Most people think of Anderson Varejao as merely a hustle player, one who does the dirty work to create extra possessions for his team and not much else. Maybe it’s because he’s missed parts of the last two seasons and that’s the lasting image we have of him, but there are plenty of people who haven’t noticed the leaps and bounds of improvement Varejao has made. The thing is, Varejao is a hustle player, but he’s also become so much more. He’s quietly improved nearly every aspect of his offensive game to compliment his already fantastic defense, and I’d argue that it starts with his willingness to take and ability to make jumpers.
This is Varejao’s shot chart for the 2012-13 season. He’s 13-for-25 from the highlighted area, good for 52% from the field. Those 25 shots average out to 1.56 shots per game in the 16 games Varejao has played so far. In his career prior to this year, Varejao had attempted just 165 shots from those three areas of the court in 444 career games – about 0.37 per game – and had made only 62 of those shots, good for 37.6% from the field.
Maybe it’s because he didn’t play that much due to injury, but teams haven’t seemed to notice that Varejao had been improving from that range the past few seasons. Over the three years prior to this one, from 2009-2012, Varejao went 21-47 from those locations on the floor, 44.7%.
But it’s partially the lingering perception of Varejao as an unskilled hustle player that allows things like this to happen.
Varejao has about 10 feet of space between himself and the closest defender as he lines up this jumper off the pick-and-roll. He knocks it down, but when the Cavs go back to the same play a little less than three minutes later, he’s left wide open yet again.
And two more times throughout the third quarter alone, Phoenix leaves Varejao wide open for one of those mid-range shots around the free throw line that he’s become adept at hitting these past few years. There’s never even a defender within three or four feet of him. They’re free jumpers.
When the Suns finally got sick of watching Varejao knock down wide open jumpers with no one contesting, Marcin Gortat decided to bite on a nasty pump fake, so Varejao put the ball on the deck, took it straight to the rim and made a lefty layup. This is not exactly the repertoire of an unskilled player.
Varejao has also shown in previous games that this isn’t all he can do. He’s rapidly becoming a better pick-and-pass big man as well.
He can make the immediate pass to a perimeter player off the catch, as he does here against Phoenix when a help defender slides over upon his receiving of the pass.
He can also make the immediate interior bounce pass to the opposite big man off the catch when the defense gets caught rotating too far, as he does here against Miami.
This video also shows the next level pass that Varejao should add to his arsenal. When Zeller’s man slides over to cover Varejao’s roll, Alonzo Gee’s man abandons him, leaving a wide open corner 3.
Though he creates an interior basket for Zeller, it’s contested, and when you see another teammate who is even more wide open, you think there are still things for Varejao to work on. But then you see him make a play like this, and you think he’s got just about everything figured out that there is to figure out.
That’s a perfect mix of playing both patient and aggressive. Varejao catches the ball near the elbow and doesn’t have an open jumper, so he directs traffic, trying to find a guard to get the ball back to. When none comes open, he draws Z-Bo out of the lane with a pump-fake and blows right by him. Marc Gasol slides across to challenge what is sure to be a shot opportunity at the rim, but at the last second, Varejao dumps off a lefty bounce pass behind him as Gasol jumps in the air, and it’s a layup for Tristan Thompson.
Again, this play starts with the threat of that elbow jumper; the one he knocked down four times in a row against the Suns, the one that caused Gortat to jump out on the pump-fake so Varejao got a layup, the one that he’s been slowly improving over the last few years. Varejao is a monster pick-and-roll player not just because of his dives to the rim, but also because of this half-roll to the nail and the playmaking ability he’s shown when he receives the ball there. He’s now a legitimate threat to shoot, pass or drive from that spot, and it makes him more dangerous than ever before.