It doesn't take much to get Malik Monk going.
Typically, one swish is more than enough to light the coals in his fingertips. Two makes, and a blaze scorches the very hardwood that lies beneath his sneakers as he weaves past the defense. A third results in a wildfire, one that ignites so quickly — and ferociously — it’s difficult to do anything but be entranced by its destructive beauty once it’s conjured.
These very scoring outbursts from Monk have been one of the few bright spots amidst a disappointing Lakers’ season that continues to see the losses pile up, and their playoff hopes extinguish.
Initially signed in the early days of offseason to only a minimum deal, the 24-year-old has wildly exceeded both his contract and most expectations by posting career-bests in almost every offensive statistical category including: points per game, true-shooting percentage and offensive box plus-minus.
Monk’s leap has been the result of a variety of factors, but possibly the biggest contributor has come through him learning — and being in the position — to do less.
According to the league’s tracking data, 53.1% of Monk’s shots this season have come after a touch time of less than two seconds. That’s the highest frequency of shots taken with that level of quickness and decisiveness for Monk in the last two seasons, and up from his 44.9% mark last year.
As a play-finisher with the Lakers rather than play-starter, Monk has benefited from a more streamlined role where his strengths have been the spotlight, and his flaws pushed to the background. Contested, off-the-dribble jumpers have been excised to make room for more in-rhythm looks off the likes of LeBron James and Russell Westbrook’s creation ability, with the end results proving to be extremely promising.
With only a handful of games left in the year, Monk is on track to finish the season with the lowest usage rate (19.7%) of his career, as well as the highest percentage of his buckets (68%) coming via an assist according to Cleaning the Glass.
While Monk’s improvements seem vast, and they mostly are, there’s been a subtle alchemy to how they have come to be imagined on the floor. This is demonstrated more specifically in how much of the team’s offense has been tailored to his precise measurements.
One of the most direct methods in which the Lakers have done this is by utilizing Monk in direct concert with James. This has been most notably seen through the use of inverted ball screens, where the guard (Monk) is the screen-setter for the big (James).
Like peanut butter and jelly, or Dario Argento films and color, this pet action has been a seamless showcase for both parties’ strengths. For James, whose 57 assists to Monk is more than any other teammate this year, the guard’s ability to both pop (91st percentile) out behind the 3-point line or slip (84th percentile) into empty space presents a dynamic dance partner he can tango with once the defense sends extra bodies his way.
For Monk, James’ playmaking, as well as his gravity, allows for open pockets on the floor to rotate into. And once he receives the ball within this space, the next step is to simply shoot or finish around the cup as if presented on a silver platter. This also continues what has been a long tradition of James utilizing the likes of Kyrie Irving, Alex Caruso and now Monk in this manner.
The simplification of Monk’s role within this play-call and on the season overall, should not be confused, however, for an inability for the guard to do more. Because in reality, Monk’s capacity to proficiently dribble, pass and shoot is a rare combination of skills on this roster.
This is also why so much of the team’s more creative wrinkles on offense feature him as an integral part. For example, in this possession, the team runs Monk off a stagger (consecutive) screen to free him up for a three-level decision to either shoot, attack or pass.
Because the defense closes out hard on Monk given his shooting ability — 95th percentile in BBall-Index’s perimeter shooting metric (measures shot creation/making and volume) — James is able to wiggle free and score off Monk’s pocket pass.
On the play below, the Lakers run their split action once the ball is entered into the post. Once again, due to Monk’s perimeter gravity, the defender has to go over Wenyen Gabriel’s screen and attempt to stay attached.
Monk’s slight hesitation off of the catch once his feet begin to square up for a shot freezes his trail defender, which allows him to get downhill and create another shoot, attack or pass scenario with all being good options in this case.
It is through slotting Monk within these off-ball/movement chances (1.11 points per possession/77th percentile) that his full offensive repertoire reveals itself.
Although his right arm is “strictly for buckets,” Monk has also showed impressive flashes of playmaking for others, as showcased in the pocket pass in the clip earlier. Whether it’s come as the pick-and-roll ball-handler or collapsing the middle of the floor enough to sling out passes to the perimeter, his feel and vision has been complementary to his scoring ability.
Fortunately, sharing the rock is not something he’s reluctant to do, unlike other microwave scorers. According to BBall-Index, Monk actually ranks in the 95th percentile when it comes to drive pass-out rate (percentage of drives that lead to a pass out to a teammate), an encouraging sign that he can be more than just a stand and shoot threat, but a fluid and effective part of any scoring and playmaking attack moving forward.
There are many instances where this has already been seen, namely within the half court where the Lakers have strategically leveraged both of Monk’s skills as a scorer and passer by deploying him as a cutter.
Within this play, which has recently turned into staple for the Lakers, the set calls for a teammate to screen Monk free on the baseline (toward the basket) where he can then assess to either look to score himself, or lure in the defender from the opposite corner to create an open look for a teammate, a multi-faceted decision for a multi-faceted offensive player.
The way the Lakers have recognized and correctly utilized Monk’s skills has been one of, if not the success story of the team’s season. What initially was a risk-less flier by a team, and a gamble by a young player who bet on himself to thrive within a change of scenery and around veteran talent, has emphatically paid off for both.
So much so, the Lakers may not be in a financial position to reap the rewards of Monk’s potential future growth as he will become an unrestricted free-agent by season’s end. Although both parties have already expressed interest in a potential sequel, the market will likely dictate the eventual outcome and has proven time after time to trump everything else.
So it’s easy to overlook the excellent season Monk is putting the finishing touches on when everything around him is crumbling. While he is not devoid of contributing to some of the team’s pitfalls — his defense has been a weak link all year — his positive contributions, especially in context to what his expectations originally were, mostly have outweighed the negatives.
And on a team where disappointment has been the status quo, Monk’s emergence and ability to light a fire in even the most frigid conditions has, if nothing else, given fans something to warm themselves with during an increasingly icy season.