Status Update: NBA Sophomores

Being a rookie in the NBA is hard. Conceding both physical maturity and in some cases a decade of experience, rookie 1st round draft picks enter the league with expectations – most of them being high. With these expectations come cliché draft labels like ‘bust’ or ‘hit’, sometimes only within months of their first NBA action. It isn’t until the second year, however, that these labels start to become solidified. Here are four players whose labels are trending towards solidification.

Trending Down

Mario Hezonja

Coming off of a rookie season in which he was inconsistent, but showed flashes of brilliance that were the basis for the Orlando Magic’s decision to select him #5 overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, Mario Hezonja has been relegated to the bench at this point in his second season. Much of this can be attributed to the Magic’s puzzlingly persistent playoff push, which has resulted in first year coach Frank Vogel becoming intolerant to the 6’8” Hezonja’s shooting woes. So far this season, the 21-year-old Croatian “sharp-shooter” is connecting on a dreadful 32.9% of his shots from the floor and 19.4% from behind the 3-point arc.  Considering Hezonja is making the transition from the ACB in Spain to the NBA, one might think that confidence is an issue, but anyone who has spent time around Hezonja would probably beg to differ. Despite having a PER lower than a valedictorian’s GPA, ask Hezonja who the best player on the Magic is and odds are he says he is. A byproduct of this irrational confidence has been poor shot selection and an assist percentage that is the 4th lowest amongst sophomore guards. It’s gotten so bad that there have been talks that Orlando will send him to the D-League, and his name has even popped up in trade rumors. All of a sudden, the clock has started to tick on Hezonja in just his second year in the league.

Despite the fairly grim picture I have just painted, Hezonja still possesses talent – a ton of talent. He has great size and athleticism for a shooting guard, a smooth shooting stroke, and is relatively comfortable in pick-and-roll where he can make plays for himself and others. And although his confidence was previously made out to be a negative, a wise man once told me, “A shooter without confidence is not a shooter” (I’m not going to lie, I just made that up, but feel free to use it). Anyone who questions Hezonja’s confidence and talent, need only take 30 seconds and watch this:

Wait, did he really Shammgod1 into a pick-and-roll, almost fall down, and end up making the correct read in that last clip? Yeah, he did. That’s Hezonja. He’s same guy in the first two clips that can look eerily similar to ‘Klay from the Bay’ in catch-and-shoot situations. The only problem is that these are just flashes, and flashes don’t win basketball games. Now in his second year, Hezonja hasn’t been consistent enough offensively to warrant significant playing time. All too often he is either second guessing himself on the offensive end, or is guilty of hijacking possessions to fulfill the hidden personal agenda with which he seems to play at times..

Defensively, Hezonja may be even worse. While watching tape even back to last season, it dawned on me that the way Hezonja plays defense is similar to how a 5th grader that has just been convinced defense is fun and important would play. This involves a lot of effort, but also plenty of misguided exuberance that includes gambling in passing lanes, over-helping, and fouling. Hezonja wants to be good defensively, but he has a long way to go. Based on his playing time, it appears that the defensive-minded Frank Vogel is in agreement.

All in all, Hezonja is definitely trending down from the expectations with which he entered the league as the #5 overall pick. However, Hezonja likely has a place in this league due to the aforementioned size, talent, and confidence. What type of place he will have remains to be seen.

Stanley Johnson

Selected #8 overall by the Detroit Pistons in the same 2015 Draft, Stanley Johnson finds himself in a similar situation as Hezonja as far as his spot in his team’s rotation is concerned. Playing just 14.2 minutes per game, Johnson’s offensive numbers haven’t fallen off like Hezonja’s have, but he is still shooting a similarly low 44% effective field goal percentage as he did last year (38.5% overall, 27.8% from 3), while his scoring output has dropped by 3 points per 36 minutes. Making matters worse is the Pistons getting pummeled when Johnson is on the floor, whether he is playing with bench units or starters (-7.0 overall Net Rating).

Despite Johnson’s slow start, he is similar to Hezonja in that he is not lacking any confidence. Even after a trip down to play with Detroit’s D-League affiliate, Johnson made it clear that confidence is not the issue. “Stan’s words to me (about doing this) were confidence, but I don’t have problems with confidence, so I just took it as a way to get better at my game.” Johnson’s shallow dig at head coach Stan Van Gundy was dug deeper when he also said, “I enjoyed playing without having to look over my shoulder and check for somebody trying to take me out of the game. I knew I was going to play a certain amount of minutes.” Because Detroit is talented enough to potentially make noise in the Eastern Conference, Van Gundy hasn’t allowed Johnson to play through mistakes. He even has replaced Johnson in the rotation with the undrafted Darrun Hilliard at times. With that being said, it’s hard to blame him after plays like this:

What Johnson can provide though is an imposing perimeter presence on defense and a bit of playmaking on offense. Although he has struggled overall, the 6’6” Johnson has put up solid points-per-possession numbers in the pick-and-roll thanks to some sneaky good passing and a high conversion rate on his pull-up attempts. While Johnson’s passing knack looks to be passable, his overall pick-and-roll productivity likely will regress due to the fact that he has been poor at both getting to and finishing at the rim (Out of the 15 field goals he’s made as a pick-and-roll ball handler, only one of these was made from the restricted area). For a player as quick and powerful as Johnson, his handle is basic and rigid, and he lacks the requisite change of pace to keep the defense off balance. He also has shown a bit of a right hand dominance tendency, as seen here:

shotchart2

The obvious 3-point shooting struggles that Johnson has demonstrated also stands out from this chart. He currently ranks in the 18th percentile, I repeat, the 18th percentile of NBA players in spot-up productivity this season. Given that Johnson didn’t exactly light it up from 3-point range last season, it is probably fair for concern to be raised over the long-term projection of his shooting ability. His form is solid, and he does a fairly good job at squaring up and staying on balance while shooting, but his release is a bit jerky, and the arc on his shot is flat. Watching Johnson shoot, it almost feels like he is shooting with a concerted amount of velocity as opposed to a normal shot that has more of a lofted trajectory.

Despite the faults that warrant Stanley’s inclusion in the downward trending section of this piece, he still possesses a significant amount of upside. He has the ability and mentality to be an elite defender in the NBA (remember, this is a guy who called out Lebron in the playoffs last year as a 19-year-old rookie), and because of his offensive skill set, size, and age, there still are plenty of reasons to be bullish on his career. In fact, if Stanley Johnson were a stock, let’s say with the ticker: $SJ, I’d be staring at a Buy order of 1,000 shares ready to push the button. The only thing holding me back is one fundamental – shooting. If this fundamental improves, which is a massive if, expect his stock to soar.

 

Trending Up

 Sam Dekker

Out of the 2015 Draft’s top 10 we go and into the hit-or-miss abyss of most drafts – the middle of the first round. Sam Dekker was projected to be selected late in the lottery after a high profile and successful collegiate career at Wisconsin, but phrases in his scouting report such as “lacking an NBA skill”, “already 21-years-old”, and “low ceiling” stood out to enough teams to send Dekker falling out of the lottery, fortuitously into the Houston Rockets’ lap at #18 overall2.

Teams and scouts knew that Dekker does a lot of things well, but many questioned his streaky shooting, which was headlined by an alarmingly low 69.5% free throw percentage in college3. So far this season, however, Dekker is shooting over 50% from the floor and just under 37% from 3-point range, and is averaging 13.3 points per 36 minutes. All of this has been done in what is essentially his first NBA season (back surgery forced him to miss most of his rookie year). This has helped him earn consistent, meaningful minutes off the bench for the 21-7 Rockets, an impressive feat especially considering the historically veteran-loving Mike D’Antoni is at the helm.

While Dekker’s hot start has been impressive, a shout out should be made to James Harden and the rest of the high powered machine that is the Houston Rockets’ offense for making Dekker’s life easier than normal for a young player. Playing mostly out of spot-up situations, 75% of Dekker’s 3-point attempts this year have come when he’s had at least four feet of space (otherwise noted as “open” per NBA.com). When he’s not canning open 3’s at a 40% clip, he’s shooting at the rim. Dekker’s shot chart below exemplifies the Moreyball philosophy in Houston4.

shotchart3
How dare Sam Dekker attempt even a single mid-range shot!

Despite the looks Dekker is afforded on a nightly basis, his current shooting pace doesn’t feel sustainable given that he is currently shooting under 62% from the free throw line. Watch Dekker shoot enough jump shots and you will see some occasional thumpers and sometimes wildly inconsistent arc. While Stanley Johnson may have the shortest air time from hand to rim in the league, Dekker may have the longest. Just watch this moon shot that almost exits the screen at one point.

Regardless of whether we will be able to look back in March and find Dekker’s 3-point FG% closer to 30% than 40%, he is listed in the ‘Trending Up’ category because of the finer, less obvious basketball related qualities he’s exhibited thus far, qualities that aren’t streaky like shooting can be. These include his defensive versatility and overall basketball IQ.

No team can have enough shooters, but that can also be said about defenders as well. With the 3rd best offense in the league, the Rockets are clearly set with the former, but needed help with the latter after finishing 21st in defense last season. So, what did they do? They brought in reputable sieves in Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and Nene, and hired defense-allergic Mike D’Antoni to coach the lot. Expectations on the optimistic side had the Rockets finishing 20-24th in defense. Thanks to guys like Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, and Dekker, however, the Rockets are 14th in the league in defense and have the 5th highest Net Rating in basketball.

Dekker’s positive defensive contributions start with his ability to guard the basketball. Dekker ranks in the 93rd percentile as the “big defender” in ball screen situations, and has statted out as an above average isolation defender as well. For someone basically in his first year in the league, this is impressive. How is he accomplishing this, you might be wondering. Well, it’s extremely complicated. Are you ready? Okay.

Dekker is good at keeping his body between the ball handler and the basket.

Yeah, that’s pretty much all it is. Obviously, this is easier said than done, especially when the opponent is anywhere between 5’10” and 6’10”. However big the player, though, Dekker has used his 6’8” frame and fluid mobility to contain penetration and contest perimeter shots. Even more impressively, if Dekker allows a few steps of straight-line penetration, he has shown the diligence and wherewithal to recover to an advantageous guarding position by the time his man can get off his shot.

By no means is Dekker a finished product defensively – he still is adjusting to the longer and more dynamic rotations that come with playing defense in the NBA – but the above clip is just one example of the fundamentals that were drilled into Dekker’s game at Wisconsin. For a team like the Rockets, this defense has been desperately needed.

Something else drilled into Dekker during his time at Wisconsin was the mindset of valuing the basketball. With a turnover rate of 7.3% in college, this ranked Dekker the 4th lowest in the Draft Express database dating back to 2002. While Dekker doesn’t have to play in constant fear of being yanked by Bo Ryan after a turnover in the NBA, he still has carried that mindset over. Dekker’s 9.1 turnover ratio (which means that he turns the ball over on average 9 times per 100 possessions) isn’t eye-opening, but it does place him 4th on the Rockets, solid for essentially being a first year player. Because of these reliable attributes that Dekker possesses, he should be playing meaningful minutes into the heat of May, whether he continues to shoot it well or not. 

Kristaps Porzingis

As much as I enjoy being the hipster NBA fan that feels compelled to cover all players equally in the name of journalistic justice (whatever that is), at some point you gotta give the people what they want, right? With that, I give you Kristaps Porzingis – aka ‘The Zinger’, aka ‘PorzinGod’, aka ‘The Lativian Gangbanger’.

After being booed by Knicks’ fans when he was selected by New York 4th overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, Porzingis has basically been trending up ever since. He flashed his freakish mobility for a 7’3” kid in Summer League, and had an outstanding rookie year in which he averaged 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and just under 2 blocks per game as a 20 year-old. It looked like Porzingis was the caliber of player that would lead the Knicks someday. What has warranted his inclusion on this list is the fact that Porzingis is leading the Knicks right now.

Yeah, you interpreted that correctly. In just his second season, Porzingis has become the best player on a team that includes 6 time All-Star and former MVP Derrick Rose, and 8 time All-Star Carmelo Anthony. The Zinger and his 20.1 points per game isn’t leading the Knicks in scoring (Carmelo Anthony is at 22.3 points per game), but he’s been more efficient offensively, and at the tender age of 21 is already considerably better on defense than any player the Knicks have. The term “prototypical” is often generously thrown around to describe certain players, but in the case of Porzingis, he actually is the prototype for a modern NBA big man. At 7 feet 3 inches tall, he is a rim-protecting goliath that can snipe 3-pointers on offense and contain perimeter penetration on defense. On top of that, Porzingis plays tough, won’t back down to anyone, and wants the ball in clutch situations. Watch here as he ditches the Knicks’ set and throws the team on his back in Phoenix.

Porzingis has single-handedly injected hope into Madison Square Garden during what looks to be the latter half of the disappointing Carmelo Anthony era in New York City.

The combination of rim protection and 3-point shooting that Porzingis provides is truly rare. Porzingis is shooting over 38% on the 5+ 3-pointers he is taking per game this year after connecting on 33.5% last season. What’s even more impressive is that he is knocking down a higher percentage of shots in situations when he’s more closely guarded. He is shooting 40% on the shots when a defender is six feet or less away, using his size to comfortably shoot over just about anyone. Porzingis has also showed flashes of developing an off-the-dribble game this season, and when I say off-the-dribble I don’t mean just being able to attack closeouts, which he has already shown he can do. I mean that he’s shown a face up off-the-dribble game with shake that is just completely unfair.

Porzingis flips this script on defense, where he is one of the best players at defending shots in the league. A useful (but not perfect) metric for measuring rim protection is to examine the field goal percentage allowed from shots within six feet of the basket. Porzingis’ opponents have an average field goal percentage of 61% on these shots across all of their games, but when defended by him this drops to 46%. This Defensive FG% (DFG%), as it’s called, is the lowest in the entire league among players that defend at least four shots per game. The -15% difference between the opponent’s average and actual percentages also leads the league. Porzingis may not lead the league with his 1.8 blocks per game average, but the DFG% illustrates the type of impact he has on the defensive end of the floor.

Porzingis is supremely talented and skilled, but he isn’t necessary a bucket-getter that the Knicks can just throw the ball to quite yet. He hasn’t been a consistent post-up threat, and players like Draymond Green have showed that smaller, more physical defenders can disrupt the rhythm with which he is comfortable playing by crowding his space. Overcoming this type of defense may have to wait for his body/game to fill out, but in the meantime, Porzingis is already good enough to match up with any center in basketball from a two-way standpoint. This is high,  but warranted, praise for this monster-in-the-making from the streets of Latvia. Enjoy, New York.

 

Footnotes

1 – If you’re unfamiliar with what the Shammgod crossover is, check out this video. It has some great insight into the history of this move.

2 – This pick was acquired via a 2014 three-way trade with the New Orleans Pelicans and Washington Wizards. In this trade, Houston sent Omer Asik and Omri Casspi to New Orleans, a trade exception to Washington, and received Trevor Ariza and what is now Sam Dekker. I would say Houston won this trade, but I’d more than likely be insulting your intelligence.

3 – Research has shown that a player’s free throw percentage can be a useful predictor of a player’s future all around shooting ability.

4 – Rockets General Manager Darryl Morey is credited with revolutionizing the way NBA teams play offensively. He theorized that, on an expected points-per-possession basis, the shots with the highest expected points per possession were 3-pointers and lay-ups. The Rockets tailored their team to this strategy, surrounding playmaker James Harden with shooters and rim running bigs. It didn’t take long before the rest of the league caught on, as articulated here. Oh, and by the way, the Rockets attempted 61 threes in their game versus the Pelicans this past weekend. That’s kind of a lot.


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