January 4, 2019, 2:51 pm
Happy New Year Hoop Ballers and welcome to our first International Spotlight weekly feature for 2019 where we will be taking a look into the second Egyptian-born player to ever play in the NBA, Abdel Nader of the Oklahoma Thunder. And in case you are wondering about the very first one, that’s no other than Alaa Abdelnaby, a former Duke Blue Devil who was a valuable journeyman in the 90’s playing for the Blazers, Bucks, Celtics, Sixers and Kings.
Nader’s journey to the NBA included many stops along the way as he was born in Egypt and moved to the United States at the age of 3. After two seasons at Northern Illinois, he transferred to Iowa State, where under Fred Hoiberg, he helped the Cyclones secure a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament during his senior season. He was actually one of the most improved college players in the 2015-16 season, upping his scoring average from 5.8 to 12.9 points while improving his 3-point percentage from 21.7 to 37.1 percent. Nader was not on the radar of many NBA teams but eventually the Celtics made him the No. 58th overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft.
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From Maine to the Majors
When Nader declared for the draft, he was being told by multiple agents who recruited him that he was overseas bound but the Celtics took a flier on him on a draft night where they failed to package their multiple first round picks for a better asset and came out with Jaylen Brown, Guerschon Yabusele, Ante Zizic, Demetrius Jackson and Ben Bentil.
Nader seemed like a decent find after a strong Summer League where he showed a knack for scoring, particularly on drives and spot-up triples. As a second-round pick, he was not a lock to make the team, entertaining a lucrative overseas offer in Russia worth $350,000, before eventually listening to the advice of his agent and pursuing his NBA dream by playing in the G-League. At this point, it was obvious that the Celtics drafted him on the agreement that he would be a domestic draft-and-stash for a year before signing with them.
In Nader’s lone season in Maine, he averaged 21.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 40 games where he held a 29 percent usage, winning the league’s Rookie of the Year award while leading the team to a 29-21 record and claiming the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference.
up a spot for him on the 15-man roster, signing him to a three-year, $6 million contract that included a first-year guarantee and a team option for a fourth year in 2020-21. Unfortunately, he looked overweight and was not especially good during the preseason last year, getting outplayed by Jabari Bird. Still, nagging injuries to key rotation guys and Brad Stevens’ willingness to look for a spark off the bench gave him the opportunity to play key minutes. As expected though, he struggled with decision making on both ends of the court as the game was moving too fast for him.
Coming from a system where he was the “Main(e)” guy, he would consistently miss the extra pass when the ball was swinging around and he couldn’t replicate the success he had attacking the rim while opponents would easily blow past him. Here is a possession where he is struggling to post up a smaller Jordan Clarkson and gets his shot blocked.
Billy Donovan’s Blueprint for Success
One of the main reasons Billy Donovan has been successful in Oklahoma City is because of his style being an excellent fit for Russell Westbrook. Donovan gives a lot of freedom as a coach and he doesn’t like to control every single play, promoting more spontaneity and more creativity, making it difficult for his offense to be scouted by opponents because it’s not necessarily scripted. In order to do that however, he teaches his guys how to play and what they need to be doing inside the framework of the offense.
A point of emphasis has been the ability to have more shooting on the court which translates to more spacing and more room for Westbrook to operate. Alex Abrines and Terrance Ferguson have struggled to do so consistently and in the NBA, you can space your guys all the way out, but if your shooting guards can’t shoot it doesn’t make a difference where you put them because the well-coached teams won’t guard them. Nader is the latest example of a 3-and-D guy that is trying to fill that role for the Thunder and his emergence lately is a direct result of that.
The Egyptian forward is converting 43.8 percent (7-of-16) of his shots from 3-point range in the last 5 games, mainly to a pattern that allows plenty of threes from the corners. The Thunder likes to leave the top of the floor open for Westbrook and Dennis Schroder in order for them to be able to penetrate the lane and that’s why the weak side players always “hug” the sideline while a side pick-and-roll is occurring. Look at Nader immediately dragging his feet behind the arc after a jump ball that leaves the defense unorganized as he successfully launches the triple.
Nader’s versatility is the primary reason the Thunder acquired the second-year forward through a couple under the radar moves during the summer. At 6’6” and 230 pounds, Nader has played every position from point guard to center and during his rookie year in Boston he played together with a bunch of athletic forwards in a system where switching was the preferred method of defending the pick-and-roll. He is a competent ball-handler with the build of a powerful small forward and has the ability to guard multiple positions on the floor because of foot speed which allows him to stay with quick guards and muscle that enables him to hold off stronger forwards closer to the basket.
Nader is exactly the type of player that NBA coaches covet in their rotation. The best defensive teams are the ones that can go from having guys on the ball to them simultaneously scrambling back and getting matched up. Look at Bucks recognizing a potential mismatch after a side pick-and-roll and throwing the ball to Thon Maker deep in the middle. Nader uses his strength and length to hold his ground and easily blocks the shot.
Nader’s offensive skills were not useful to a loaded Celtics team last year but he is a cheap end-of-bench guy as a tall wing player with the ability to shoot and drive, items that are highly valued in the professional game and especially for a team missing its best defender in Andre Roberson. The Egyptian forward hardly participated in preseason camp as left knee soreness kept him out of contact practices and all four preseason games but he worked on the side with Thunder assistant coaches and finally shed some extra weight, looking more athletic than ever. Look at how the Lakers fail to stop the ball and let Nader take the ball all the way to the rim, attacking a much bigger Ivica Zubac.
His ability to take his defender off-the-dribble was a very underrated part of his game when leaving Iowa State and the way the NBA is trending nowadays guys have to be versatile – they have to be able to switch on defense and to have a wide skill-set offensively.
A Guard Trapped in a Power Forward’s Body?
The biggest challenge for him is obviously to continue to defend, using his good feet and the physical play he brings to the table. At the Portsmouth Invitational in 2016, Nader posted a 7’1” wingspan, and it’s that length that helps him do all the dirty work and the little things that aren’t counted on the stat sheet. He hustles for every loose ball, doesn’t give up on plays, sets screens and looks to contribute on and off the ball making the smart play. Here is Rick Carlisle targeting Nader as he guards Harrison Barnes close to the rim. The Mavs forward receives the ball at a great angle and thinks he has an easy task but looks somehow surprised when Nader uses his quick hands to strip the ball off him.
One thing about him that he pays the price for is the aggressiveness that translates to lots of fouling but I don’t think Billy Donovan minds his role players using their fouls in the limited time they get on the floor. Nader is committing an average of three fouls in the last five games but he is a hard-nosed defender who won’t back down and that’s the type of play that Russell Westbrook likes to see.
Getting Over the Hump
After a slow start to the season Nader is averaging 17.1 minutes over his last five games, scoring 8.2 points and collecting 2.8 rebounds per game, including a career-high 18 points against the Suns on December 28th. He has scored in double figures in three of his last four games, with 10 points coming in each of his previous two outing,s and his teammates seem to love how comes in and competes at a high level every day.
Nader is already 25 years and I don’t see him unlocking another level to his game but he can easily be a rotation guy as long as he is able to make his shots and defend bigger opponents. I believe he has earned Donovan’s trust and it will be interesting to see if he maintains his minutes at the expense of Patrick Patterson when Abrines and Roberson return from their injuries. The Thunder’s success this year has been mainly a direct result of opting to go with the more versatile Jerami Grant instead of Carmelo Anthony and Nader fits that mold and could find himself as a part of something really special.
Hope you enjoyed learning more about Abdel Nader and keep an eye on him in the next few weeks as the Thunder push for a higher seed in the Western Conference. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @philysstar and stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.
Stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of January 4th.