Cameron Oliver is a superstar hiding in plain sight
It’s often too easy to focus our attention solely on Melbourne United, the Sydney Kings, and Perth Wildcats and forget that five other cities are home to NBL clubs. Despite being enamoured with the big markets of the league, we usually do a good job of keeping a close eye on the true superstars of the NBL. Shawn Long drew eyeballs in New Zealand; Mitch Creek was impressive in Adelaide, and is making an impressive MVP case this season; Jerome Randle captures the imagination of everyone regardless of where he plays.
Yet, that idea doesn’t seem to be true this year for the Cairns Taipans’ Cam Oliver. Somehow, Oliver has scuttled under the radar — the level of buzz around him is comparable to bit-part bench pieces in Sydney and Melbourne. If you’re not a reader of Warren Yiu’s fantastic weekly top 20 players list, you might not realise that Oliver is assuredly one of the league’s very best.
Perhaps part of the reason Oliver hasn’t gotten the love he deserves is that he doesn’t jack up shot attempts in the same manner that many of his peers do. Traditional superstars dominate offensive possessions and make their presence visibly apparent to the naked eye. On the contrary, nothing about Oliver is traditional at all — he’s an undersized centre who is a star because of his absurd efficiency, rather than raw box score output. It’s understandably harder to understand Oliver’s superstardom than it is to recognise Bryce Cotton’s stud status, for example.
To say that Oliver is absurdly efficient might even be an understatement. For a player who sits just outside the league-wide top 10 in terms of points per game, he takes up a remarkably small share of his team’s possessions. Oliver’s usage rate sits at a meagre 22.2%, per Spatial Jam — for comparison, Shawn Long, who Oliver is often compared to, uses 28% of his team’s possessions. Oliver’s usage rate is more comparable to guys like Keith Benson, AJ Ogilvy, and Clint Steindl than it is to Long or any of the other stars around the league.
On top of his low usage, Oliver currently owns the league’s seventh highest true shooting percentage among players who have registered more than 100 minutes. True shooting (which takes into account twos, threes, and free throws) tends to reward one-dimensional rim-running centres who plant themselves by the bucket and three-point maestros. Swiss army knives like Oliver tend to be left unloved by this particular stat.
The only player who matches Oliver in terms of raw points per game, while acting in a comparable manner usage and efficiency-wise is the cheat code that is John Roberson. In order to match Oliver’s efficiency and production, Roberson is having to shoot over 50% from deep on nearly 8 attempts per contest. If that’s the level of play needed to top what Cairns’ big man is doing right now, Oliver is undoubtedly special.
Most of that uber-efficiency and production comes from his unstoppable inside game. Oliver is as explosive as any player in the league and uses his power to finish 83% of his attempts at the rim — the league average finishing rate at the rim stands at just 60%. Compared to other starting centres, only Matt Hodgson (who does virtually nothing else on offence) finishes looks at the basket at a remotely comparable level.
|Player||Field Goal% at Rim (via Spatial Jam)|
Oliver doesn’t just sit under the rim and wait for Scott Machado to provide him with picture-perfect dishes, either. Those shot attempts come from a wide variety of sources. Per jordanmcnbl.com, only two players have registered more shot attempts from cuts than Oliver across the league. He thrives off-ball and times his rushes to the basket exceedingly well, for a player still low on experience.
On the other hand, when opposing big men pay too much attention to him off-ball and close out hard, Oliver still gets to the rim with ease. It’s genuinely difficult to picture another big man zipping to the basket with this sort explosiveness and control.
If those options aren’t available on any given possession, the pick and roll dance with Machado is borderline unstoppable. The other 8 teams around the league should rally together and petition to ban it. Oliver generates a ridiculous 1.69 points per possession when shooting as a screen-setter in the pick and roll/pop game, according to jordanmcnbl.com. To no one’s surprise, that mark ranks first among players involved in more than 20 of those plays this season.
A big chunk of that outstanding figure stems from pick and pops. The big man has been given the green light from the land of plenty and is canning triples at above league-average efficiency. His hot shooting has cooled off in recent games, but seeing an NBL big man so willing to launch from outside is refreshing. Oliver leads all big men in spot-up attempts and trails just five players league-wide. For the sanity of analytics gurus everywhere, he has all but eradicated mid-range jumpers from his diet — Oliver has attempted just six shots from mid-range all season, showing that he comprehends the modern game.
Being so willing to launch from beyond the arc has opened up lanes to the basket for everyone else. Kouat Noi, as pointed out by Jordan McCallum recently on Twitter, is flourishing via handoffs on offence. On a lot of these plays. Noi gets straight to the rim, in part because the threat of Oliver firing the rock from deep is sucking behemoths out of the paint.
Oliver’s gravity, however, is only immensely useful when he plays as the team’s five man. When Oliver is allowed to play without Nate Jawai in the lineup, Cairns are outscoring teams by 3.5 points per 100 possessions, per Spatial Jam. In these lineups, the Taipans are able to space the opposition rim protector out to the three-point line and have Oliver complete his rampages to the rim with four shooters around him.
The Jawai-Oliver pairing has been horrendous — Cairns are being decimated by 13 points per 100 possessions when the two play together. Mike Kelly’s offence stagnates without the ability to go five-out and Jawai gets picked on at the other end relentlessly. Oliver’s gravitational pull isn’t nearly as strong when he plays next to a traditional big like Jawai, as modern defences are always prepared to go up against stretch fours.
One of Oliver’s core weaknesses is his lack of any real passing nous or playmaking gifts. However, his gravity enables him to ensure that he can still make others significantly better when he is on the court. Giving the likes of Machado, DJ Newbill, and Noi the necessary room to maneuver can be just as useful to a big than a competent playmaking game. That trio wouldn’t be performing as well as they currently are, without Oliver’s ability to draw would-be shot blockers away from the rim.
A better critique of Oliver’s game would be in relation to his work on the defensive end. Spatial Jam’s on/off numbers suggest that the Taipans are 3.8 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Oliver riding the pine. Part of that is due to the big man’s issues on the defensive glass — Cairns currently rank dead last in defensive rebounding percentage and Mike Kelly’s men see their lowly number rise by 9.5% when Oliver sits.
The rebounding issue is absolutely fixable. Oliver may be undersized, but he is more than explosive and powerful enough to hold his own against the league’s best board crashers. This is predominantly an issue with his concentration and effort. There have been stretches of games where Oliver looks committed to cleaning the glass every possession. But these stretches remain too few and far between and are replaced by other runs during which boxing out seems to slip his mind completely.
The rest of Oliver’s defensive game is pretty solid, although, he does, on occasion, fall dead asleep and see his assignment stroll past him for layups.
These plays are occur more than Mike Kelly would want, but Oliver remains an effective presence on defence. His lateral speed and shot-blocking instincts make him a uniquely versatile weapon for Cairns on the defensive end. Kelly has been able to deploy numerous different defensive schemes because of his versatility.
Whilst defending screens, Oliver has been asked to switch, blitz, provide hard hedges, soft hedges, and be utilised in drop back schemes, à la Andrew Bogut. Kelly, on occasion, even toggles between these schemes possession-to-possession. Yet, despite the difficulty that this constant scheme shuffling presents, Oliver has managed to hold up rather well.
With his lateral quickness and athleticism, he’s one of the very best bigs in the league at keeping ball-handlers in front of him. Oliver often swallows ball-handlers whole when they try to attack him off a screen — they can’t beat him for speed and his 7’1’’ wingspan walls off passing lanes and shooting options:
His tools allow for Cairns to be more aggressive on defence than most teams. Even if a defensive breakdown occurs as a result of this aggression, Oliver is so freakish that he is usually able to make up for it. Check out how much ground he is forced to make up on this play from the moment Brandon Ashley touches the ball.
While he is clearly a nice piece for Kelly to have on defence, Oliver does struggle to protect the rim as effectively as some of the league’s other centres. He doesn’t always use his verticality as he should, and is prone to foul trouble because of it.
Regardless of these issues, as Andrew Price pointed out on Twitter recently, box-plus minus suggests that he’s assuredly a positive difference-maker on that end of the court. Oliver ranks among the best 14 defensive players in the league:
In fact, as again pointed out by Andrew, VORP and box plus-minus both indicate that he is one of the very best four or five players in the league overall.
Advanced stats don’t tell the entire story, but it’s fairly clear that Oliver is an undeniable force on both sides of the ball. He is a malleable weapon who can be deployed in a wide variety of roles and succeed in all of them.
Cam Oliver is an absolute stud. At just 23 years of age, he will only get better, but it’s time to start treating him like a superstar now.