February 20, 2021, 5:59 pm
Welcome back, Hoop Ballers, to our International Spotlight weekly feature where we will be taking a look at French guard Theo Maledon who ended up with the Thunder after the 2020 NBA Draft and is making a name for himself in Oklahoma as a jack-of-all-trades combo guard.
Basketball in the Family
Maledon’s parents were both accomplished basketball players in France and his sister also played college basketball at Southern Arkansas, so it’s not at all surprising that the French guard first started playing basketball with his local club at the age of 3.
The 19-year-old guard made his debut in France’s top league, Pro A, with ASVEL at just 16 years old in 2017, the next year he won a league title and became the youngest All-Star in league history, while in 2019 he was named Pro A’s Best Young Player, claiming the French Cup’s Final Most Valuable Player trophy.
In his last season in Europe, Maledon averaged 15.6 minutes over 20 games in LNB Pro A and 17.7 minutes over 22 EuroLeague games. His per-36 numbers in EuroLeague were a solid 15.1 points, 6.4 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game, with his size and wingspan making him to a consistent rebounder and a versatile guard at multiple positions, but he slipped to the second round where the Sixers made him the No. 34 overall pick before agreeing to move him to the Thunder.
His mentor and owner of the French club ASVEL, former NBA champ Tony Parker, was not at all shy about directly blaming the coach of the team for not using Maledon enough on the court and subsequently causing Maledon’s stock to fall. Regardless, as the Thunder entered into a rebuilding season it was pretty obvious that the French guard landed in an ideal environment with a team that has a proven track record of developing young NBA talent.
Mature Playmaker with Excellent Length
Even though Maledon lacks premier athleticism and struggles to beat defenders in isolation, he is a smooth and smart playmaker with the ball in his hands who has experience running the offense. He has spent most of his playing career as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll where he showcases advanced patience and ability to finish around the basket due to his ample length for a guard. An unselfish player who is able to find space and throw some tough passes, his teammates have fallen in love with him as he looks to assist more than score for himself. Look at this possession with the time running down as Maledon calmly navigates to the right place at the top of the key and throws a no-look pass to Mike Muscala, who is able to finish with the left hook.
The French guard also excels in transition play and even though the Thunder are scoring just 10.7 fast break points per game, he never misses the chance to run in the open court. After the Thunder stop LeBron James at the rim, look at how quickly Maledon storms to the other side of the court and beats an above average defender in Alex Caruso for the nice finish.
The Thunder Experimenting with Their Youth
Sam Presti and the Thunder organization have a tremendous track record of identifying NBA-level talent, and with the focus being in the future they have no issue whatsoever giving their young players plenty of minutes during a season that is being used as an evaluation tool. Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault recently described the approach that the organization uses in their effort to develop multi-dimensional players that can help in many different areas.
“We’re trying to develop these young players, and one of the things you can do is you can change environments and you can change circumstances and change variables,” Daigneault said. “If you keep them in a very restrictive box they’re only going to develop inside of that lane.”
Maledon is undoubtedly a natural point guard, a position he played with the second unit at the beginning of the season, but with injuries affecting the Thunder’s rotation he has been playing lately off the ball as a starter with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
This is no accident of course since an underrated part of his game has been the ability to become a legitimate threat from deep as a catch-and-shoot, spot-up shooter. His stroke looks natural, the ball usually comes off his hand cleanly and he has shot well from the free throw throughout his entire career, a good indicator of his quality shooting stroke. He is shooting just 39.8 percent from the field but a solid 37.3 from 3-point range through 24 games, attempting almost four triples per game.
It’s the same scheme as last season when Gilgeous-Alexander rarely played point guard on a roster that featured Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder. With Shai moving back to his preferred position, Maledon is learning how to play off the ball with the purpose of adding stronger off-ball skills and knowledge to his repertoire.
Areas of Concern
The lack of above average speed and explosiveness hurts Maledon in the halfcourt where he doesn’t have the shake and wiggle to consistently beat guys 1-on-1, putting a hard ceiling on his ability to develop onto a consistent scoring threat. The signs of improvement have been there but it’s hard to envision him turning into a dynamic shot-creator in the league and he just seems to be settling as more of a facilitator. Look at this possession where Eric Bledsoe is all over the rookie, putting the clamps on him and forcing him to an ill-advised passed that he easily intercepts.
Defensively, the rookie has all the tools to become a stopper, as he is capable of pressuring opposing ball-handlers heavily and following them in between screens, while his size and length can be a major disruptor. The Nuggets recognize a potential mismatch and target the rookie by giving the ball to Will Barton who thinks he can muscle his way to the rim but Maledon uses his quick hands to quickly knock the ball away.
Size seems to be an issue currently though, and the truth of the matter is that the French guard has been exposed when guarding higher-level players as he gets blown-by far too often and his tenacity results in a high foul-rate (1.8 in almost 24 minutes per game). Let’s look at another possession where Maledon gets immediately targeted by a bigger Lonzo Ball, who is able to muscle his way to the free throw line with the rookie unable to put any pressure on him.
A lot of this can be attributed to his age but it’s fair to question at this point where he can become a positive defender in the NBA, while his off-ball defense is also a work in progress as he is slowly learning how to make timely rotations and occasionally help on the weak-side.
Maledon’s numbers have been inconsistent in his rookie season, highlighted by a game early in the year where he went 6-of-6 from behind the 3-point line; with a lot of responsibility being handed over to him his percentages have suffered and his high turnovers (1.8 per game), combined with him playing off-ball and averaging just 2.8 assists, have put a dent on his fantasy value. With the possibility of landing two lottery picks in the upcoming draft, the Thunder are giving plenty of minutes to the rookie as they are trying to identify what his ceiling is, and with the team likely to be very active at the trade deadline, more minutes should end up available for the rookie. I believe he has a bright future in the league as a solid playmaker but his fantasy value seems to be limited as long as his percentages don’t improve. The current season is more of an experiment as rookies didn’t have the time to go through a lengthy offseason, playing in Summer League and participating in workouts and training camp. Under these circumstances, fantasy managers might be frustrated by the lack of production by rookies, which could present a great buy-low opportunity for guys like Maledon.
Hope you enjoyed this week’s article and feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @philysstar and stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.
Stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of February 20th.