A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

The Spurs secret sauce in Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter and searching for the next versions of them

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Kawhi Leonard | San Antonio Spurs

Kawhi Leonard | San Antonio Spurs (Photo credit: Basketball Schedule)

The Spurs are 2 wins from the 2013 NBA championhip, which amazes all of us because it looked like age closed their window when defeated by the Lakers in 5 in 2008 – which was oh, FIVE YEARS AGO! How did the Spurs get back to this point? While Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are still stars, the real story is that they found three blue chippers to start at SG, SF and C in Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter. A case can be made all three are top 10 starters at their position.

The league is predicated on the idea that getting stars and starters takes lottery picks, which teams routinely leading the league like the Spurs, don’t have. The Spurs found a loophole to this by drafting Splitter 28th in 2007, Leonard 15th in 2011 and signing Green in free agency, the Cavaliers waiving him a season after drafting him in the 2nd round at 46th overall.

What did the rest of the league miss in these three for the Spurs to pick them up? Here’s my take:

First, what all three have in common is an great, if not elite feel for the game – which is nothing surprising considering the Spurs history. All three are smooth, crafty, natural offensive players. Furthermore they show excellent instincts, positioning and timing defensively. I would argue Green has the most impressive feel for the three, followed by Leonard and Splitter trailing, but all three are above average for their position hands down.

Danny Green in addition to this, has turned himself into one of the best shooters in the NBA. This year he hit 42.9% from 3 on 5.2 attempts a game (6.8 attempts per 36 minutes), an exceptional combination of volume and accuracy. Green’s weakness is he’s not a slasher, due to average athleticism and ballhandling. His offensive game is predicated on spot up shooting. Green is big for a 2 at 6’6 with a 6’10 wingspan, which helps him on the defensive end and finishing at the basket. His size also gives him some post potential in the future at the 2.

Here are my talent grades for Green:

Physical impact talent grade: 3 / Weak

Skill impact (shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 9 / Elite

Feel for the Game talent grade: 9 / Elite

Total talent grade: 21 (Blue Chip starter talent grade)

With a score about 19 as my threshold for a blue chipper and surefire starter, Green cleanly breaks the mark. Green’s shooting and feel is so good, that in combination with the ability to play SG and SF, it’d be enough for him to start – albeit his size and defense also helps him. How foreseeable was Green’s success? Green becoming an elite shooter is not a big surprise. His 41.8% and 37.3% 3pt marks as a junior and sophomore at UNC are fine, but the really impressive numbers are his FT%. He hit 85.2% as a senior, 87.3% as  junior and 84.8% as a sophomore from FT. FT shooting in the mid 80s or higher in college is typically reserved for elite shooting talents. One of the likely reasons Cleveland waived Green is he only hit 27.3% from 3 as a rookie on 22 total attempts. Since the NBA 3pt line is longer than the NCAA, an adjustment period even for an elite shooting talent is unsurprising. Among recent examples Kevin Durant hit 28.8% from 3 as a rookie and Kevin Martin 20.0%. Based on his 3pt shooting role at UNC and his FT%, I’d likely have Green at least an 8 / Great in skill impact (shoot, post, pass) talent . I may have gone a point lower in physical impact talent grade, based on how much of a spot up shooter he was at the time. Even with those downgrades, Green projects as a blue chipper.

Is there anyone similar to Green in this draft? Two players I see as similar are New Mexico’s Tony Snell and the Russian Sergey Karasev. Both players like Green have a great if not elite feel for the game, as smooth and instinctive players. Snell is a great spot-up shooting talent, not so much because of his 39.0% and 38.7% 3pt seasons his junior and sophomore years, but hitting 84.3% and 83.1% from FT those seasons. He does not have the ballhandling to be known as a slasher, but is a good athlete and has a 6’11 wingspan, with the likely ability to defend SFs or SGs. The athleticism and length combined with his feel, likely give him huge defensive potential. When added to his sharpshooting, his “3s and defense” starting potential and similarity to Green at UNC is clear. Karasev is also an elite shooter, hitting a cumulative 36.5% 3pt/85.6% FT this year, again the FT especially impressive. At 6’7 with a 6’9 wingspan he likely has the size to play the 2 or 3, albeit is an underwhelming athlete which could hurt his ability to get to the basket despite impressive ballhandling. I see Karasev as a higher upside offensive player than Snell, because his ballhandling may be able to help him create his own shot more on the perimeter, plus may help him have a slashing game despite athleticism problems. However for athletic reasons, his defense may be less reliable. Either way, if he can shoot at a great, elite level, with his feel, it should be enough to carve out a starting role on the wing. The player people might think of Danny Green most when seeing, is fellow UNC player Reggie Bullock. Bullock is a spot-up shooter with a good feel for the game at 6’7 with a 6’9 wingspan, in a similar role as Green’s. The only pause I have is that despite his 42.9% 3pt, his 76.7% FT is more worrying than Green, Snell or Karasev’s. If everything goes right with his shooting translating, I can see Bullock being a comparable player to Green. But I see it as a bigger risk his range doesn’t translate and he struggles to find his place in the league, than I do for Snell and Karasev.

Kawhi Leonard aside from his great feel, has a lot to like about him physically. He has the explosiveness to attack the basket despite average ballhandling, while he’s 6’7 but with a huge 7’3 wingspan and elite strength, making him an imposing physical figure at SF. Leonard’s physical talents and instincts have allowed him to be a standout defender and rebounder for a young player.

The biggest reason Kawhi was underplayed going into his draft year, is his shooting. He shot only 29.1% 3pt/75.9% FT as a sophomore, not being known as a perimeter threat. In the NBA the Spurs have fixed his shot, Kawhi since putting up 37.6% 3pt/77.3% FT as a rookie and 37.4% 3pt/82.5% FT as a sophomore. His ability to hit open 3s and space the floor at SF when combined with his defensive presence, gives him huge value as a role player.

Here is my talent grades for Kawhi:

Physical impact talent grade: 8 / Great

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 7 / Very good

Feel for the Game talent grade: 8 / Great

Total talent grade: 23 (Blue Chip starter to Perennial all-star talent grade)

This is a superb score. I would be very surprised if Kawhi didn’t make an all-star game in his career.

Going back to his San Diego State University days, his shooting was hard to predict. When a perimeter player isn’t a 3pt shooter in college, I typically don’t get below a grade of 4 / Lacking, in order to give them the benefit of the doubt they can develop. Since Leonard hitting 76% of his FTs is respectable and SFs hit 3s less than PGs or SGs, I’d likely have given him a grade of 5 / Average for his shooting career, based on my methods now. I may have given him a 7 / Very good in physical impact talent grade due to questions about his ballhandling. Despite this, even taking 2-3 points off, leaves Leonard as a blue chip talent. Leonard coming out of college looks a case of a somewhat risky pick, but one with value. If Leonard’s jumpshot had gone in the other direction and been broken in the pros, he may have still challenged a starting spot in a Gerald Wallace-like role providing size, athleticism, rebounding and slashing at SF. However it’s clear that if his shooting became good/great, it would lead to this star upside. Using my baseball pitcher analogy from last week, Kawhi coming out of college would be the pitcher who already proved he had a great combination of velocity and the ability to find the plate, but needed to widen his repertoire of pitches. That’s the right type of player to take.

Is there anyone in the 2013 draft like Leonard? A player who stands out is fittingly, fellow San Diego State prospect Jamaal Franklin. Franklin like Leonard has both great to elite feel and a strong combination of athleticism, strength and length at his position, which looks to be more SG than SF. This gives him a lot of potential defensively and on the glass and attacking the basket offensively. Franklin’s weakness is shooting, only hitting 27.9% from 3pt and 32.5% his junior and sophomore year. But encouraging is 79.0% and 80.0% his junior and sophomore years from the FT line. If Franklin’s outside shooting can turn around to Kawhi’s level, he may end up playing like him. If his shot is broken, it’s likely he’s more of a defense/rebounding role player. A few concerns with Franklin is his shot selection in college was more wild than Kawhi’s despite his feel and seems like someone who has some crazy in him. Playing 3 years to Kawhi’s 2 also makes his 3pt shooting woes look worse. Nevertheless Franklin’s upside if he can follow a similar improvement as a shooter, is significant.

Tiago Splitter is a true 7 footer in shoes with a 7’2 wingspan and 9’1 standing reach, fine for a 7 footer albeit not long enough to be more than a decent shotblocker. He also has wide shoulders and strength and a good lower body. Splitter is also a good athlete, having the mobility to roll to the basket on the pick and roll. Splitter is not dominant in length, strength or athleticism, but it’s having a decent amount of all three that’s rare and allows him to physically impact the game offensively and defensively. His length and strength combined with his high feel for the game, is an impact combination defensively.

Splitter does not have shooting range and isn’t a true go-to post player, but he does have excellent hands and touch finishing at the basket. At C I consider strong hands/touch and the ability to finish, enough for an average skill level compared to others at the position. The ability to finish plays when they catch it, is a valued skill at the position.

Here is my talent grades for Splitter:

Physical impact talent grade: 7 / Very good

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 5 / Average

Feel for the Game talent grade: 7 / Very good

Total talent grade: 19 (Blue Chip starter talent grade)

Splitter doesn’t grade out as exciting a talent as Kawhi or Green, but finding any blue chip C is difficult and valuable.

I can’t say with authority how Splitter looked in 2007 when he was drafted, since I wasn’t paying attention to him then. However by most accounts I’ve read, his feel and positioning were considered excellent at the time, as did his touch, which 58-62% FG seasons back it up. He likely was less physically developed at the time, but showing mobility, length and a wide frame. Overall it seems fair to suggest a true 7 footer C with a wide frame, strong feel for the game and great hands finishing at the basket would project as a blue chipper or very near it by this method at the time. In the case of Splitter as an established 7 footer in the ACB and Euroleague by 2007, it seems like the Spurs grabbing him so late isn’t because teams missed his talent, but by having more patience to wait for years for him to get out of his contract in Europe, eventually bringing him over for the 2010-2011 season.

Are there players in this draft like Splitter? Alex Len has some similarities. Len is a true 7 footer with a high feel for the game, who’s post and shooting game is raw, but seems to have good hands and touch. Len may never have a more versatile offensive game than Splitter, but if he can finish plays at the basket, when combined with his feel it could give him an offensive role. Len physically also has good mobility, with a body that needs to add strength but has the frame to – this seem similar to a young Splitter. He is longer than Splitter which gives him more shotblocking potential. Jeff Withey could also be similar, with excellent feel and positioning like Splitter and an offensive game similarity predicated on touch, instead of high volume post and shooting skills. Withey is mobile and athletic, arguably more explosive than Splitter – But also skinnier and unlikely to bulk up at his age. I see Len and Withey as likely starters due to their feel, length and touch at the basket. I suppose they have more star upside than Splitter if they can add a perimeter shooting game.

With Green, Leonard and Splitter at SG, SF and C for the foreseeable future and a number of great years left in the tank for Tony Parker, the Spurs level of success isn’t going anywhere. Chances are that as the Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili era winds down, the Spurs will make a seamless transition into what the Indiana Pacers are now, a team with less true starpower but filled with quality two way starters. Chances are the Spurs are going to be on the prowl for years for players with an great to elite feel for the game, in combination with other more widely adknowledged tools like Green’s shooting, Leonard’s size/athleticism and Splitter’s size/touch.

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Written by jr.

June 13, 2013 at 12:04 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I wouldn’t say Green’s “skill” is a 9, his ball handling and creating offense is not good enough. His feel for the game isn’t “elite” either. That would put him in the class of a star. Also, his physical impact is more than 3, he’s athletic and long for his position, part of the reason why he’s such a good defender. I’d probably give him a 7 in all categories, personally. (still a blue chip starter). Interested to hear your rationale.

    Nic

    June 14, 2013 at 9:16 am

    • Ballhandling generally makes a bigger difference in my physical impact category than skill impact for a wing player, because I see the most important way they physically impact the game and put athletic/physical pressure on the opponent, as attacking the basket off the dribble consistently. I see players who rely on hitting jumpshots instead of getting to the basket off the dribble as having underwhelming physical impact and pressure on the game, whether it’s because of a lack of explosiveness or ballhandling issues. Either way Green fits into that jumpshot orientated class to me

      julienrodger

      June 14, 2013 at 12:53 pm


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