Unlike other role players, Juan Toscano-Anderson doesn't flinch when given the chance to color outside of the lines. In fact, he relishes in it.
On the court, he’s made his career thus far out of embracing the responsibility of filing in gaps, greasing wheels and letting the unicorns be the unicorns. It is a role that he found his most success within this past season, playing 70 games and serving as a utilitarian spark-plug for the NBA Championship-winning Golden State Warriors.
Beyond doing the dirty work and “making the right play,” Toscano-Anderson was also provided a canvas of his own to make art with. A level of creativity sparsely allotted or sought out by role players, but an aspect that the Warriors’ system cultivated and encouraged.
It was here, with the ball — and brush — in his hands, that the 29-year-old added his own strokes to the storied offense, most notably through his impressive playmaking acumen; it’s an ability that he can hopefully replicate and broaden with the Lakers this upcoming season.
Similar to multifaceted scorers who can get buckets in a variety of ways, there are several layers to Toscano-Anderson’s passing ability.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Toscano-Anderson is not only fresh off of posting a career best 17.4% assist percentage, but also ranked in the 96th percentile among all forwards in assist-to-usage ratio (measures how often a player gets an assist given how much they have the ball).
To further illustrate how much passing Toscano-Anderson actually does on a per possession basis, among players who had a sub 15% usage rate last season and also played in at least 60 games, Toscano-Anderson had the eighth highest assist percentage in the entire league. Meaning, when he touched the ball, it rarely stuck.
Playing within a free-flowing, fast-paced, yet disciplined offense last season, the Oakland native’s playmaking shined as both a compliment to the Warriors’ stars, but also an offensive boon that stood its own right.
In terms of the former, one of the most frequent utilizations of Toscano-Anderson’s skillset saw him working directly out of the club’s screen game. Through this, the forward was put in a position to serve as both benefactor from and trigger man to his teammates’ gravity — especially that of Stephen Curry.
In conjunction with the amount of attention the team’s shooters and stars routinely drew, Toscano-Anderson found his most success actually not setting the screen at all, but rather, “ghosting,” or slipping picks altogether before actually making contact with the ball-handler’s defender.
This helped provide a choose your own adventure-esque number of dime-dropping outcomes for the forward to explore and capitalize on.
Either strategic or improvisational, Toscano-Anderson’s teleporting act on his screen-setting serves multiple functions.
For one, it takes advantage of the space created when two defenders meet Curry at the ball, which has been typical of the way teams try to defend the greatest shooter ever as the pick and roll ball-handler. The other benefit is it puts Toscano-Anderson in his comfort zone: on the move, with room and in a position to showcase his vision and playmaking versatility against a compromised defense.
Whether it was hitting a teammate in the dunker spot, swinging it on the perimeter, or spraying it out to the corner off of a drive, Toscano-Anderson often excels in making the right read at the right time.
Though his new basketball environs at Crypto.com Arena won’t function like the movement-dominated scheme that the Warriors run, JTA’s ability to find success across a variety of reads could also go a long way in helping him fit in with the Lakers.
If the clips above look somewhat familiar for Lakers fans, they should. In what has become a staple during the LeBron James era in Los Angeles, the inverted pick-and-roll (small setting a screen for a big) has been a reliable weapon within the team’s offense throughout it’s many different roster iterations.
Like Curry, James has historically drawn an incredible amount of attention out of traditional ball screen opportunities, and because of this, has found success linking up with teammates who are able to capitalize out of ghost slips and fades.
The most recent examples being: Alex Caruso, Talen Horton-Tucker, Austin Reaves and Malik Monk.
While Toscano-Anderson is not the shooter that Monk is, his passing chops and experience within a similar role could help him emerge as James’ next go-to if he wants to run similar actions this season.
Outside of working directly in concert with team’s stars, Toscano-Anderson’s passing has shone brightly on its own merits.
Often stepping into Draymond Green’s on-court coordinator shoes, Toscano-Anderson proved capable of both carving up defenses out of the short roll, and orchestrating offense out of the post.
Acting as the team’s half-court hub, his teammates’ constant movement and screen-setting put the forward’s reaction speed to the test. Like a game of whack a mole, Toscano-Anderson was tasked with dishing out passes to open shooters and cutters on a moment’s notice.
According to the league’s tracking data, Toscano-Anderson registered a 28.6% assist percentage out of post-up opportunities last season — the highest mark on his team.
Although it remains to be seen just how the Lakers plan to use Toscano-Anderson within the offense, having an additional player who can create offense for others will be welcome on a team that felt directionless in non-James actions.
Perhaps running the occasional post-up opportunity for Toscano-Anderson within second units in particular could be the type of off-speed pitch the team needs to help generate offense consistently.
What ultimately makes Toscano-Anderson such an intriguing and adaptable passer is his ability to exploit mistakes.
Whether it’s a defender who is one step too far away from his man, a head turned in the wrong direction, or simply being willing to pass up a good shot for a great one, there’s a calculated deceptiveness to his game that is worth appreciating.
This is something both the eye-test and vast slew of passing data (as seen in his BBall-Index playmaking metrics below) can agree upon. One slip-up and its’ essentially blood in the water.
Toscano-Anderson’s arrival will also hopefully mark a shift in embracing more fluidity, creativity and selflessness overall within a Lakers’ offense that has become readily more stale.
Dependent heavily on individual shot creation, the team posted the third highest isolation frequency in the league last season, while also ranking 17th in passes per game and 21st in hockey (secondary) assists.
While he alone will not directly create a schematic change, the joy that he has for making the extra pass will hopefully be contagious enough to promote a trickle down effect.
There does remain the question of how effectively Toscano-Anderson’s passing talent can translate onto a severely different roster, especially in terms of spacing and movement around him.
To that point, Toscano-Anderson only logged 199 possessions without the likes of at least one of Curry and Jordan Poole with him on the floor last season. In contrast, he shared 985 possessions with Curry alone according to Cleaning the Glass.
As a player with his own perimeter limitations (28% from behind the arc), tying Toscano-Anderson to the hips of elite spacers was likely a concerted effort from Steve Kerr to hide his weaknesses, while also putting him in the best possible position to succeed.
The Lakers, as currently constructed, are on track to test if Toscano-Anderson can survive without elite shooting engines around him. When you also add in the lack of baked-in continuity and cohesion that Toscano-Anderson benefited from last season, the potential for combustion is potentially high.
Los Angeles’ front office could always still swing a deal to infuse the roster with more shooting before training camp in order to give everyone a bit more room to operate, making everyone’s life easier in the process.
Also, the coaching staff would be wise to promote a more motion friendly offense from day one than the one the team ran last year. If the team can makes strides in improving their off-ball movement, aspects like cutting, screen-setting, and proper floor alignment may become second nature rather than novel concepts.
Regardless of what eventually transpires around him, in a limited capacity, Toscano-Anderson’s ultimate impact will come from finding his niche around a new set of big names.
Once again, he will be tasked with exploring the space in which he can excel without transcending his role-playing lot. And in the process, perhaps he can help those around him do the same. He knows his role, and his place on the pecking order is all but cemented.
Maybe that’s because it has been his entire career.
Yet make no mistake, with the ball in his hands and a teammate exposing an opening, art is always just an opportunity away. His brushstrokes, his color, his canvas — they are found in that passing window most players of his ilk wouldn't dare try to operate within.
But for Toscano-Anderson, this liminal space is the locus of his muse.
This is where he can become so much more.