Three Players Who Can’t Shoot Straight… And How Analysts Might Not Be Straight Shooters Either

December 11, 2010

In 2009, a tall and lanky freshman named Gordon Hayward played the highest percentage of the Butler Bulldogs’ minutes. This playing time was well-deserved, since he finished the season with the second-highest offensive rating on his team, thanks largely to his 65.7 True Shooting percentage. Even more specifically, Hayward shot a phenomenal 44.8% percent in 154 attempts from beyond the arc. In 2010, however, Hayward’s offensive performance declined from excellent to very good. Although he hit nearly 60% of his 213 two-point attempts, he shot a measly 29.4% from three-point range – in 160 attempts. Nevertheless, the Utah Jazz took Hayward with the ninth overall pick in the NBA Draft. He went 2-for-6 from long distance in the 2010 Summer League, and has gone 2-for-8 in the NBA regular season so far.

Brad Tinsley is Vanderbilt’s starting point guard. He is more of a combo guard by nature, but due to Jermaine Beal’s graduation, John Jenkins’ off-ball ability, and Kyle Fuller’s youth, Tinsley has been charged with the task of running the Commodores’ offense in the 2010-2011 season. Like Hayward, Tinsley had the second-highest offensive rating on his team during his freshman year because of his proficiency from three-point range; he shot 41.1% in 168 attempts. His sophomore year, Tinsley’s three-point accuracy dipped to 29.5% on 105 attempts. He’s shooting 33.3% in 27 attempts this season.

Mike Marra is a sophomore guard on the Louisville Cardinals. He arrived on campus last season with the reputation of being a great shooter, and as a freshman on a team of veterans like Edgar Sosa, Preston Knowles, Jerry Smith, and Reginald Delk, Marra was asked to do little other than fire from beyond the arc whenever he was given a decent look. Unfortunately, he shot 24.4% in 82 attempts, and has continued his poor shooting this season. He sits at 29.8% on 57 attempts after today’s 0-for-5 showing against UNLV.

You might be wondering what these three players have to do with each other, aside from their apparent shooting futility. Ironically, they’re similar because all three have been recipients of the same label – a “knock-down” or great shooter. Yet, as we’ve seen, there is little evidence that they can shoot. Hayward shot 29.4% from three-point range his final year of college and has hit four of his 14 attempts as a professional. Tinsley shot 29.5% last season and isn’t doing much better this time around. Marra has never shot particularly well at any point, and that includes his senior year of high school when he hit just 36% of his threes. Despite their spotty track records, broadcasters and analysts consistently call all three excellent shooters.

Now, if there is one thing that I have learned over the last few years, it is that I am not a scout. I can’t look at a player’s mechanics or movements and predict how he’ll develop or improve in the future. I am the person who thought Marcus Williams would be a star point guard, who thought Matt Ryan would be a bust, who thought Brian Brohm was the best quarterback in his draft class, who killed Donnie Walsh for drafting Landry Fields, who said that Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy would be better than Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz because their minor league ERAs were better, who thought Danilo Gallinari was a brutal pick, and who thought Shan Foster would have a long NBA career as a three-point specialist. Given that ignominious history, it is entirely possible that a professional scout sees Hayward, Tinsley, and Marra’s shooting forms and, observing nothing wrong, concludes that all three have been the victims of prolonged bad luck. It is entirely possible that all three will become consistently excellent shooters in the future, and that I am some combination of too dumb, blind, or untrained to see it. None of this would surprise me, because I simply don’t know this kind of stuff.

But I do know that 30% is not a great or even good accuracy rate from long range. And given that all of these guys have been hovering right around that mark recently, I do know that none of these guys can be considered a great shooter. It is annoying to be repeatedly told otherwise when the numbers simply do not bear that out. Hayward in particular somehow earned widespread and very public benefit of the doubt. NBA.com said Hayward “shoots with range and has excellent mechanics” in its draft profile. ESPN’s Chad Ford excused Hayward’s statistically poor shooting with one of the more remarkable sentences I’ve ever read: “He’s also a terrific shooter — despite the fact that his jump shot hasn’t been falling all season.” ESPN’s draft profile even said Hayward was a “sharp shooter with deep range.” All of this is in addition to the countless broadcasters who told me during games that Hayward was a better shooter than his numbers indicated, and who are currently telling me that Tinsley and Marra are victims of the same improbable streak of bad luck.

It’s possible that everyone is smarter and sharper than I am. It’s possible that these professional analysts and talent evaluators see these guys’ strokes and conclude that it’s only a matter of time before the shots start falling for good. But I fear that nothing like that is happening, and that instead, people are seeing three guys that look like this… :

… and are automatically concluding that shooting is their forte.

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Terrence Williams Has Mysterious, Possibly Fabricated Behavioral Issues

March 31, 2009

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Recently, I’ve been reading a fairly standard column for this time of year – the “NBA draft stock report.” Just like countless other draft gurus, ESPN’s Chad Ford has been monitoring the successes and failures of numerous college basketball players that are considered NBA prospects. I will guiltily confess to devouring these reports with regularity, even though they are typically formulaic and unenlightening. Such columns serve essentially as gossip, and we know that sells.

I was struck by a sentence in the March 23rd edition of Ford’s column. About Louisville’s senior forward Terrence Williams:

He has all the physical tools to be a lottery pick, but his game has rarely matched his talent. Poor shooting percentages, high turnover rates and some off-putting on-the-court behavior have given many scouts pause.

Because I follow Louisville basketball a bit more than I should, I wondered about the veracity of the italicized section. For some reason, Louisville’s games are constantly broadcast here in New York. One of my closest friends is a Louisvillian, so I find myself much more cognizant of the Cardinals’ inner-workings than most people are on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In my experiences watching and discussing Louisville, I have never heard of any on-the-court behavioral issues on Williams’ part. My friend was just as confused as I was. If anything, broadcasters continually praise Williams as a delightful young man, dedicated leader, and consummate teammate. I considered posting about this assessment, but decided there were bigger fish to fry. 

Today, in another moment of weakness, I found myself reading Ford’s chat on ESPN.com. A reader asked about the draft stocks of Williams and teammate Earl Clark. An excerpt from Ford’s answer:

And both have been maddeningly inconsistent … especially Williams. Combine that with some off the court concerns and you can see why they may not crack the lottery.

I officially have no idea what is going on. First, Williams had problematic on-the-court behavior. Now, he has off-the-court concerns. Those are fairly serious statements, and more than a little disconcerting considering that no one I know can think of a single explanation for these characterizations. It’s probably too much to call this libelous, but it would be awfully nice if Ford would explain the thinking or information behind these assessments instead of remaining unspecific. 

I ask you plainly: do you know what Ford is talking about? Has Williams had any behavioral problems that would warrant regular mention? My current status is curious, but it’s more than capable of escalating to angry if these characterizations remain without illustration or explanation.

 

 



Serious Questions About The #1 Seeds

March 19, 2009

In a little over an hour, the greatest four days in sports will commence. Right now, there are 64 teams in college basketball that – rightly or wrongly – believe that they can win the six games necessary to be crowned national champions. Monday morning, there will only be 16 teams left after the frenzied weeding-out process has finished. Most people have one of the #1 seeds eventually emerging as the last team standing. This is by no means ridiculous, since Louisville, Pittsburgh, UConn, and North Carolina are each certainly capable of winning it all. Each team, however, also has an issue or two that I believe will eventually become its undoing. 

louisville_50x50The Cardinals have an enticing mix of factors working in their favor. They’re deep, balanced, and versatile. They have the apparently necessary “senior leadership” quota filled via Terrence Williams’ presence. They play exceptional defense and are hardened by the rigorous Big East schedule. Rick Pitino is an enormously successful and experienced postseason coach. Ostensibly, there is very little wrong with this mix. Then I am reminded of a text message I received from my Louisvillian friend very early in the season. It was bitingly accurate in its simplicity: “I hope we haven’t contracted Memphis Syndrome.”

“Memphis Syndrome,” in this case (are there other cases?), is synonymous with total futility at the free-throw line. As you may remember, last year’s Memphis Tigers shot 61.4% from the line, “good” for 329th in the country. In spite of this, the Tigers made it all the way to the national championship game, where this shortcoming finally did them in. All season, pundits had intelligently attached the “if they can hit their free-throws” caveat to any analysis of the Tigers’ chances. And all season, coach John Calipari had essentially said “we’ll hit them when we need them.” Well, they needed them against Kansas, and they didn’t hit them. The rest is history.

I bring this up, obviously, because I’m concerned about Louisville’s ability to convert at the free-throw line. They are not as inept as the 2008 Tigers were; the Cardinals shoot 64.3%, which ranks 302nd in the country. Samardo Samuels, Earl Clark, and Terrence Williams lead the team in free-throw attempts. They shoot 67.1%, 65.6%, and 57.3%, respectively. The rest of the gang is no great shakes either. I’m not sure why college basketball analysts aren’t hammering away at this deficiency the way they did with Memphis last year. I think some of it has to do with the seemingly perpetual quest to bring Memphis down from their lofty perch on top of Conference USA, but that’s an argument for another time. Ultimately, I believe the Cardinals will fall because of this shortcoming, although I am not rooting for it.

pittsburgh-panthers-logoI can and will sum up Pitt’s issue in much fewer words than I did Louisville’s. Quite simply, the Panthers’ success is causally linked to DeJuan Blair’s ability to stay on the court and out of foul trouble. When he’s in the game, the Panthers are incredibly difficult to beat. When he’s not, they become an above-average team instead of an exceptional one. Small sample size be damned, I remain somewhat skeptical of coach Jamie Dixon’s decision-making with respect to his most important player. Like so many coaches, Dixon opts to sit his star player when foul trouble arises instead of letting him play through it because of his importance. To be fair, Dixon has done this in regular season games, when a loss doesn’t result in the end of the season. Perhaps Dixon will be more flexible in his management of Blair’s foul trouble, given the single-elimination format. In any case, I don’t think Blair can go six straight games against high-quality opponents and not run into serious foul trouble. Levance Fields’ iffy groin isn’t helping things either.

uconnThe Huskies don’t have one glaring issue, but two more moderate issues that could be disastrous if they occur simultaneously. The first and most obvious problem is the indefinite absence of guard Jerome Dyson. Perhaps Kemba Walker and Craig Austrie can continue to compensate for Dyson’s missing production, but it’s a tall order. The other and potentially exacerbating problem is center Hasheem Thabeet’s variance in performance. Thabeet is capable of both monster games and Grade-A stinkers. In looking at his game log, you also might notice that his performance tends to dip significantly when facing good teams. Of course, this can be said of virtually anyone. But UConn can ill-afford for this trend to continue, particularly with Dyson’s absence. Unfortunately for the Huskies, they face nothing but quality teams the rest of the way.

unc_50Ty Lawson’s toe. That’s it. It’s the most-watched digit in America right now, upon which the exchange of millions of dollars rests. If Lawson’s toe is truly fine, then this tournament is the Tar Heels’ to lose. North Carolina’s point guard is the most efficient offense in the country’s engine. He, not Tyler Hansbrough, is the team’s best player. He’s about as important to the Tar Heels’ success and DeJuan Blair is to Pittsburgh’s. I usually don’t put much stock in things like this, but some of the quotes seen here are pretty disconcerting. Teammate Bobby Frasor is saying “he’s not the same Ty we’ve all seen,” and Lawson himself is saying “it’s just pain when I’m cutting back and forth.” That’s cool, it’s not like there’s tons of cutting back and forth in basketball. I think you get my point. Much like the Blair situation, I don’t see Lawson physically holding up for six straight games. 

* * * * * * *

After long and serious thought (seriously), I’m picking Memphis to win the national championship. I’m not sure they’re as good as last year’s team, but that’s the whole point: I’m not sure. For each of the #1 seeds, I know of a serious danger or deficiency that could very well end their tournament experience. As for the Tigers, well, I don’t know. They spent another year absolutely annihilating everyone in their middling conference. Maybe this means they’re just picking on the little guys, or maybe it means they’re really good. Ultimately, that’s the reason I’m picking Memphis. I don’t know exactly what they are, but they might be exceptional. 

Happy March Madness, everyone.