Shake sees that the on-ball defender has planted his top foot way too high, disabling his ability to change directions swiftly, and so he attacks said top foot. Also notice how the help defender is filling the gap on the right side, whereas the left side is vacated with the perimeter defender farther from the paint.

Having blown by his defender and elevating to finish, Shake goes up with two hands on the ball and barely leaps off the ground. He’s met by the big who does a good job to put his hand between the ball and the basket Shake is trying to get toward. Pause it here and you think Shake is going to either (a) get rejected, (b) toss up a semi-floater that has next to zero chance, or (c) need to body bump him out of the way Tobias Harris style (unlikely given Milton’s slender frame).

But no, this is where Shake just calmly glides by the contests and tosses in the lefty banker from an absurd angle just over the outstretched arm attempting to seal off his scoring chance.

PD Web, one of the greatest basketball minds you’re going to find on the internet, has written at length about how important it is for guards to create advantages when evaluating them from a developmental standpoint. Milton is a bit odd here in that he doesn’t really separate in space too much, save for a hesitation dribble or quick crossover that gets a defender shuffling their feet in the wrong direction for a brief flash, but because he has wing size at 6-foot-6 and a near-Draymond-ian 7-foot-0 wingspan, he only needs tiny advantages to make his magic happen. It’s this craft that justifies the “Mini-Middleton” moniker Mike Prada tagged him with on the latest episode of the Limited Upside Podcast as a difficult shot maker both from the outside and the more condensed areas of the court.

Some dudes don’t need to worry about finding space because they create it without having to think twice. Milton is a prowling predator, hunting out the crevices above all.

Again, disregard the miss. If there’s one thing Sam Hinkie taught us it’s that process > highly variable results is the way to go for evaluations. Even as Milton is probably mistaken in not just trying to flip this in on the right side, how he goes through the motion is critical to understanding the way he processes these scenarios. He feels that the defender behind him is hovering over top with a hand, hoping to deter the shot, and Shake’s gotta-get-to-the-space Spidey sense kicks in, causing him to crouch mid-air and attempt a wild lefty finish on the opposite side of his launch point.

Inventive, crazy and almost non-sensical, but fascinating and helpful nonetheless, is Shake’s wild craving for wacky finishes that value the opening above all else.

Some of the payoffs have been evident in the NBA, where Milton has finished above average at the rim in every season of his career (of course in a very small sample size of 74 career games, but still).

This finish over LeBron from the ‘19-20 season presents a similar situation to the one above (albeit with some critical changes in certain variables), and Shake is smart enough not to challenge the King at the rim, instead conditioning himself to be comfortable with this contorting up-and-under.

This next clip might be the quintessential “Shake sees open space, Shake reacts to the open space, Shake takes advantage of the open space” play.

He sees the off-ball defender slide toward the nail and converge with his own man in D-Lo and immediately processes that a spin move will propel him into the open area of the key. Then, he keeps both hands locked on the ball until he sees Glenn Robinson rise up to try and contest, and extends out the left without a second thought for the finish through traffic.

It’s also important to note that Shake’s ambidexterity has also flashed in other areas besides finishing. He’s always been a solid, reliable ball handler, comfortable going either way extended far out from the basket, and this season he’s shown some left-handed passes that display that advanced comfortability level he passes with unusual tricks of the trade.

Milton first got on the court for the Sixers back in the dog days of last year’s accursed season, and all but solidified a rotation spot with his 39-point outburst over the Clippers, providing both the rarity of shooting and an enjoyable loss for that squad. He’s not canning triples at the same rate, yet defenses still fear his stroke enough that the spacing of Philadelphia’s offense is not hampered, and fans have grown to love his slow it down, get-to-that-spot and score game throughout this first month of the ‘20-21 season.

In a post-Hinkie, pre-Morey era of more than questionable front office decisions and acquisitions, he was the diamond in the rough, the rare player who can both dribble and shoot despite 10 years of evidence telling us that such a man was next to impossible for this franchise to have (though again, the improvements of Embiid, Harris and even Tyrese Maxey this year have also been welcome changes from the frustrating norm).

I’m no expert in cognitive science, pattern recognition or even player development in total in comparison to many of the basketball geniuses who roam hoops twitter, but I feel pretty confident in saying that Shake Milton is a rare case of player who never has any qualms adapting to the phone booth space in the paint. He was confident working through said situations at SMU, has improved some of those peripheral finishing skills as a pro and is now a sterling sixth man for one of the best teams the NBA has to offer at this moment.