Long Story Shorts
BONN (Germany) - After graduating from Tustin High School in 2015 and not receiving a single scholarship offer from a Division 1 school, T.J. Shorts II was just another 5'9" guard falling like a raindrop into an ocean of basketball dreams trying to stand out and be noticed. Fast forward to 2022 and after battling through Saddleback Community College to finally earn a scholarship to UC Davis - where he was a teammate of a certain Chima Moneke and also went on to win Big West Player of the Year - Shorts is not just realizing that basketball dream of playing as a pro, he's making his own wave entirely. On Wednesday he became the first player in the BCL to score 25+ points in four straight games and also took the lead spot in the scoring charts. Doing all that whilst guiding his team to the top of Group B. Not bad when you consider this a group with AEK, a stacked Pinar Karsiyaka team, and UNAHOTELS Reggio Emilia. With that in mind, we figured Mr. Shorts deserved a slightly longer story to break it all down.
Making an Impact
As you can see from the chart above, T.J. Shorts is leading the entire Basketball Champions League this season in our PIE metric. PIE or Player Impact Estimate shows the percentage of positive stats(points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals) from a game that can be attributed to a specific player. Put simply, Shorts is recording the highest percentage of his team's positive box score stats than any player in the league.
That may sound imposing but the game tape is even more imposing.
Processing the Game
The clip above is what Shorts is all about. Pushing the tempo and using no less than four changes of direction and speed in just six seconds. And all of that whilst reading the floor and manipulating defenders into going where he wants them to go. This ability to understand deception with changes in speed and direction is something that not all players are able to master by the end of their careers. Shorts has them locked in before turning 26. This understanding of guard play, particularly in the pick-and-roll, is something he initially credits to his coach at UC Davis.
"Playing in college under coach Jim Les, who was a Point Guard in the NBA for the Kings and behind John Stockton for the Jazz, he gave me a lot of insights in how to be successful in the pick-and-roll," Shorts continued. "Then coming over to Europe I continued to learn under my coaches in Latvia, in my first year in Germany, and now here. It's been a steady incline of growth and confidence in the pick-and-roll game," he said.
That steady incline is starting to look a little steeper this season. Per Synergy, Shorts is scoring at a rate of 1.2 points per possession in the pick-and-roll so far this season, behind only a guy named Marcelinho Huertas! Possibly the most impressive thing about the way Shorts dissects defenses in the ball screen is that it's not just about the blistering change of pace but more about the clinical reading of the game and expert manipulation of defensive coverages. Playing this way as a third-year pro is not common. Shorts took us through his thinking process in the high pick-and-roll (the area of the floor where he does most of his damage).
"I don't necessarily see my defender, my first look is the big, whether he's going to step up in a hard hedge, sit back in a drop or the last is normally a switch coverage," Shorts explained.
In the video below of Bonn's recent game against AEK, we have a great example of this thought process. If you notice where we freeze the screen we can see that Shorts' defender is already going under the screen but that isn't where his eyes are focused. He's looking at the screener's defender who is in a dropped position. Shorts crosses back and knocks down the 3-ball but it wasn't his defender going under that was the decisive read in creating the open shot.
Elaborating further on that reading of the big's defender, Shorts then reflects that the next layer of defense to compute.
"I'm reading the big and then secondly I'm seeing the help side defenders, which are normally coming from the corners, sometimes there is a high-bump on the free throw line, and then I'm just making a read and seeing if it's a play for me or for my teammates," he said.
Jumping back into the film and the same game against AEK, we can see those decisions perfectly illustrated. In the first freeze frame, we can see that this time the big's defender is positioned higher in a hedge. This should open a pass to the big on the short-roll but before throwing that pass, Shorts needs to be patient and see the position of the defender on the weak side, "High-bump".
Once Shorts has hit the jumper against a drop and then found the roller against the hedge, that forces the defense into second and third adjustments. For most teams, this is getting into territory outside their comfort zone and it's in these areas of discomfort that the best pick-and-roll playmakers are able to start manipulating and bending defenses to get what they want. In the two clips below, we can see that AEK are now using a drop coverage with the big. Only now, that high-bump is enrolled in an involuntary game of cat and mouse of whether to stunt or stay home. In this game, Shorts is undoubtedly the cat, not the mouse and there is only one winner.
At this point, we also have to notice and credit the chemistry and teamwork that goes into fully leveraging Shorts as a creator. This is something that Shorts says is down to the work he's doing with coach Iisalo.
"As a point guard and as a leader, he puts a lot on my plate for the team. I'm still just trying to learn and grow as a player and he's helped me a lot in terms of these high pick-and-roll reads, the times when I need to be more aggressive myself, the times where I need to get rid of the ball," Shorts said.
If you watch the previous video back again, you may notice that not only is the AEK big in a drop position but the Bonn big is actually setting a second ball screen on the drop coverage. This is known as a "Gortat" screen after Marcin Gortat used his huge frame to be so successful with it in the NBA. Also try to notice that almost immediately after Shorts comes off the ball screen, he's using a "Hostage" dribble to get his defender on his back. Now with the second screen from his big, it means the defense is forced to send extra defenders in order to prevent a layup. This is clearly a tactic Bonn uses when they need Shorts to be more aggressive for himself. We get a clearer look at it in the clips below.
Working on the Game
It obviously goes without saying that players don't make jumps in performances like this without painstaking hours of hard work behind the scenes but in the same breath, that hard work isn't always as clearly visible without really understanding where the work has been focused. One area or skill in basketball that hard work can always be seen but is also often an area where there is nowhere to hide from a lack of work, is shooting.
And if we circle back to the first clip of Shorts breaking down the game, almost none of the following clips are possible without the huge jumps in shooting percentages that he has been able to make. If he can't hit that 3-ball, teams don't need to even make the first adjustment against him. In his rookie pro season, Shorts shot 25 percent from 3-point range. That jumped to 33 percent in the following season with Crailsheim Merlins. This season, Shorts is shooting a frankly absurd 61 percent from behind the arc. Whilst that will likely come down as the season progresses, the development is there for all to see.
"Obviously, in today's basketball, shooting is the number one key to being successful," Shorts explained, "If you can shoot the ball from outside you are a threat from anywhere on the floor. Each year coming over here to Europe I knew I needed to improve my 3-point shooting and it's been a lot of work in the summers with my trainers and getting a lot of reps with the shooting gun," Shorts said.
Whilst there is no secret behind the importance of shooting or the hard work and reps that Shorts has defined, sometimes the sharpest blades are forged in the hottest furnace. There are countless examples across every sport of extremely talented individuals that get too much too young. In basketball terms, they are recruited and given star ratings as children in High School. Then they are traveling in luxury and playing under the big lights in packed arenas at major D1 Colleges. It's almost understandable why some can be fooled into thinking they are already the finished article. It's not just basketball either, across the world's biggest sports there is a growing contingent of young athletes that aren't prepared for the hard work and professionalism required to succeed at the highest levels. T.J. Shorts is not one of those men. Whether or not the humility and hard work came as a result of his experience of not receiving that initial scholarship offer straight out of High School is now immaterial. The performances we are seeing this season are those of an athlete with all the tools - on and off the court - to take his game to the very highest levels.
Inspiring the Game
Another player with a similar journey from being underrated and working their way to the top is last year's BCL MVP Chima Moneke. We have already established that Moneke and Shorts were teammates at UC Davis but the connection between the two goes way deeper than that.
"First off Chima is my guy, we are literally brothers," Shorts expanded, "he motivates me a lot, his journey to get where he's at and the successes he had in the Champions League last year," he said.
It's more than just inspiration, however. The bond between the two and the similarities in their journeys means they take an active involvement in each other's games.
"To have him in my corner, he's watching my game tape and always checking in on me from the states, it's huge, and like I said, to see what he did, it just motivates me more to try and be great," Shorts said.
Is it a coincidence that we are seeing two players from UC Davis go from "Nobody" to somebody in such a short space of time? Will we see two consecutive BCL MVPs tread the same road? Well, in reality, it's way too early to tell as the season is still so young. There will almost certainly be bumps in the road for Shorts and Bonn this year but what we can be sure of is that T.J. Shorts is a player with that rare mix of attitude, ability, and motivation to determine his own ceiling and much like his brother Chima Moneke, it's going to be a lot of fun watching the story unfold.