A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Marcus Smart, Andrew Wiggins and the new reality of rookie statistics

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For the second straight year the rookie class is deathly short of players doing anything statistically. There are only 2 rookies who have played over 300 minutes who have a PER above league average 15 (Nikola Mirotic and Jusuf Nurkic) and only 3 players with the same minutes qualification over league average .100 WS/48 (Nikola Mirotic, Aaron Gordon, Tarik Black). Although injuries are to blame, the 2014 class also came in with more expectations than 2013 and many players are simply under-performing.

Part of the two year slump may be structural. Take the case of Marcus Smart. Smart has impressed those watching closely. He is already producing defensively and is shooting over 35% from 3 on a high volume of 5.6 attempts per 36 minutes. His efficiency is above league average at 106 ORTG which looks even better compared to almost all the other rookies who are playing inefficient. For this Smart is tied for the lead in total Win Shares in his class with Jabari Parker.

However Smart is still just taking 5.7 shots a game and averaging 6.6 points. He only has one game where he scored over 15 points this season which makes it hard to garner major attention compared to a player like Andrew Wiggins who is averaging over 15 points a game and has more 20 point games than Smart has 10 point games. On NBA.com’s last rookie ladder Smart ranked just 7th.

But what makes Smart hard to compare to the rookie of the year lock Wiggins is what’s being asked of them. It’s fair to say Flip Saunders and Brad Stevens are operating from different generations of coaching philosophy. Minnesota is one of the last teams building their offensive and defensive strategies around taking and defending midrange jumpers and giving up the 3 more often to do so. The Celtics under Stevens have moved towards a more progressive style of play built more than Minnesota around using and defending the 3 point shot. Here is the distribution of shots for each player this season:

Marcus Smart (194 total FGA)

At rim – 26 (13.4%)

3- <10 ft – 14 (7.2%)

10- <16 ft – 12 (6.1%)

16- < 3pt – 16 (8.2%)

3pt – 126 (64.9%)

Andrew Wiggins (650 total FGA)

At rim – 191 (29.3%)

3- <10 ft – 120 (18.5%)

10- <16 ft – 105 (16.1%)

16- <3pt – 144 (22.1%)

3pt – 90 (13.8%)

What one can’t take away from Wiggins is he drives to the basket more than Smart does. For this he also gets to free throw line 4.7 times per 36 minutes to Smart’s 2.2.

However after that what we see is a fascinating difference in how they are used that perfectly represents the old school vs new school thinking. Brad Stevens has Smart being used as a “3s and defense” role player and avoiding the midrange shot while Wiggins game is predicated more from midrange. Smart takes nearly 7.9 3s for every 16-23 foot 2 point jumper while Wiggins takes a little over .6 3s for every 16-23 foot jumper.

In Utah Dante Exum’s statistics have been poor compared to Smart’s but the story of how Quin Snyder is using him is the same. On the season he has taken 25 shots from 16-23 ft (10.7% of his 233 total FGA) and 144 shots from 3 (61.8% of his total FGA).

Getting to the big picture, more rookies being used in an analytics-driven “defense and spacing” era may be a cause of the last two rookie classes struggling statistically. If Smart came into the league 10 or 15 years ago he would have likely played for an old school coach more akin to Flip Saunders. This coach may have looked at his Celtics roster and decided the #1 thing they need is a scorer who can “create his own shot” and someone who can take over at the end of this games. This could have conceivably greatly altered a rookie season like Marcus Smart, favouring a higher points per game thanks to getting the green light to take midrange shots instead of entirely avoid them as he’s doing now. In addition to this, this style of play would have been a more direct transition from a prospect like Smart’s game in college and high school. Players like Smart and Wiggins have taking a high volume of shots and treated like “the man” their entire life. Thus in the old days instead of a Marcus Smart having to transition from a ball dominant player to an off ball shooter as players like him and Exum have to do now, they could have largely taken his style of play from the NCAA and used it as is in the NBA. This transition to a new style of play could partly be an explanation why it’s not just that many rookies are being used as off ball, 3s/defense/at the rim specialists, but why most have been quite poor at performing as those specialists. If rookies now more regularly have to learn a new style of play it would make sense the learning curve suddenly becomes more deadly.

Written by jr.

February 5, 2015 at 6:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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