The Dream Jiggle: Dance of the Diaw

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For the unfamiliar NBA consumer, the appearance of Boris Diaw on a basketball court may cause a smirk. This thick, big-behinded ball-player seems out of place among the slender, sculpted athletes that generally surround him, overmatched by their quickness and athleticism in a league that moves as up and down the floor as smoothly as it ever has before. They watch as he catches a ball and swings it around the perimeter before finding his place in the post where the inexperienced viewer may sense he truly belongs.

Diaw holds the ball in his right hand as the defender leans on his left hip, pushing harder and harder as the big man shifts his body weight back toward the basket. Then it happens in the blink of an eye: Diaw waves the ball toward the center of the court, feigning a pass to a cutting teammate or a primed-and-ready 3-point shooter on the perimeter. When his defender peeks in that direction, if only for a second, the 6-foot-8, 260-pound man he was balancing his weight upon is gone, dribbling toward the basket with a grace that belies his physical frame.

The spin move was unexpected and too quick for standard-definition television. But the defender thinks to himself, “This guy’s fans call him ‘Land Walrus’ and I had one of the most impressive combine performances in the league. He won’t get away from me.” So he gathers himself and recovers in a timely enough fashion to  within a step of the silver-and-black-clad big man as he approaches the hoop. Diaw is no leaper, and the defender knows this. He’s got him set up right where he wants him.

As you see with most of the intelligent below-the-rim players in the NBA, Diaw works his way to the opposite side of the rim to protect himself from the trailing shot-blocker. But he knows he’s still there, just waiting for the ball to release into the air. So Diaw comes to a stop, somehow corralling all that kinetic energy on a dime, and swings the ball upward in his right hand.

The defender sees it there, like Boris just took a croissant out of the oven and put it on a platter. But he pulls it down out of the air as the defender goes sailing by, and Diaw calmly pivots back to the side from which he glided and flips the ball into the basket with no resistance.

It’s a dance we’ve all seen before, and each interpretation is as smooth and entertaining to watch as the one before it. It’s been dubbed ‘The Dream Jiggle’ by our own Andrew McNeill, and Diaw has embraced the way we view his performances. His movements are unique and deliberate, and there’s a lot of him to go around out there.

But Boris had a correction when told of the remark after an early season blowout of the New Orleans Pelicans.

“It’s a lot more butt cheeks than up-fakes,” he joked (and I’m paraphrasing, but he really did say this).

Since his days in Charlotte, much fun has been made about the extra weight he put on as a member of the Bobcats. But he’s slimmed down to a weight that makes him quite valuable to the Spurs’ current frontcourt. He can deal with bigger players on both sides of the ball and, because of the quickness he still possesses, can even match up to a certain extent with some of the league’s bigger, more physically imposing perimeter players.

Diaw entered the league as a 6’8 shooting guard in Atlanta with point guard skills that could play any position on the court, especially when he made his mark in the “Seven Seconds or Less” system in Phoenix. The coach at the time, Mike D’Antoni, could put the Frenchman anywhere on the floor alongside the likes of Steve Nash, Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire, and the offense would hum along at the fastest of paces.

Under D’Antoni, Diaw was most effective as a smooth operator from the elbows, initiating secondary offense once the ball left Nash’s hands. He scored opportunistically, but he was always a passer first, something unique among players of his size. In fact, he was often pass-second, -third and -fourth when it really came down to it.

“He’s a natural passer first,” D’Antoni said when asked about Boris during a Spurs trip to Los Angeles earlier this season. “That’s what he likes to do. Sometimes I would get on him that he should shoot, then go back and look at the tape, and he was right.

“He should have passed.”

It’s difficult to get on a player for over-passing. After all, it’s unselfishness that is a virtue most coaches attempt to sear into a player’s psyche.

“If any of us ever played, we didn’t have to be begged to shoot,” Gregg Popovich said. “We had to be begged to play some defense, but never to shoot the ball.”

But this season has been different. Diaw is no longer the ‘Land Walrus,’ but Scorin’ Boris instead. He’s been part of a Spurs bench attack that is one of the league’s best, and while his passing is still as brilliant as ever, it’s his newfound propensity to take the shot that has made the biggest impact for a team in need of shot creators.

It’s taken some getting used to, but it’s a trend that began during the French National team’s gold-medal run at Eurobasket at hasn’t stopped since.

“He played like that all summer,” Tony Parker said. “He’s a big reason why we won the gold medal. He was very aggressive in taking shots. He’s doing the same thing here.

“We’re a better team when he plays like that.”

During Diaw’s time on the court this season, the Spurs are shooting 51.7 percent from the floor (as opposed to 46.4 percent when he’s on the bench) and operating at an efficiency rate of 111.7 points per 100 possessions, tied with Marco Belinelli for highest individual mark on the team. And it’s not because of his constant passing. This season, he’s attacking with a scorer’s mentality for which he’s never been known.

Diaw accounts for 20.4 percent of the Spurs’ points when he’s on the floor, which is easily a career high in that category. but he’s only responsible for 13.4 percent of the team’s assists, which is BY FAR a career low. In fact, Bobo is notching 2.58 made field goals for every one assist he dishes out this season. Not only is that the highest such ratio of his career, but if this trend continues, it will be just the sixth time in his 11-year career that he finishes with more made field goals than assists for an entire season.

So what happened this summer? Where did this tendency originate?

“He went and talked to a guru in India or something,” Popovich said to laughter in a media scrum. “I don’t know what he did, but he catches and shoots now.”

But it’s a lot more simple than that if you ask Diaw.

“(Popovich) asked me,” he said. “So I started doing it.”

And it’s not as if he’s forcing anything. It all looks as natural as it would for someone who’s been doing this all along. He’s shooting 55.6 percent from the floor — the second best mark on the team behind only Tiago Splitter — which at the moment is a career best by comparison of any other full season he’s spent in the NBA, and he’s doing that while hitting just 30.3 percent of his 3-point attempts. Furthermore, Diaw is scoring at a 75.8-percent clip inside the restricted area, where he takes more than 43 percent of his shots. And he’s doing it all with more style than most anyone in the league.

One-handed ball-fakes, multiple up-and-unders, baseline spins to reverse pivots and floaters — these are so often done with highlight-worthy flare in mind. Not for Diaw, though. For him, it’s simply the most effective way to score. With all the athletic specimens that exist in the NBA, Diaw (whose nickname in China is the ‘French Magician’) is a grounded power forward that counters his defender’s momentum with his own version of shapeshifting. It’s as beautiful as it can be hilarious. But, like teammates Parker and Manu Ginobili (magicians in their own right), it’s all done with the simple purpose of scoring with as little resistance as possible. The style is just a result of the process.

Then again, it’s possible he could just be showing off his dance moves.

“It’s also his contract year,” Pop smirked. “I’m just saying.”


*I stole stole some of these quotes from a previous column from Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. So thanks for that, Jeff. I owe you a beer. Also, a hat tip to Dan McCarney of the SAEN for a trip down memory lane involving butt cheeks and up-fakes.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com.

  • NYC

    I love the score-first Bobo. It’s like we acquired a new player over the summer who already knows the Spurs’ system.

    Remember when he and Leandro Barbosa, The Brazilian Blurr, paired up as Phoenix’s Foreign Legion? They were rail thin and lightning fast. Am I misremembering or did Boris used to be thin and lanky? I was shocked when the Land Walrus turned up in place of the stick figure I remembered.