Few people in the NBA expected the Nets to be as competitive as they have been through the early portion of the season—especially without the services of Jeremy Lin for four of the team's nine games so far and with Brook Lopez playing limited minutes. One of the early surprises for Brooklyn this year has been Justin Hamilton. Hamilton played limited minutes for the Hornets, Timberwolves, and Heat in his first two seasons before going to Spain to play for Valencia last year. He signed a two-year, $6 million deal with the Nets this offseason and has already found a sizable role in Kenny Atkinson's rotation, averaging 9.4 points and 5.2 rebounds in Brooklyn's first nine games. The area where Hamilton stands out, however, is in his three-point shooting. Hamilton is currently shooting a scorching 47.1 percent from behind the arc, and more than half of his shot attempts have been three-pointers.
Justin Hamilton was not always a three-point shooter. He did not attempt a single three-pointer during his two years at Iowa State and went 3-for-12 in his one season at LSU. After being selected with the 45th overall pick in the 2012 draft, he spent a year abroad playing for Cibona Zagreb and did not make a single three-pointer. He played eight games in the NBA in 2013-2014—one game for Charlotte and seven games for the Heat. Hamilton shot 3-of-9 from behind the arc that season.
Hamilton's NBA career really began in the 2014-2015 season, when he played 41 games and started in 14 of them in time split between the Heat and the Timberwolves. Minnesota started him in nine of the 17 games he played there down the stretch of the 2014-2015 season. His jump shot did not really stretch beyond the three-point line; he connected on just 32 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. He had a slow release on his jumper, which allowed defenses to contest shots even when Hamilton was wide open:
Hamilton's inexperience with three-point shots also would lead to long midrange jumpers even when he had a wide-open opportunity from beyond the arc; he cuts in from the three-point line after the screen rather than remaining behind the line:
Hamilton spent the past season playing for Valencia in the ACB League in Spain and looked like a different player. He sped up his release on his jump shot, and began to venture beyond the arc far more often than he ever had before:
In addition to the quicker release, notice how Hamilton does the opposite of what he did after running off a screen in Minnesota: he cuts out of the midrange and beyond the three-point line before he shoots. Hamilton shot 43.3 percent from behind the arc on more than two attempts per game in Valencia. He earned his two-year deal with Brooklyn after his solid season overseas, but would he be able to continue his three-point shooting efficiency with the three-point line further back in the NBA and with better defenders attacking him on closeouts?
The answer to that question has been an unequivocal yes. The only center with a better percentage from deep while averaging two or more three-pointers per game is Joel Embiid; if you lower the threshold to one or more three-pointers per game, you add Thon Maker (two of three from three-point range in three games). Defenders cannot afford to leave Hamilton open, or they risk this happening:
Teams are forced to either put a smaller player on Hamilton to check him behind the arc or risk sending a big man away from the rim to guard Hamilton on the perimeter. Even when they do send a big out to contest, Hamilton can often get the shot off before a closeout can come:
There are few commodities in the modern NBA that are more sought after than a stretch big, and Justin Hamilton has been a fantastic one for Brooklyn so far this season. Simply put, he forces defenses to make difficult decisions that can energize Brooklyn's offense. Hamilton's incredible Offensive Rating of 127 sits well above Brooklyn's 104.2 marks as a team; for reference, the Warriors lead the NBA in Offensive Rating this year with an 114.3 mark.
His defense in 2014-2015 was around average in Miami, with a -0.4 Defensive Box Plus-Minus and a 109 Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) compared to the team's 109 but with 0.2 Defensive Win Shares per Basketball-Reference. His defense was solidly above-average in Minnesota, with a 1.7 Defensive Box Plus-Minus and a 109 Defensive Rating compared to the team's 112.2 with 0.3 Defensive Win Shares, also per Basketball-Reference. The sample size is too small to make any claims about his defensive impact in Brooklyn, but he currently sits at a 1.3 Defensive Box Plus-Minus and a 105 Defensive Rating with 0.3 Defensive Win Shares per Basketball-Reference; Brooklyn's team Defensive Rating is about the same as Hamilton's at 105.4.
Hamilton is not a superb athlete in leaping ability, but he has good lateral movement speed and quick feet for a center—the main reason for his solid pick-and-roll defense. Hamilton ranked in the 88th percentile in pick-and-roll defense during his 2014-2015 stint in Minnesota according to Synergy Stats, and also ranked in the 73rd percentile at cutting off roll men in the pick-and-roll. He is not particularly strong, however, and can be bullied in the post by larger centers—Hamilton ranked in the 35th percentile at defending post-ups. He is currently ranked in the 61st percentile as a big man defender this season per Synergy Sports.
The early returns on Justin Hamilton have been fantastic for Brooklyn. He has defended adequately, which is more than enough for Brooklyn given his impact on the offensive end. Brooklyn's big man rotation behind Brook Lopez looked like a potential question mark before the season, but Justin Hamilton's three-point shot has been a positive answer so far.