Even with star teammates in Jaden Ivey and Trevion Williams, Purdue sharpshooter Sasha Stefanovic has taken his game to new heights this season.
Purdue basketball entered this season with extremely high expectations to contend for the national championship. With a 9-1 record through the opening month of the campaign, the Boilermakers have lived up to the hype. While a loss to Rutgers dropped caused a slip from the pedestal, they have reached the pinnacle of regular-season success — being ranked No. 1 in the nation — for the first time in program history.
Their ascent to elite status can be largely attributed to its star trio. Jaden Ivey is set to be a top-10 NBA Draft pick next summer while Trevion Williams and Zach Edey form the best big man tandem in America. Matt Painter walking the sidelines as one of the nation’s top head coaches certainly doesn’t hurt, either.
Lost within the excitement regarding the team’s main stars, though, has been the steady improvement of senior Sasha Stefanovic. At 23 years old and 101 career games (53 starts) already under his belt, Stefanovic is the “elder statesman” of the team. However, his improvement this season has been as pivotal to Purdue’s hot start as anything else.
Stefanovic has always been a great shooter — that much is evident not just in the stat sheet but also in the eye test. He is constantly moving offensively, wreaking havoc on defenses that cannot afford to leave him open. With so many talented teammates, Stefanovic is finding more openings this season. And when defenses collapse on him as a shooter, he makes things happen for others.
Stefanovic is the well-rounded, gravity-providing role player that makes Purdue tick.
It all starts with the Sasha Splash.
Sasha Stefanovic’s game revolves around his deadly shooting ability. He is a career 40-percent shooter from three on 416 total attempts and is currently in the midst of his best season as a sniper. Even with the talent level around him, particularly in terms of the team’s passing ability, there’s no denying that he has always been as consistent as they come from beyond the arc.
Stefanovic is so special as a shooter, though, because of his versatility. He is not merely a standstill catch-and-shoot threat. He is an elite off-ball mover that defenses always have to keep their eye on. Even a half-second without attention can lead to him relocating along the perimeter for a good look or slashing to the basket on a back-cut.
He is an incredible shot-maker who only needs an inch of separation to get his shot off. Purdue utilizes this ability by featuring him within the offense. Coach Painter and Co. do a great job incorporating off-ball screens and dribble handoffs that either create a shot for him or force defenses out of their designed system for trying to track his movement.
Purdue makes defenses work to cover Stefanovic — he is constantly moving and is an integral part of the scheme, especially since defenses already have to account for Jaden Ivey, Trevion Williams, and Zach Edey. Stefanovic’s off-ball movement and shot-making as the team’s fourth-leading scorer are impressive.
There is also an argument to be made that he has the quickest release in the country.
Stefanovic has always been a great shooter, but he is now using that skill to create for others at a career-best rate. He is averaging a career-high 11.9 points per game.
Shooting “gravity” creates opportunities
Stefanovic’s top-tier shot-making is panic-inducing for defenses. If he gets a sliver of space or is left open on the perimeter, opponents are quickly thrown into disarray trying to account for him. He is just the fourth-leading scorer on Purdue’s roster but is perhaps the player with the greatest gravity. Defenses have to account for him from the moment he crosses halfcourt and he never lets a tick of the 30-second shot clock go to waste.
Head coach Matt Painter is using this to his advantage in multiple different ways; this includes using Stefanovic as a decoy by running him past off-ball screens and also making him the entry passer for post-ups. Defenses want to double-team star big men Trevion Williams and Zach Edey, but are they willing to leave Stefanovic alone to do so? Not often.
Stefanovic is also displaying excellent touch on lob passes within the flow of the offense, as displayed above. Edey’s height (7-4) makes these passes easier but they still have to be timed correctly and put in the right spot. He plays at his pace and does not rush his decisions as a passer. The threat of his jumper also creates opportunities for his pump fake to make up for a lack of elite burst off the dribble.
On the whole, Stefanovic has upped his passing ability and volume this season. Not only has he increased his assist rate by 10 whole percentage points, but he has done so while keeping his turnover rate down. His 3.27 assist-to-turnover rate ranked 26th in the entire nation after eight games.
These numbers speak volumes and represent the numbers side of how much he has turned his shooting into an advantageous skill for Purdue’s offense. His ability to threaten from distance combined with his playmaking instincts makes for a strong combination. The advanced analytics reiterate Stefanovic’s impact as well.
What the numbers say
Sasha Stefanovic grades out extremely well across a multitude of different play types. Despite leading the team in assists, he is not often used as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. He runs off screens as an off-ball player more often, either to create a look for himself or as a de facto PnR via a handoff.
With defenses needing to constantly stay up on him or fearing his quick release, Stefanovic is able to get by his man on occasion and create opportunities for himself and his teammates inside the arc.
As the season progresses, Stefanovic might start to score off-the-dribble with a bit more regularity as teams play him for the pass rather than the finish when he is driving. That happened in the closing seconds of regulation between Purdue and NC State this past weekend; Stefanovic came up with a big bucket when attacking himself. He is never going to be Purdue’s top offensive option – or even the second – but he is a vital piece of their offense.
Even with their recent struggles, Purdue remains a very good team and Stefanovic is a strong contributor to that success. He is playing 27.4 minutes per game and making the pieces around him better when sharing the floor.
Purdue’s struggles upon reaching the No. 1 ranking have been well-documented. The Boilermakers fell on a buzzer-beater to Rutgers and needed a great comeback and overtime to take down NC State in the following outing. These two performances might be a sign of things to come, but they could also just be a bump in the road as the Boilermakers are extremely talented and well-coached. With Stefanovic serving as the invaluable fourth man, Purdue’s depth of talent is unlike any team across the country.
Header image courtesy of Sasha Stefanovic’s personal Instagram account.