Jarvis Varnado: Filling Space Or Filling A Role For Philadelphia 76ers?

A center's game in a power forward's body. (Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports)
A center's game in a power forward's body. (Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports) /

Late last season, the Philadelphia 76ers signed free agent big man Jarvis Varnado to a 10-day contract. It was business as usual for the fast-moving Sam Hinkie.

Over the course of the season, the Sixers signed a multitude of players to 10-day contracts. But unlike short-term experiments like Adonis Thomas, Darius Johnson-Odom, or James Nunnally, Varnado cracked the rotation and stuck with the team.

In fact, Hinkie signed Varnado to a contract that extends all the way through the 2016-17 season. The maximum value of the contract would be about $2 million, although very little of it is guaranteed.

Varnado is a player with more games played in the D-League (45) than in the NBA (37). But Varnado remains a Sixer and, perhaps most intriguingly, was not a part of the Sixers’ Summer League teams in either Orlando or Las Vegas — an obligation usually required of players with as little experience as Varnado.

While it wouldn’t be surprising to hear, at any point, that Varnado has been released from the team, the longer he remains on payroll, the more likely it seems that he was signed to fill a role, not just to fill space.

The most prominent part of Varnado’s game is the blocked shots, which are frequent and emphatic. Using his long wingspan and agility, Varnado blocked 1.2 shots per game with the Sixers — and he was only receiving 14.1 minutes per game of playing time.

Plenty of the blocks came on basic contests on a jump shooter: Varnado is just that long, that he severely limits an opponents’ ability to play over him. It’s very impressive stuff from a player who stands 6’9′, which is basically tiny for an elite shot blocker.

The biggest sign of growth from Varnado during his stint with the Sixers is reflected in his 60.0 field goal percentage with the team. That’s a big improvement over his career 53.9 percent accuracy in the D-League.

In the NBDL, Varnado is one of his team’s main offensive options, receiving around 30 minutes and 10 shots a night. With the Sixers, Varnado elegantly assimilated into the flow of the team’s fast-moving offense.

Varnado doesn’t have a great post game — he shot 2-of-10 on post-up shots, according to Synergy Sports, with most of those attempts being off-balance hook shots while falling away from the basket. It wouldn’t be wise to trust him to create his own shot in a static offensive set.

However, in the flow of a fast-moving play — which is, of course, the Sixers’ signature style — Varnado is exceptionally crafty at finding holes in the defense that resulted in high-percentage looks.

Even with his brand-new teammates, Varnado developed exceptional chemistry in using a quick baseline cut. First Varnado would lurk outside the key and on the baseline, nearly out of bounds. Notice how is man, in this case Dwight Howard, has his head turned totally away from Varnado, instead focusing on the driving Michael Carter-Williams:

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When Varnado’s man totally commits to containing Carter-Williams, well, that’s the moment where Carter-Williams hits Varnado with a quick pass:

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This is a beautiful play by the Sixers. The Rockets defense is totally collapsed in a cluster, but Philly has gotten the ball right to the foot of the hoop, thanks in large part to Varnado’s great positioning and timing. If Howard were in adequate position to guard Varnado, then Varnado could easily kick it out to one of the many open Sixer shooters on the perimeter. But Howard is flat-footed and facing the wrong way, so it’s an easy dunk:

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There are legitimate concerns to be had about Varnado’s size, strength, and rebounding ability. (Varnado averaged 6.7 rebounds per 36 minutes with Philadelphia — the lanky perimeter-dweller Byron Mullens managed 8.7, and Mullens is not known for his toughness.) But a player who blocks a ton of shots, runs the floor well, and makes smart plays within the flow of the offense? Varnado does share a rough profile with Nerlens Noel.

At the very least, we can see that the Sixers have a type.

This is not to say that Varnado will ever match Noel’s levels of production. But it could easily be the case that, along with center Henry Sims, Varnado would round out a rotation of rangy, agile big men all throughout the 2014-15 season.