Film Room: How Paul Atkinson Jr. Fills Notre Dame’s Interior Presence Needs
Notre Dame basketball will fill its interior void left by the likely departure of Juwan Durham with one of the country’s most efficient post-up players next season.
In 6-10, 220-pound Yale graduate transfer Paul Atkinson Jr., the Fighting Irish are landing the 2019-20 Ivy League Co-Player of the Year who ranked in the 95th percentile in post scoring efficiency, per Synergy Sports (99th is the best possible rank). He averaged 17.6 points per game and shot 63.0 percent from the floor, with most of that work coming near the rim. He had 11 KenPom.com game MVP awards in Yale’s 28 contests last year.
His addition should give Notre Dame a scoring option it has missed this year without double-double machine John Mooney and has normally had on coach Mike Brey’s best teams.
Durham has been a complementary option and less of a focal point, averaging 8.3 points per game and ranking in the 32nd percentile in post-up scoring efficiency this year. About half his interior scoring comes on rolls and cuts to the basket, whereas Atkinson’s point production is more post-up heavy.
There’s much more to Atkinson’s game, but any breakdown should start with his identity and what Notre Dame will ask him to do: score on the low block.
Atkinson’s strong base, sound footwork and touch are the key to his efficiency and consistency. He’s crafty and patient with an ability to simply work his way into position with sheer will and lower-body strength. There aren’t many wasted steps when he puts his back to the basket. It’s hard to move him off the block. Ivy League big men struggled to do so, as did the high-major opponents whom Yale played in Atkinson’s three years there.
His best and most-utilized post moves are a right-hand jump hook and right-hand spin. His drop step is reliable. If he’s allowed to get to his right hand and go over the left shoulder, he’s usually going to score or draw a foul.
The craftiness shows up in his frequent use of fakes, sometimes with multiple ones in the same possession. This clip where he shows the ball and gets the defender to bite is a good illustration. So is the first clip of the video just below it.
Atkinson’s field goal percentage is consistently in the 60s (career 66.1) because he doesn’t take bad shots. He’s rarely out of control when he catches the ball on the block. He draws fouls at a high rate and is difficult to stay in front of and body up one-on-one. He ranked 141st nationally in free throw rate last year, per KenPom, and averaged 5.6 free throw attempts per game.
Atkinson is not going to drive from the high post too often, though it’s in his arsenal. On those plays, he can sometimes get reckless because he will start heading toward the rim full speed without setting his feet. He can put two or three dribbles together and even has a basic crossover, shown in the clip below.
Yale also used Atkinson frequently in ball screens as a roller. Per Synergy, he shot 55.6 percent on field goals as a roll man. He had 22 putbacks and shot 70 percent on putback attempts. He’s a willing rim runner who ranked in the 98th percentile in transition scoring.
Atkinson isn’t a three-point threat beyond unguarded standstill shots, usually generated on pick-and-pops. He was 4 of 13 from beyond the arc in 2019-20 and attempted one three-pointer in his first two seasons. He’s a career 66.5 percent free throw shooter and has had stretches where he struggles from the line. His shooting motion has a bit of a push to it.
Here’s the other impressive part of Atkinson’s game. He’s a skilled passer with feel and sound decision making. Yale ran some of its offense through him in the high post. His 1.5 assists per game average and negative assist-turnover ratio is misleading, particularly because his 14.9 percent turnover rate is low. For context, Notre Dame is turning the ball over on 15.7 percent of its possessions, which is among the 30 lowest rates in the country. It finished third last year at 14.2 percent.
Double-teaming Atkinson isn’t a death sentence for him, because he passes out of doubles well. It’s not an automatic turnover or a way to fluster him. He’s patient. He can split them off the dribble if they’re not tight. In the high post, he can feed the interior on high-low passes and find shooters on the wing coming off screens. He will occasionally pass when he catches the ball as the roll man, like in the clip below.
A lot of his passes are hockey assists (the pass to the guy who makes the assist) or passes that swing the ball and start a defensive rotation. Those won’t show up in assist numbers, but they’re important in helping generate open shots.
Atkinson is an above-average interior defender. He was in the 56th percentile guarding post-ups in 2019-20. He can get backed down in the post at times, but he’s not a black hole where opponents rip past him with no resistance. Yale trusted him to play single coverage against opposing Ivy League centers and some high-major big men too. He’s willing to take chances for steals and gets a lot of steals (1.2 per game in 2019-20) just by being aware and sliding over to deflect passes.
When one-on-one in the post, Atkinson stays straight up and defends without fouling. He averaged just 1.9 fouls called per game.
Atkinson’s lateral quickness is fine for a center, but guarding downhill dribble-drives isn’t where you want him. The Bulldogs didn’t switch screens and ask him to defend guards on the perimeter, which wouldn’t be a strength.
Yale played mostly man defense and rarely had Atkinson show on the perimeter when defending ball screens, meaning he stayed a few steps below the ball handler and stuck with his man after briefly clogging the driving lane to try and cause disruption, which he does here with a deflection.
With a career 0.6 block per game average, Atkinson isn’t a true rim protector. Most of his blocks come on his man, and he doesn’t seek them out in help defense.
• When rebounding, Atkinson is going to find his man and put a body on him. He can get moved at times, and there’s a bit of a ceiling with his rebounding because he’s not an explosive leaper with elite athleticism, but the effort and awareness isn’t in question.
• The main question with Ivy League transfers to high-major leagues is handling the increased skill level and strength. That appears to be less of a concern with Atkinson. In four games against high-major teams last season, he averaged 14.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists per outing while shooting 56.4 percent (22 of 39). The opponents were North Carolina, Oklahoma State, Clemson and Penn State.
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