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Pistons fans, meet Dzanan Musa

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Here’s your breakdown of the newest Detroit Piston

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Detroit Pistons got their offseason dealing started right away, trading former second round pick Bruce Brown to the Brooklyn Nets for Dzanan Musa and a 2021 second round pick. It is reported that the 2021 second rounder is from the Toronto Raptors.

Adieu to Bruce Brown, who was never as good as Pistons fans thought he was, but did represent one of the few places of hope on the roster over the past couple of seasons. Brown started 99 games over the last two years and was fourth on the team in total minutes this past season. His defensive effort endeared him to the fanbase, he will be missed, happy trails Bruce.

So, Dzanan Musa

Dzanan is a 6’9, 217 pound forward, 21 years old, who hails from beautiful Bihac in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dzanan started playing basketball at eight years old and in 2014 he made the move to enter a professional team with Croatian club KK Cedevita. He excelled with the club, winning several awards, including the Eurocup Basketball Rising Star award and the Adriatic League Top Prospect award.

He was drafted 29th overall by the Brooklyn Nets in the 2018 NBA Draft. Supposedly, he would’ve likely been picked higher, but most teams assumed he was not going to come to the NBA for a few more years, for whatever that is worth.

In the NBA, Dzanan has been unremarkable and probably a disappointment for the Nets. His rookie season had some injury issues, and he appeared in just nine games, but he did put up respectable numbers in the G-League. This past season he spent most of the year in the NBA, appearing in just 12 G-League games. He played in 40 of the Nets 72 games, just under 400 total minutes (averaging 12.2 minutes per game), and he stunk it up badly. He shot just 24% from deep and 37.2% from the field, his defense is very shaky, and the general feeling seemed to be that he wasn’t an NBA caliber player.

In particular, it’s good to highlight one stretch of about a month (17 games) where Musa got legitimate rotation minutes (so we don’t have to deal with garbage time stat-stuffing). In those 17.7 minutes per game, he scored 5.6 points, grabbed three rebounds, and had 1.5 assists on 20% from deep and 32% overall from the field. That’s good for a true shooting percentage of just 43.3%, despite a usage rate of 18.8% (not a small number!). During this stretch the Nets were also nearly seven points per 100 possessions better when he was off the floor.

None of that is good.

The Good:

For starters, Musa is just 21 years old. It’s easy to forget, but Bruce Brown is 24, nearly a full three years older than Musa. That’s a big difference in terms of how much development is still available for a player to make. When Bruce Brown arrived in Detroit, he was already a year older than Musa is right now. Although age is often over valued by people when evaluating talent, it is a significant difference, especially if the Pistons do end up going all-in on a multi-year rebuild.

Secondly, Musa does still have some real promise as a player. At 6’9, he has legit size for an NBA wing. His hunched dribbling gives way to surprise when he suddenly uncorks his full frame and lifts a floater up over defenders. That dribbling is a big thing too, Musa has a excellent handle for his size. His hunched dribbling style helps to keep the ball close to the floor, and he has some great change of pace moves. I mentioned that his usage rate was pretty high, which makes the fact that he didn’t turn it over constantly pretty impressive.

It’d be nice if he showed more instinct as a passer, as that could be a real game-changer for him but his hunched-over style also takes away some of his vision, so maybe lifting his head up to take advantage of his size to look for passing lanes would make his handle sloppier.

Along with the ball-handling, he has the bonus that most foreign players do. Musa didn’t spend his teenage years learning to roast overmatched high-schoolers, but instead spent a lot of his time playing with and against grown men. Basically, he has a good grasp of how to play within a team. He supposedly isn’t always the most energetic guy off the ball, but he’s a smart cutter and knows how to keep the ball moving in quick succession (when he wants to), and even though his defense has never looked all that remarkable, he seems to mostly have a decent grasp of what he’s supposed to be doing.

The Not-so Good:

Wait a minute.. that’s it? He’s tall and has a solid handle?

In terms of NBA skills, yeah that’s pretty much it for now. He may end up being a good shooter, he’s shot 36% from deep as a G-Leaguer and shot that same 36% in his last year in Europe. But on the other hand, he’s shot below 30% in the NBA, and when you combine all three of his pro seasons in Europe he was also below 30%.

His shooting in general is the big question here. He doesn’t have a bad stroke, but his lower half is consistently all over the place largely due to his lifelong love of taking tough off-balance shots from distance. He’s clearly a guy who hasn’t spent a summer taking thousands of spot up threes from the corners just to get the exact same form down. On one hand, his inconsistent form, even after two years in the NBA, worries me that he will never be able to straighten it out. On the other hand, the issues seem to have a fairly obvious source that should be fixable.

The shot selection is an entirely different animal.

Everything written about Musa in Europe is that he has a true gunner’s mentality and confidence. He is a guy who relishes in the big moment, never backs down from anyone, and is not only capable of taking big shots, but desperately wants to be that guy. This scorer’s mentality and confidence is a big part of what makes Musa appealing, and his sheer belief is a pretty important part of his game. His relentlessness in attacking of the paint is remarkable for a guy who shouldn’t be athletic enough to get there so much. He occasionally hits tough pullup threes. He is totally unafraid of the moment.

The problem is that the same mentality that drives most of his strengths is also what causes most of his shot selection issues. Not sure what to do with that.

Seems like he’s a long-shot. No real discernable NBA abilities beyond being tall.

That is where you would be wrong. Dzanan Musa has a trump card in his back pocket that you can dig out of all the horrible, ugly statistics:

Dzanan Musa gets to the line.

His constant aggression and physicality on his drives draws fouls. This is also a continuation from his time in Europe, where leading up to the draft Stefanos Markris said Musa was “probably the best player of his generation in Europe at creating contact and drawing fouls.” A scout who sat next to me at Grand Rapids Drive games told me there are two rules of prospect scouting: Rebounding translates anywhere, and bet on guys who get to the line. This is something that I latched onto, and it has rarely failed.

Years ago, I wrote this about a young Pistons player: “On offense, he does not have enough shake to his game to easily create much space on his own, but he is straight line fast and when he gets a crease, often by way of a screen, he is able to rocket into the paint and do good stuff. He is a pretty good passer and a pretty good finisher, but most of all, dude draws a TON of fouls.” That was my post-mortem on Spencer Dinwiddie after the Pistons sent him to Chicago, and that ability to draw fouls has remained Dinwiddie’s bread and butter, the foundation of everything he does.

Musa doesn’t have quite as absurd a free-throw rate as Dinwiddie did that year. Musa had a free-throw rate of 35% last season (which would’ve ranked right behind Andre Drummond on the Pistons), where Dinwiddie finished his last Pistons season with a rate of 61%. The thing to remember though, is that Musa took nearly half of his shots from three last season while Dinwiddie basically never shot long-balls. If you go purely by their number of two-point shots, Musa has a free-throw rate of 62.5%. For some reference, if you go purely by shots inside the arc (since, unless you are James Harden, most guys don’t draw many fouls on threes) Anthony Davis had a rate of 59% last season, and Russell Westbrook had a rate of 61% in his MVP season.

So just for the record, when Dzanan Musa drove to the basket for a shot last season, he was just as likely to draw a foul as peak Russell Westbrook. This was always the most glaring red flag in Stanley Johnson’s career start, and also the most obvious sign that Devin Booker was going to haunt the Pistons forever.

Dzanan Musa is an extreme case here. He lacks the explosiveness to get all the way to the rim, let alone finish there. His shot is super inconsistent. It’s not clear he can defend at all. However, you bet on young guys who get to the line.

What’s his game like?

Almost all hunched drives and awkward threes. The best sign from this compilation is that despite the fact that he clearly loves to have the ball and take difficult shots, he’s still a capable and smart player off the ball. A lot of his buckets last season came in transition, or off of smart cuts.

The biggest concern in those highlights is the complete lack of blow-by speed. There is maybe one or two of those buckets where he sizes up a halfcourt defense and gets all the way to the rim for an easy layup. He almost always has to snake his way into the paint before flipping up goofy floaters, hooks, and scoops. This is not the end of the world; Pistons fans have an ample example of a guy who could still be effective despite being totally incapable of exploding to the rim (and over/around shot-blockers) in post-injury Reggie Jackson. The problem for Musa is that Reggie Jackson actually become a pretty reliable shooter after his knee injury, and, most notably, was in possession of one of the most deadly array of floaters and flip shots in the entire league.

Basically, there are guys who are able to make a living as good on-ball scorers without being able to consistently get easy buckets at the hoop, but it is a really hard living to make. The good news for Dzanan, in comparison to Jackson at least, is that Dzanan is huge and knows how to make use of his body with bumps and elbows to create space. Some extra strength will go a long ways here, but also just more experience will help.

The final straw really will have to be his shot though, although that may not even be quite as far off as it may appear based on the numbers. Because Dzanan is so trigger happy and has that stereotype of “The White Euro guy,” people don’t treat him like a non-shooter. Not that opponents are sticking right to him or anything, but they mostly guard him.

That said, he does need to at least approach his G-League 36% number. If he does approach that, suddenly he is a 6’9 pullup-3 nailing, paint-attacking, smart cutting, foul drawing machine.

What if he doesn’t pick up his shot?

Then he’s basically Luke Kennard minus the elite shot and high-level passing and we pretend the last few paragraphs never happened.

What about his defense?

Hard to say. I watched a few games he played in live but I obviously wasn’t watching him super close, the closest I watched was when he played a game in Grand Rapids but in none of these situations did he stand out much. So at least he wasn’t such a disaster that he stood out but my guess is that he is going to be a minus on that end. His lateral quickness isn’t great, and his arms are not that bad. His hope on that end is probably the stereotype of “I can’t move that well, but I’m big for my position and can be in the right place at the right time” kind of guy.

If Musa hits his best outcome, he finds his shot and a little more strength and becomes a legitimate three-level scorer who starts for years on the wing, averaging 20 efficient points per game with a great mix of isolation scoring and off-ball panache.

If Musa falls to his worst outcome, he isn’t an NBA player. He is too slow, not strong enough, and the shot doesn’t go in. He gets spare minutes this coming season, then returns to Europe to become a legend for some random club in a city you can’t pronounce the name of.

The Verdict:

I like Dzanan Musa. I wouldn’t be shocked if he comes right in and impresses. Brooklyn was not exactly a vibrant environment last season, and with a little more trust put in him, he could thrive. That said, I’m still a bit baffled as to the trade overall. Bruce Brown is definitely better than him right now, and as much as I love Musa’s potential, usually guys don’t reach that potential. I’d probably rather have Bruce.

People keep saying “Watch what they do next,” but I just don’t know how there is much you can do with Musa and a crappy second round pick that you couldn’t have just done with Bruce.

Losing Bruce hurts, but he was cooked the moment last season when Dwane Casey declared that the “Point Bruce” experiment was dead. The Pistons had just gone all-in on the tank so if they had any hope for him there going forwards they would’ve stuck with it, and he has way less potential as an off-guard than a point-guard. I don’t think this is about the next move or acquiring assets, I think that the Pistons decided Bruce Brown isn’t good, then figured any return for him was good.