By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Skylar Mays is used to it by now.
He’s been dunking for long enough – since eighth grade, to be precise – to know that when he elevates above the rim and finishes with authority, it comes as a surprise to those who’ve not seen him play before.
“They always tell me I’ve got sneaky bounce,” he says, grinning. “Whatever that is.”
Amid a losing streak that has fans and players alike frustrated to no end, Mays hasn’t just had ‘sneaky bounce.’ He’s also been sneaky good, a bright spot in a bleak season. His team is in the midst of its worst SEC start since 2009-10, when the Tigers went winless in their first 12 SEC games. When you’ve lost five straight and six of seven, it’s hard to find reasons for hope, but the play of Mays at the point is a rare gleam of optimism amid a mundane season.
The best example is the most recent – Saturday at Arkansas, which served as Mays’ coming out party. In a season high 32 minutes, the Baton Rouge native gashed the Razorbacks for 22 points and 6 assists, showcasing the skills of an elite point guard who is tailor-made for the modern game: a strong, savvy slasher who gets to the rim, creates for others, and knocks down threes and free throws.
Let’s take a look at what Mays’ skillset and what has done well this season, with an emphasis on conference games.
Any discussion of Mays’ play has to begin with his basketball intelligence, which is an extension from off of the court. A pre-med biology major, Mays finished his first semester with a 4.0.
The NBA has never been richer in point guard talent, but Mays says he models his game off of a retired one: Jason Kidd, perhaps the smartest point guard to ever play the game.
That brain pays dividends on the floor for the Baton Rouge native. Mays has a unique feel for the game. Like Kidd, he sees the floor incredibly well and has a knack for out-thinking his opponents.
Good things happen on offense when the ball is in Mays’ hands. He’s producing 1.299 points per possessions+assists (plays that end in a Mays assist, field goal/free throw attempt, or turnover), according to Synergy. For reference, that’s better than 2017 projected lottery picks Markelle Fultz (1.297) and Malik Monk (1.273).
A Model of Efficiency
Mays’ season numbers — 7.2 points per game, 3.9 assists per game, and a .410/.313/.805 shooting line in 20.9 minutes per game — are solid, if unspectacular.
But since the conference began, Mays has been a different player, averaging 10.7 points per game and 3.7 assists per game on .460/.412/.880 shooting in 22.0 minutes per game.
Splitting time at the point with Jalyn Patterson, who has also enjoyed a solid start to league play, Mays has made the most of his minutes, emerging as Jones’ most efficient offensive weapon.
Mays leads LSU and ranks seventh in the league in PER in SEC games only, with an impressive 24.1 (for reference, reigning NBA MVP Steph Curry’s PER this season is 23.6). He ranks fourth in the league in Offensive Rating, producing 121.9 points per 100 possessions.
In terms of efficiency, he’s having a Ben Simmons-like impact on LSU’s offense in conference play.
LSU Freshmen in Conference Play Only,
Player, Season, Offensive Rating, PER
A Modern Game
The modern era of basketball is all about pace and space. The most efficient places to score from are at the rim, behind the three point line and from the free throw line. All but gone are the days of the isolation and the midrange jumper as primary methods of attack.
Mays’ game, then, is ideally suited for this style of play. He does most of his work attacking the rim – which allows him to get to the line – or as a spot up shooter. Rarely does he take a mid-range two, almost universally regarded as modern basketball’s worst shot. Just 20 percent of Mays’ attempts are two-point jumpers, according to Hoop-Math.com, well below the national median of 27.8 percent, which means he’s not settling for inefficient looks.
He prefers to get to the rack, and Mays is already LSU’s best rim attacker. Of all his shot attempts, 49.5 percent come at the rim. Only 7-footer Elbert Robinson boasts a higher percentage of attempts within three feet of the basket among the rest of the Tigers.
He’s beginning to finish more at the rim than he did earlier in the season. Mays is shooting 58 percent at the rim in SEC play, according to Hoop-Math.com, a slight but solid uptick from his pre-conference figure of 53 percent. In his last three games, Mays is shooting 70 percent at the rim – buoyed by a 4-for-5 night vs. Arkansas, who boasts the SEC’s best shot blocker in Moses Kingsley. That’s an elite number for a point guard.
Splitting the Pick
His favorite route to the rim is via the pick and roll. According to Synergy, 53.2 percent of Mays’ possessions+assists used are via the PNR. He’s had his ups and downs but is producing 90.5 points per 100 possessions on such plays, which is the best mark in the SEC among players whose PNR usage is above 50 percent. In his last four games, as Mays has hit his stride, that number is up 103.4 – second in the SEC among all players.
Mays is particularly deadly when he can split the defense, as he did on the highlight dunk at the top of this post against Arkansas. He split three PNRs against Arkansas, leading to six points — perfect conversion.
Though he’s capable of scoring for himself, Mays is more comfortable creating for others. That’s why he had nearly 1,000 career assists in high school and could, if he sticks around for four years, threaten the LSU career record. His 30.7 assist rate on the season is fourth in the SEC.
“Mostly for me it’s just what it takes for us to win,” he says. “I guess for the Arkansas game it felt like I needed to score a little bit more. I definitely can try to take the scoring burden off of Antonio and Brandon, who are unbelievable scorers.”
When Mays splits screens like this, teams will sag under the screen, daring him into jumpers. That worked before SEC play, when he hit just 20 percent of his 3s. But since conference play started, he’s shooting 41.2 percent from beyond the arc, punishing teams that sink under ball screens.
Perhaps the biggest leap for Mays has been on the defensive end. He’s still a work in progress there, giving up 0.877 points per possession as the primary defender, which is near the national average and in the bottom third on the team. But it’s improved in conference play, and he’s particularly effective in forcing turnovers — which is a massive weakness for LSU. His 3.8 steal rate ranks in the top 10 in the conference, and like Kidd, he uses his hands well to create turnovers in the gaps that lead to transition offense.
“It’s starting to get to the point where defensive play gets me going,” he says. “I like that about myself. That’s shown my personal growth as a player, taking more pride on the defensive end.”
LSU head Coach Johnny Jones on Mays
“I just think it kind of goes with who he is, what he stands for, and his focus. He’s a very driven kid not only on the basketball floor but also away from it. I think that has generated a lot of why he’s so successful. He’s a very dedicated and focused young man. If you watch him play, he plays with a purpose. It means a great deal to him and he’s passionate about what he’s doing. I think we can really see that in his play.”