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Posts Tagged ‘Feel for the Game

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.

Written by jr.

June 13, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Debunking the Fluidity = Athleticism concept

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Iman Shumpert, New York Knicks, Paul George, I...

Iman Shumpert, New York Knicks, Paul George, Indiana Pacers (Photo credit: MattBritt00)

For some time I’ve been the pusher you’ll find of “feel for the game”. In fact now that I am looking for it, a player’s feel jumps off the screen to me as easily as athleticism does to everyone else. While others exclaim over the length of Paul George and Roy Hibbert, I as much am looking at their natural feel and instincts.

I believe even for those who rarely or never use the concept, they are at least noticing when a player is more fluid, smooth or natural than others. What I’ve seen in the past by some, is the connection of fluidity and athleticism. That is another brand of athleticism that is leading to a more fluid game and movement.

While fluidity may be related to athleticism at least a little, I believe there is more reason to believe fluidity and “feel” is a mental trait. Consider this:

1. There is virtually no correlation between fluidity and the other forms of athleticism, such as athletic explosiveness. That is why players like Pablo Prigioni and Brad Miller can have excellent feel and fluidity, but among the weakest athleticism in the league. While on the other end, there may be athletic freaks like Javale McGee and Tyrus Thomas who are among the most lacking in feel and fluidity. Feel and fluidity seems equally distributed regardless of athleticism. Furthermore, fluidity and feel doesn’t decrease when a player ages, unlike other signs of athleticism such as speed or vertical life.

2. There appears to be a strong correlation between feel for the game and basketball intelligence. The most fluid and feel heavy players, often make good decisions and are able to recognize plays better. The vast majority of the leaders in assists per game, are players with a high feel for the game, helping them have the vision to make those passers. Likewise the ones lacking it, make poor decisions. Furthermore feel appears to be related to passing and vision. Sometimes there are elite feel for the game and fluidity players, who do not start as playmakers, but add it to their games later. The breakout of Paul George and Nicolas Batum as playmakers this season is an example of this.

3. Finally, perhaps the strongest evidence that feel for the game isn’t athletic, is its existence outside of athletics. Feel for the game is a concept that can be applied to any field where it’s acknowledged talent exists. Such as musicians, artists, writers of various forms, speakers, comedians, doctors, mathematicians etc. For example, for one to be a world class violinist, chances are that person needs an advanced “feel” for playing and the music that goes beyond what can be taught. In fields like this, there will be “naturals” and those for whom their ability is an unteachable gift that they make look too easy. It’s unlikely one has a chance to be a world class violinist without the luck of a natural, superior feel for it. Have you ever read someone’s writing where it feels like their words come out more naturally and more smooth than others can manage? That is feel.

None of this evidence is absolute, of course. But I believe when taken together, it’s enough to at least strongly feel, that fluidity and “feel for the game” comes from the head as likely a combination of innate instincts and mental conditioning from the way they initially picked up the game deep in their developmental past.

Written by jr.

June 2, 2013 at 3:51 pm

What IS “feel for the game”, anyways?

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Erving Lipofsky

Erving Lipofsky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A concept I’ve been hammering on lately is “feel for the game”. Most people have knowledge that this exists – clearly there’s something that makes Paul Pierce, James Harden, Chris Paul and Andre Miller natural basketball players and Jordan Hill, Jerryd Bayless, Tyrus Thomas, Yi Jianlian not natural players, for reasons that goes beyond pure skill. Some people just call it basketball intelligence. For the most part, you can kind of just see it when a player has a great feel for the game or not.

But what is it? Pragmatically, can we nail down exactly what is happening here? What is the cause of “feel for the game”?

First of all, I’d point out that what is called “feel for the game” in sports, for many other fields is the only thing that matters in regards to talent. Take the example of an incredibly talented painter, writer, singer, actor, comedian – Most accept there is no direct “cause” of this talent. It’s just they have a particular feel and natural affinity for their craft that others don’t. For whatever reason, their genetics and environment conditioning lined up perfectly for them to be one of the best in the world at what they do. What many talented people say of crafts like this is that it comes easy to them. That’s what makes their work beautiful, the fact that it came naturally out of them and without effort and we can tell. These natural talents are just accepted for what they are. The painter or writer or comedian just has a natural feel for his craft that others don’t, period. This is one reason why “feel for the game” in sports should not be a shocking concept. There is a precedent in every other area of talent that sets up the possibility for basketball players being naturally gifted at the sport “just because they are”.

But if searching for a pragmatic reason, I believe the concept of “spatial intelligence” is key to understand the talents these players have. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by jr.

December 11, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Introducing my “33 pt method” for NBA talent evaluation

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Some time ago I started looking at basketball players as if their talent level was split up into one third physical talent, one third skill talent and one third feel for the game/basketball IQ. I did this because I consider the 3 categories as the separating grounds for talent level. If a player doesn’t stand out above his peers in any of the 3 areas, what does he have going for them? I have also felt for a long time that many NBA Draft mistakes are made by overvaluing athletic tools in evaluating raw talent and underrating skill and understanding of the court. My hypothesis is that when media outlets and teams talk about talent, physical tools take a 70% weight. My system weights physical tools as 33%.

What I was led to, is giving players a score out of 11 in each category, making a max of 33. I used these numbers because it leads to a scale similar to PER, which generally rates a score of 30 as MVP caliber, 25 as superstar caliber, 20 as all-star caliber, 15 as an average player, and 10 as a player barely getting minutes. The benchmarks for a player’s value according to my system are nearly identical. I found using 11 as the maximum instead of 10 fit this scale a bit more. For example Lebron James is a player who deserves a perfect score in physical and feel for the game, but is a notch below perfection at his position for skill (Larry Bird, for example, would have a perfect score in skill for a SF). Thus with a max of 11 he ends up with a score of 31 or 32 out of 33 on my metric, while with maxes of 10 he’d end up with 28 or 29, unable to hit 30 without a perfect score in skill.

What really convinced me about this method is how well it tested for every player. Every score seemed to “fit”. I intend to show this by listing all the players alphabetically and my scores for them, which I will start in the next post. I will hope that those who read this will see how consistently well these scores add up to a range where the player should be. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by jr.

August 14, 2012 at 5:32 pm

Kevin Love and Michael Beasley’s careers: A good measure of my feel for the game theory

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(Source: Wikipedia)

It’s fairly interesting that Michael Beasley’s career has gone down a mediocre path, that a Timberwolves lottery team isn’t giving him the qualifying offer at this, the end of his rookie scale contract. This is already the 2nd time in Beasley’s career, including his Miami contract dump to Minnesota, that a team has all but said “We’d rather have capspace than you. You are the weakest link. Goodbye”

Beasley was considered a surefire superstar coming out of college, after his Kevin Durant like freshman season statistically he where averaged 26, 12 and 53%. For most of that season Beasley had every bit the hype of Durant. Only the last few months before the draft did Derrick Rose’s meteoric rise in the tournament and concerns over Beasley’s motor remove some of the gloss.

Kevin Love on the other hand, while having just as dominant a freshman college season, was considered a good prospect that people weren’t sold on the upside of as much as Beasley, due to less than dominant physical tools and height. Amazingly, it is the Love who’s putting up a 26/13, MVP caliber production and Beasley who is a mediocre all but bust.

While Kevin Love certainly plays with a much better motor and toughness than Beasley, I can’t imagine that effort level is responsible for the difference between them. Beasley has never looked like the star talent he was made out to be. He was the one of the two players who suffered being being a small PF, while his post game from college disappeared as a result. For the most part he’s now a midrange jumpshooter.

If you read my 2012 draft big board, I introduced my hypothesis that a player’s impact is 33% physical, 33% skill, and 33% feel for the game. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by jr.

June 30, 2012 at 6:43 pm