The NBA's top assist duo for 2023-24 isn't who you'd expect
Diving into the league's best two-man games
Around this time last year, I took a look at the NBA’s top assist combinations. It was a fun exercise, highlighted by Marcus Smart having the exact same number of assists to Jaylen Brown as Jayson Tatum and Nikola Jokic being on the list as both a passer and a pass receiver. The head honchos, of course, were James Harden and Joel Embiid, the league’s dominant pick-and-roll duo.
This year, I was pleasantly surprised to see a bunch of unexpected but awesome pairings topping the list this season. It seemed worth digging into, so I looked at all 22 combinations with at least 50 total assists through Thursday afternoon. I then calculated how many games those duos had played together to rank them by assists/game and decided to examine the top eight (why eight? Why not?).
1) Fred VanVleet → Alperen Sengun, 3.3 assists per game (102 total)
I was floored to see that the most prolific assist duo by both total and average assists was FVV and the Turkish wonder, Sengun.
Longtime readers know I’ve been obsessed with Sengun since Day 1, claiming he has 80% of Nikola Jokic’s passing ability combined with 120% of his ambition. This season, however, those numbers have crept a little closer to each other, thanks to the better talent around Sengun, his improved decision-making, and his emerging dominance as a scorer.
VanVleet has exceeded my expectations as a distributor in Houston (he’s averaging a career-high in assists and looks reinvigorated in a new offensive scheme, typical rim-scoring troubles aside). He quickly realized that throwing the ball to Sengun was an easy way to get a box score line item. 48 of VanVleet’s assists to Sengun have been at the rim, and 38 have been in the short midrange. If the big man gets the ball near the hoop, good things happen (especially when you factor in his back-to-the-basket playmaking).
Nice touch and fancy (if often illegal) footwork offset Sengun’s lack of overwhelming vertical athleticism — although he will dunk on you! He’s hitting 69% at the rim, an average mark for a big but a career-best for him. That touch translates to an excellent floater game, too.
One of my favorite wrinkles in the VanVleet/Sengun pick-and-roll is a sort of fake pop/delayed roll from Sengun, in which he waits a beat or two longer than most at the three-point line before sprinting hard into space. Being an intuitive passer helps as a cutter and roller, too, because Sengun knows where the passing lanes will be:
That sort of chemistry usually takes years to develop between pairs unless one or both are an absolute star. It hasn’t been years, so…
In any event, the Rockets aren’t just improved from last season. They’re downright respectable, thanks in part to the instant VanVleet-Sengun connection.
2) Tyrese Haliburton → Myles Turner, 3.2 assists per game (93 total)
Just like last season, Tyrese is second on this list. This year, however, it’s not Buddy Hield but Myles Turner who has been the beneficiary.
Perhaps it’s just me, but it feels like Turner hasn’t been talked about enough this season. In the wake of Haliburton’s ascendance, people want to talk about the new hires like Obi Toppin and Bruce Brown, the youngsters on the rise like Andrew Nembhard, Aaron Nesmith, and Bennedict Mathurin, or the sharpshooting Hield. But Turner is out there doing his thing. He’s a legitimate threat to roll for a dunk or pop for a three, and he’s been equally prolific at both.
But that’s underselling what Turner can do. He’s not being spoon-fed every bucket. He’s built upon the ballhandling ability he showed last year, and he’s averaging the most dribbles per touch of his career — more than Nikola Vucevic, DeAndre Ayton, or fellow 3-and-D(unk) threat Kristaps Porzingis.
Watch as he senses an opening and drives right through All-Defensive forward Evan Mobley like he’s not even there, drawing the and-one:
Like an old football with a worn-down grip, Turner’s name isn’t tossed around much now that he’s not constantly being dangled in trade rumors. But he’s the clear-cut second-best player on the Pacers, and even in his ninth year, he’s still improving.
3) Tyrese Maxey → Joel Embiid, 3.0 assists per game (77 total)
While Maxey isn’t the Beard (Harden averaged an outrageous 4.8 assists to Embiid last season), he’s shown vastly improved playmaking now that he’s been given the keys to the offense. Maxey has nearly doubled his assists without increasing his turnovers, ensuring the Sixers offense has hit every beat without the departed point guard.
It helps to have a play finisher like Joel Embiid, who has become a Juggernautized Kevin Durant inside the arc. In fact, he’s shooting significantly better from the long midrange than Durant; nobody who shoots anywhere near as often from 16 feet out is shooting more accurately than Embiid’s 53% (though, to be fair, there aren’t many shooting nearly as often from there at all).
Embiid’s offensive versatility means the Sixers can put him into any action designed for any player, and he’ll get a bucket. They went to a Maxey/Embiid empty-side pick-and-roll four straight times against the Wizards in November before they stopped because they got bored scoring, and it wasn’t the first or last time they’ve spammed that particular play — it’s a go-to. But they also have some more modern wrinkles, like this inverted Maxey/Embiid dribble handoff that gets Embiid the ball on the move:
And after a slow start, Embiid is quietly up to 37% from deep on the year (excluding heaves). That’s just what defenses need: another weapon in Embiid’s endless arsenal.
4) Jamal Murray → Nikola Jokic, 2.9 assists per game (60 total)
Just like last year, Murray is assisting Jokic more than the other way around, and he’s doing so more often than before. Overall, Murray has never had a better passing season than this one. He’s averaging a career-high in assist rate and a career-low in turnover rate.
At this point, the nuances of the Murray/Jokic two-man game are well-known. They aren’t doing much different than they were last year; Murray’s just gotten better at it.
He’s become more patient, waiting until the last possible moment before delivering the surgical dime. Here, he has an open pocket pass right away, but he senses something better could open up if he waits juuuust long enough to draw Chet Holmgren away from the hoop and freeze Lu Dort:
With apologies to the Thunder and Wolves, the Nuggets are clear favorites to win the West. Murray’s continued, subtle growth is a big reason why.
5) Trae Young → Bogdan Bogdanovic, 2.7 assists per game (77 total)
Props to you if you’d guessed this pairing would be on the board.
The Hawks season is on life support for predictable reasons: horrific defense, poor defensive rebounding, and an overall lack of size and two-way talent. A bright spot has been Sixth Man of the Year candidate Bogdan Bogdanovic, who is third in the league in 3PA on a per-possession basis and hitting 38% from deep.
This is the first pairing on our list consisting primarily of long bombs. Just as Young is capable of passes to anywhere from anywhere, Bogdan, an underrated passer himself, is happy to shoot along the entire length of the arc (he’s nailing at least 46% from the right shoulder and both corners, although he’s hitting just 32% of his many attempts from the left shoulder).
When Bogdanovic gets on a heater, the league might not have a more audacious non-Curry shooter. Here, he knows that short-armed Tyler Herro and short-bodied Kyle Lowry are the only guys in his vicinity, and he decides to shoot this before he even knows where they’ll be. Oh, turns out they’re right in his grill? Doesn’t matter:
Young, of course, is the Nutella to Bogdanovic’s beloved crepes. He loves to find Bogdanovic for hit-ahead threes in transition — even off made baskets. Sometimes, the ball goes up before the cameraman has even finished his “hero shot” of the previous opposing scorer:
Most top passing duos are a guard to a big man, thanks to the league’s pick-and-roll obsession, so it’s fun to see a pairing based on something different crack the leaderboard.
**Paying subscribers get access to more analysis, film, and stats for the next three pairings, as well as a data table with detailed statistics on where the assists for each pairing are coming from!**