Minnesota bought out Anthony Bennett this week continuing his worst ever start for a #1 pick. With PFs option they liked more in Adriean Payne and Nemanja Bjelica to take back PF minutes the Timberwolves decided they’d seen enough. Bennett wanted a buyout to find a team with playing time.
Does Bennett have a chance to be something in the NBA? Or is he a lost cause?
To start his numbers did improve as a sophomore. In Cleveland his PER was 6.9, WS/48 -0.028, TS% .425 and ORTG 85. In Minnesota his PER was 11.4, WS/48 .017, TS% .458 and ORTG 96. His numbers improved from unspeakable badness to “D League call-up level”.
What strikes me about Bennett’s efficiency in Minnesota is the shot selection. Consider his 16-23 ft and 3pt shooting numbers:
16-23 feet: 46 for 139 (33.1%, .331 eFG)
3-pt: 7 for 22 (31.8%, .477 eFG)
Despite a far higher eFG for his 3 point shots Bennett’s shots came from 16-23 feet. Taking 46.7% of his overall field goals from long 2 led to an inefficient season.
But part of this is design. Flip had a “no 3s” rule for Bennett. To the point where Flip pulled Bennett from games when he attempt a 3 and breaking the rule.
Simply redistributing Bennett shots from midrange to 3 would’ve improved his efficiency. Take Derrick Williams last year who shot 31.4% from 3 for Sacramento but had quality overall averages of .54 TS% and 108 ORTG. The biggest difference is attempting 156 3-pters to 65 16-23 foot jumpers instead of Bennett’s inverse ratio. On numbers-driven teams like Philadelphia or Portland I expect Bennett would be asked to take a high ratio of 3s to long 2s.
Bennett went on to shoot 40% (12 for 30) from 3 at the Pan Am Games and Fiba Americas tournaments. On a shorter 3 point line this is an unreliable number but remains encouraging. His NCAA freshman 3P% of 37.5% also is an encouraging long term sign.
If I’m a team like Portland or Philadelphia and I sign Bennett I have hopes he turns into the next Patrick Patterson. Patterson shot 0 for 5 from 3 his first 2 seasons in Houston. In his 3rd season he broke through and shot 51 for 132 from 3 (38.6%). By 2014-2015 in Toronto he shot 105 for 283 (37.1%) from 3 as a premiere stretch four. Another player he could follow is Meyers Leonard in Portland. Leonard struggled to find minutes his first 2 years. After shooting 3 for 13 combined those seasons from 3, in his 3rd year he shot 47 for 112 (42%) from 3. This gave him an NBA role and now makes an intriguing free agency target next summer if it continues.
Both Patterson and Leonard are quality offensive rebounders at over 2 ORBs per 36 minutes like Bennett. Bennett has averaged 2.3 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes, 2.1 in Minnesota. He shot 68% at the rim with the Timberwolves. In addition to 3s getting offensive rebound putbacks could be a way to carve out a role and up his efficiency.
Bennett is not at their level as a 3pt shooter yet. He has to prove himself there and has to prove he’s not a mental enigma. But this is far from a lost case. His chances of making a Patterson or Leonard like leap have to be “solid”. For all we know just letting him shoot 3s instead of 2s could make him Sacramento Derrick Williams overnight who still drew demand on the free agent market with 2 years, 10 million from the Knicks. This is not as lost a cause as the Timberwolves are treating it.
Amir Johnson’s tenure with the Raptors ended after six seasons this summer. The Raptors used their salary cap room to sign DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph and Johnson found a nice home in Boston.
Amir never came close to making an all-star team with the Raptors. He never surpassed 10.4 points per game. But he finished 4th all time in Win Shares for the team, 4th in games played and 3rd in rebounds.
When the Raptors first acquired Amir before 2009-2010 he wasn’t even supposed to break the rotation. A something for nothing acquisition in letting Milwaukee sign Carlos Delfino, Amir quickly passed the returning Rasho Nesterovic as the backup center in the rotation. His athleticism on the glass and efficiency showed itself immediately. The Raptors narrowly missed the playoffs and Chris Bosh left the team for Miami. In the following years Amir’s defensive intelligence and pick and roll game developed.
We are used to the term “best player on a bad team” referring to the shot-chucking volume scorer who wouldn’t have these shots on a contender. But why can’t it be a player like Amir Johnson? The team’s leading scorer in the post Chris Bosh season was Andrea Bargnani who gave any value away defensively and on the glass. Both Bargnani and secondary scorer DeMar Derozan were below league average efficiency. Jose Calderon capably passed the ball but struggle on defense and fell below the efficiency in his 2007 to 2009 prime. On a contending team Bargnani and Caldeorn’s defense or Derozan’s poor floor spacing would have been an undesirable fit. It’s Amir Johnson’s defense, efficiency and ability to set picks that would have translated to any situation. He led the Raptors in Win Shares in 2010-2011 and in Kyle Lowry’s first season in 2012-2013. In 2011-2012 his individual statistics suffered, but the Raptors had their most successful defensive season of the three lottery years finishing 14th, which they surely wouldn’t have come close to without Johnson. Over this time Amir also became a favorite of advanced +/- afficiandos.
In 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 the Raptors reeled off back to back franchise record seasons with 48 and 49 wins. Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan made an all-star team but Amir’s defense and efficiency continued to have value. While observers were waiting for Jonas Valanciunas to break out, +/- stats reflected Amir as the steadier force of the two, especially defensively. In 2014-2015 health and an already 10 year long career began to slow Amir down on the defensive end, although his offensive production continued. Patrick Patterson’s efficient, floor spacing season began to stand out more at power forward. Masai Ujiri decided it was time to move on.
Amir Johnson had one of the longest Raptors tenures from players who aren’t Vince Carter or Chris Bosh. His resume contains both being the probably best player on several teams and a top 3 or 4 player on two playoff seasons. For all of this a case can be made he is top 5 in the franchise’s history.
Andrew Wiggins is the crown jewel of the Minnesota Timberwolves. His rookie of the year campaign backed up the heralded prospect status making him the #1 pick. To some all that’s left is a surefire path to stardom.
What has scouts salivating is his athleticism. Wiggins has the speed and springiness of a track star. His rare natural athleticism has drawn comparisons to Tracy McGrady and Michael Jordan.
But athleticism is one part of the game. For example Steve Nash has two MVPs and the more athletic Gerald Green couldn’t stick in the NBA his whole prime. And every GM would take Marc Gasol over Javale McGee. Gasol’s strength, skill, basketball IQ and motor overwhelm the advantage McGee has in athleticism.
Athleticism can never be a superstar’s only strength. For example Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin are two widely regarded top 10 players who are driven by athleticism. Both however are also elite ball handlers for PG or PF, have stronger builds than their peers, are talented passers and have special motors.
What Wiggins career depends on is his secondary abilities outside of athleticism. Right now he is not known as a ball handler or shooter. His motor sometimes was criticized at Kansas. No one has a problem with his basketball IQ but also doesn’t hang his reputation’s hat on it yet. His length can be an asset. It is above average for a SF and strongly above average for a SG. Is this enough?
One may ask “If he had these flaws how come he won rookie of the year going away?” Wiggins did have a fine rookie season finishing 37th in the NBA in points per game at 16.9 per game. By other statistical measures he wasn’t as impressive. A PER of 13.9 is below league average of 15.0. A WS/48 of .034 is below league average of .100. His RPM is -1.66. He used possessions inefficiently at .517 TS% and 103 ORTG. At 4.5 rebounds, 2.1 steals, 1.0 steals and 0.6 blocks per 36 minutes he didn’t stand out in areas besides points. An encouraging peripheral is 5.7 free throw attempts per 36 minutes.
Despite these stats Wiggins rookie season could be the first step towards stardom. But it’s not a rookie season unanimously good enough to make him a cinch. The scoring is nice, but rookies such as Tyreke Evans, O.J. Mayo or Michael Carter-Williams have done even better in the category and it didn’t guarantee them anything. Wiggins needs more than 16.9 points per game as a rookie to prove he’s a superstar in the making.
Where Draymond Green ranks in a vacuum is divisive to some. Sports Illustrated rated him 16th in the league. Some argue Golden State is perfect for his strengths and hides his weaknesses. He anchors their defense, passes the ball and shoots open 3s and isn’t relied upon to create his own shot. What happens on a team where his 3s aren’t open and he is asked to create more offense?
But is this unique to his style of play? Consider how Kevin Love’s value shifted going from Minnesota to Cleveland. On a team with Lebron James and Kyrie Irving he didn’t have enough shots to take advantage of his volume scoring ability. His defensive weaknesses proved a bigger problem than in Minnesota.
If anything I’d have thought defense and floor spacing should be more stable team to team than scoring. For scoring the availability of field goals will change team to team. On different teams efficiency may be affected by less open looks. In Dallas Brandan Wright had .762 TS% but in Boston and Phoenix .571 TS% and .600 TS%. Dallas specialized in creating space for his and Tyson Chandler’s dunks.
Floor stretching shouldn’t be affected by team. The player’s range and respect the defense gives them shouldn’t change much by teammates. Defensive results may change because of burning energy to take a greater offensive role. The system may also help defensive results. But on the whole defensive tools, intelligence and effort reign supreme.
The argument against Draymond isn’t his spacing and defense declining. It’s his offensive production going from average to unacceptable on the wrong team. His average shooting percentage may become poor if guarded too strong. But would his points per game go up? Would his already impressive 3.7 assists per game go up? Is a Draymond who scores 15 points per game and 5 assists with poor efficiency, less of an asset when added to his defense and spacing?
Furthermore not every bad team needs a scorer. Many have scorers but not the spacing and defense Green provides. Here’s a list of leading scorers on the 14 lottery teams. In brackets are players who led in total points but not points per game:
Minnesota Timberwolves: Kevin Martin: 20.0ppg (Andrew Wiggins: 16.9ppg)
New York Knicks: Carmelo Anthony: 24.2ppg
Philadelphia 76ers: Tony Wroten: 16.9ppg (Robert Covington: 13.5ppg)
Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe Bryant: 22.3ppg (Jordan Hill: 12.0ppg)
Orlando Magic: Nikola Vucevic: 19.3ppg,
Sacramento Kings: DeMarcus Cousins: 24.1ppg (Rudy Gay: 21.1ppg)
Denver Nuggets: Ty Lawson: 15.2ppg
Detroit Pistons: Reggie Jackson: 17.6ppg (Andre Drummond: 13.8ppg)
Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker: 17.3ppg (Al Jefferson: 16.6ppg)
Miami Heat: Dwyane Wade: 21.5ppg
Indiana Pacers: George Hill: 16.1ppg (C.J. Miles: 13.5ppg)
Utah Jazz: Gordon Hayward: 19.3ppg
Phoenix Suns: Eric Bledsoe: 17.0ppg.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook: 28.1ppg
In several situations he wouldn’t be more than a 3rd or 4th option including playing with DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay, Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris or Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. They need a Draymond Green’s defense and spacing more than volume scoring.
Minnesota ranked last in defense and had minimal floor spacing. Green fills these ailments while keeping the ball in Ricky Rubio and Andrew Wiggins’ hands. Green is the Andre Drummond compliment Greg Monroe never was in Detroit. In Charlotte his strengths help cancel out Al Jefferson’s spacing, defending weaknesses. With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist he pushes the Hornets from top 10 defense to likely elite.
Philadelphia is a “if Draymond had to do too much” team. While true his spacing is needed and the defensive pairing with Nerlens Noel has elite upside. Indiana without Paul George, Los Angeles without Kobe Bryant and New York without Carmelo Anthony also may find him forced out of his element. Like Charlotte he could have made Indiana elite defensively again beside Hibbert and New York and Los Angeles needed his defense.
Draymond may not be as valuable to last year’s Philadelphia, Indiana, New York or Los Angeles as he is a Sacramento or Miami. That’s ok because it’s the same for offense-first stars like Kevin Love. Love provides great value to a Philadelphia or Indiana but on Sacramento or Miami his volume scoring is more redundant than Green’s defense. To be fair to Love his floor spacing should provide value to any team including Cleveland’s.
If Green’s value isn’t the same on every team it’s likely a matter of being better at one end than the other. Teams set with offensive talent but not defense need a Green more than a Kevin Love. Teams set with defensive talent but not offense need a Love more than Green.
A story of the 2015 offseason is the rocketing salaries for wings who play defense and shoot 3s. A decade ago DeMarre Carroll’s free agency is an afterthought. Now he is a marquee signing by Toronto at 4 years, 60 million. Danny Green’s 4 years, 45 million is considered by many as undervalued. Wesley Matthews hybrid value of 3s and defense while scoring over 15 points per game, earned him 4 years 70 million from Dallas even after an Achilles tear.
Teams not fully adopting 3 point shots are quickly being left behind. Floor spacing alone is becoming essential to offenses functioning before including efficiency advantage of 3s. But winning a championship with any defensive weak link in the lineup remains difficult. Having 3 point shooters who also play championship caliber defense is crucial as the Golden State Warriors title run showed.
Wings like Carroll, Green and Matthews however are scarce enough teams can’t guarantee getting them even with maximum capspace. Three of the best ones just signed long term deals and other desirable options such as Harrison Barnes are protected by restricted free agency. A quality wing like Nicolas Batum may only be out there but because of caveats. Batum is an unrestricted free agent after one season what will be a bloodbath of free agency competition for the Hornets to keep him. His numbers last season were also hampered by health problems.
How smart teams may find these wings is drafting and developing their own or finding unproven gems in the league. Take Boston’s 5 year, 35 million contract to Jae Crowder. Crowder for his impressive, potentially one day elite defense alone could prove to be palatable at 7 million a year which will soon be no more than a league average salary. The deal has significant upside if his shooting takes a leap. With Dallas Crowder shot 32.8% from 3 as a rookie, 33.1% as a sophomore and 34.2% in 25 games his 3rd year before the trade to Boston. In Boston his 3P% dropped to 28.2% but his volume doubled from 1.5 to 3.0 attempts per game. At Marquette Crowder averaged 35.0% from 3 on over 4 attempts a game but only 68% from the FT line. His FT% has improved to 73.5% for his career in the NBA. He’s no guarantee to get there but Crowder has shown respectable enough results to have the upside to develop like Carroll as a shooter. If he does, using Carroll’s contract as a guide Crowder’s market value would double. At 7 million a year this would make him an incredible bargain with the rising salary cap. Crowder’s is an upside contract similar to Toronto extending DeMar Derozan or Atlanta matching Jeff Teague’s offer sheet in hopes their production in traditional areas like scoring or assists would leap to all-star levels, which they did. Except now the upside signing doesn’t just include points, assists and rebounds stat stuffers, but 3 point shooting and defending wings as well.
Consider the case of Terrence Ross. Ross is eligible for an extension coming off a disappointing 3rd season regression. Ross continues to frustrate as despite elite athleticism, due to ball handling struggles he remains one of the most woeful wings in the league at driving to the basket. Averaging 0.7 free throw attempts a game in over 25 minutes is reflective of his inability to penetrate.
As enigmatic is his defense. Despite his fast, athletic feet, poor positional awareness, a skinny frame and an underwhelming wingspan for his heights contribute to disappointing results on this end for Ross. The Raptors were 6.3 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Ross on the court last year. But unlike his driving to the basket where he has shown no signs of life, Ross has shown some flashes of positive activity defensively when engaged. One can expect his positional awareness to improve in time. When combined with his athleticism there is still time to develop an above average defender.
What keeps Ross intriguing is the shooting. For his career Ross has shot 37.3% from 3 on 4.2 attempts for his career, including a sophomore season high mark of 39.5% from 3 on 5.0 attempts per game, before dipping to a still quality 37.2% on 4.8 attempts per game last year. For Ross his shooting is holding up his game like Crowder’s defense does. His defense is more potential than production as is the case with Crowder’s shooting. Which of the two fixes their weak area enough to end up the more complete package of shooting and defending may be a toss-up.
But Masai Ujiri extending Ross is not as easy as giving him a Crowder-like 7 or 8 million a year. If choosing to play out this season Ross could break out and double his yearly value to make Carroll or Matthews money, with the all time free agency bidding war promised next offseason. Giving up this financial upside for a safe extension, may take several more million per year than Crowder accepted. Utah extended Alec Burks for 4 years, 42 million a year ago when the cap increase in 2016 had been less official. If Ross asks for a Burks deal or more to extend early the Raptors have a difficult decision. As they are rumored to be finalizing a 4 year, 60 million extension for Jonas Valanciuas and DeMar Derozan is set for a huge raise next offseason they may be wary of committing another big contract.
The opportunity cost of extending Ross also includes trades. If Ujiri doesn’t believe Ross is the next Danny Green or DeMarre Carroll, another team may be a believer. The Raptors biggest team need is a starting PF because the projected starters Patrick Patterson and Jonas Valanciunas have struggled defensively when paired together. Ideally Patterson would remain the backup PF where he excelled offensively last year and could stagger his minutes with Valanciuns. Ross could be an appealing trade chip to make a run at a starting power forward to complete their lineup. Whether Toronto chooses to extend Ross, trade him or let his next season play out, should be an important decision affecting their path to contention.
The Portland Trail Blazers had what looked to be a devastating offseason. They lost 4 of 5 starters in Lamarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez, along with Arron Afflalo. A 50 win core has been stripped down to Damian Lillard and spare parts.
What they lost in these players is an effective combination of creating space and capitalizing on it. Lamarcus Aldridge has always been a unique player in how despite our instincts that scoring a lot of points on a mediocre efficiency is not as valuable as past generations thought, his real offensive value is in the defensive attention he creates. The valuable efficiency of Matthews, Batum and Lopez relied on finding open shots from 3 and at the basket. Forcing them into a greater intensity of defensive attention would take away open shots and push them into taking more concerned tested, lower efficiency field goals. Aldridge drawing extra attention helped draw defenders off the 3 point line and his shooting range out to long 2 or some 3s, drew a big man out of the paint defensively to help his teammates finish inside. This is not to take away from the skill level of Matthews, Batum and Lopez to finish those shots inside or outside while contributing on the defensive end.
Whether the Blazers will find secondary scoring options to replace Aldridge is their biggest question mark. The Blazers can succeed this year if Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee continue to be open to finish at the rim and Meyers Leonard gets quality looks from 3. All three have proven they can be efficient scorers but at a low volume of shots. Forcing them into taking a higher volume of shots than they’re comfortable with could hurt their shooting percentage. Noah Vonleh is a wild card in the frontcourt as a recent lottery pick but is unlikely to use a high volume of shots this year either.
Al-Farouq Aminu isn’t known for his shooting or ball handling skills, thus the key is C.J. McCollum and Gerald Henderson. McCollum had the 4th highest usage % last year on the Blazers behind Aldridge, Lillard, and Chris Kaman. Both his play last year and his college career at LeHigh shows he has the skill to create offense himself off the dribble while his 3 point range allows him to maintain respectability in efficiency. Driving to the basket more could help increase his volume and efficiency this year. Although widely considered defensive role player Henderson had a higher usage % last year than either Matthews or Batum and his usage would have rated 5th on the Blazers last year behind Aldridge, Lillard, Kaman and McCollum. He has had multiple 15 point per game seasons in the NBA. Last year on shots from 16-23 feet, Henderson shot 41.0% on .122 shots per minute and Aldridge’s 40.9% on .214 shots per minute. Aldridge’s higher volume showed a higher level of difficulty to get to that percentage, although Henderson also played on a more offensively inept Hornets team. Henderson’s 33.1% from 3 also has a chance to improve in Terry Stotts system. Overall it wouldn’t be surprising if either Henderson and McCollum find themselves capable of averaging 15 points in a game. This is before considering the Blazers already have one high volume scorer in Damian Lillard who can drive and create shots from 3. This isn’t as big a vacuum as the Utah Jazz faced the season after Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson where players like Gordon Hayward struggled with the defensive pressure of being #1. Lillard alone will help those high efficiency scorers like Davis, Plumlee and Leonard find space to play their games.
Another concern for the Blazers this year is floor spacing. For their efficiency the concern with Davis and Plumlee is they need to score at the rim, while Aldridge’s long 2 and 3 point range stretched out defenders. This is added to how one of the best 3 point shooters in the NBA in Matthews is replaced by a mediocre shooter in Henderson and a capable, well respected 3 point shooter in Batum has been replaced by a non-shooter in Aminu. However a strong season by Meyers Leonard could help counteract this. Leonard proved he has strong 3 point range last year and has turned the corner in his career. Playing the Mehmet Okur role his ability to hit spot up 3s could open the floor in the lineups with Henderson, Aminu, Davis and Plumlee. Noah Vonleh also showed some shooting range in college and if brought that skill to the Blazers rotation it could be valued. Allen Crabbe could also end up a valued wing player for the Blazes if he can continue to establish himself as a spot up 3 point shooter. On the defensive end the Blazers bigs are expected to struggle and Lillard has never excelled on that end, thus the defense of Henderson and Aminu will be relied upon to help carry the team.
What the Blazers have is a lot of role players who do something. Henderson and Aminu can defend, McCollum and Henderson can create shots, Plumlee, Davis and Leonard can score efficiency, Leonard, McCollum and Crabbe have the 3 point range to space the floor. None of them have to be spectacular, but if they can all contribute at their 1 or 2 jobs it can add to a sum greater than its parts. Last year the Milwaukee Bucks succeeded in part because of depth of average, competent pros. With an expected 10 man roster to start the year of Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ersan Ilyasova, Larry Sanders, Jared Dudley, O.J. Mayo, Jerryd Bayless and Zaza Pachulia, they had a full team of solid. Players like Mayo, Ilyasova and Pachulia may not be spectacular contributors or gotten the type of press of “star role player” that Middleton was last year. But they give you something. Mayo and Ilyasova space the floor with their 3 point shooting and take those valuable open shots and Pachulia can be a tough inside presence. When some of the worst teams in the league where giving the same minutes to true unproductive players like Shane Larkin, Anthony Bennett or JaKarr Sampson, having legitimate pros like Mayo and Ilyasova made a difference to the Bucks.
Likewise what I see with the Blazers is a lot of solid defenders, spacers or scorers that help this team surprise next year.
The Utah Jazz are building a powerhouse. The Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert frontcourt is drool worthy with a scoring wing player and a frontcourt who plays great defense and finishes efficiently.
The development of the backcourt will determine Utah’s upside. Utah has no guarantees at PG or SG, but they have many scratch tickets to increase their odds of hitting on Hayward, Favors or Gobert future all-star caliber piece.
At shooting guard Alec Burks provides size and athleticism and an improving perimeter game. Rodney Hood is a smooth perimeter scorer. Point guard is the position to watch however. With a #5 pick in 2014 in Dante Exum and #9 pick in 2013 in Trey Burke invested in the position the Jazz are hoping one of them solidifies the spot.
To say many more are on the Exum bandwagon as the Jazz’s future at PG than Burke’s is an understatement. At this point Trey Burke island is down to me and Wilson the volleyball.
Exum is nearly 2 and a half years younger than Burke. He is also far bigger and is more athletic than Burke. However size and athleticsm are not the only determiners of upside. Of arguably the 3 best point guards in the NBA last season in Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook, one in Westbrook did it with superior size and athleticism. Curry and Paul used elite shooting, dribbling or passing skills in place of dynamic physical tools. Even in Westbrook’s case it should not be ignored he is one of the best ball handlers in the NBA. John Wall is one of the next best PGs in the NBA, but his peers for that spot include Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard for whom the heart of their games is dribbling and shooting. Trey Burke’s game is an uncertain fraction of Chris Paul’s game just as Exum’s is an uncertain fraction of a player like Westbrook. The question isn’t whether shooting and dribbling can make a PG an all-star in light of the average athleticism and size Burke has. It’s asking whether Burke has enough of that skill talent and upside.
At Michigan he used his ball handling skills to drive to the basket, keep turnovers low and create jumpers off the dribble. In the NBA for his efforts getting to the basket Burke has struggled to finish or draw fouls at the basket. Despite Exum’s athleticism it doesn’t mean he has more slashing potential than Burke. Some of the best slashers in the NBA due it with ball handling at the heart of that skill such as the before mentioned Paul, Tony Parker, James Harden and so forth. Some of the least successfully slashing wing players such as Terrence Ross or Gerald Green have elite athleticism. Using ball handling to drive past the initial defender does as much for you as using an explosive first step to do it. Exum averaged a very low 0.6 FTA per 36 minutes as a rookie. Trey Burke’s 2.3 FTA per 36 minutes is not much better for the amount of perimeter jumpers he took, but nonetheless unlike defense where on/off indicates a chasm in favor of Exum’s ability last year, the numbers so far are not behind Exum as the greater slashing talent yet. Such a low free throw rate for a great athlete could root from raw ball handling skills. Exum could blow up driving to the basket this year or he could go down the same route as Terrence Ross. It’s hard to say.
The biggest part of Burke’s game that’s fallen off from college is his 3pt shooting. A career mark of 32.4% from 3 isn’t good enough for a player who shot over 38% from 3 and over 80% from the FT line as a sophomore at Michigan. Dante Exum as a rookie shot nearly the same percentage as from 3 last year as Burke despite shooting being rated his biggest weaknesses coming into the draft. Burke’s 3pt shooting and FT% were more mediocre as a freshman at Michigan than a sophomore which is concerning as his improvement his 2nd year was over a small sample size. Could his freshman number have been the true shooting mark for Burke? On the whole however Burke still has the track record and time to develop into a quality outside shooter.
There’s little doubt Exum will have the better defensive career than Burke between his tools and the chasm in on/off results we already saw last year. Where I’m betting Burke’s career could beat him is on offense. He could use his more natural ball handling skills to slash to the basket more successful than Exum and improve his percentages finishing at the rim and shooting from 3. For his finishing at the rim concerns Burke’s size is no less than average for an NBA PG. He measured 6’1.25 in shoes, 187 pounds and with a 6’5.5 wingspan and 8’1.5 standing reach which are average numbers for a PG. By the numbers Trey Burke is no more undersized than Paul who measured 6’1 in shoes, 178 pounds, 6’4.25 wingspan and 7’9 standing reach, or Mike Conley, Jr. who measured 6’0.75 in shoes, 175 pounds, 6’5.75 wingspan and 7’10.5 standing reach. All of Paul, Conley and Burke have significant measurements advantages over a real undersized PG like Isaiah Thomas who measured at 5’10.25 in shoes, 186 pounds, 6’1.75 wingspan and 7’7.5 standing reach. Burke’s finishing ability so far in his career has been mediocre, but it’s not because of size alone judging from the success of some other points his size. Like this 3 point shooting it’s a skill he needs to improve.
If truly panning out Burke could use his dribbling to drive to the basket, with the threat of the outside shot or midrange shot off the dribble to keep defenses honest. Add in ability to keep turnovers low and passing skills and this could stand out at PG. His play his first two seasons is disheartening for his age, but the time is still there to turn it around. I cannot guarantee Burke will end up the better PG than Exum as his poor production his first 2 seasons are hard to ignore. There’s a scenario where both flame out, a scenario where both become starters or better and a scenario where Exum learns to drive to match his defense, while Trey Burke embarks down a defense-less chucker path like the PG Evan Turner who had an even better college performance. But based on his talent and track record I would narrowly place my chips on Burke of the two right now to figure it out starting next year.