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My Sophomore Crush: Kendall Marshall

With the 2013-14 NBA season on the horizon, we’re taking this week to look at the players we love who are headed into their second year in the league. For most, if not all, of these players, expectations are either sky high or at rock bottom. And at the end of the year, what we know about them will likely be far removed from what we thought headed into this season.

A sophomore’s experience in the NBA can be a tricky thing. The expectations of the past season still weigh heavy on the mind, to the point that it’s hard to separate what a player might do from what we expect him to do. First impressions are too often lasting impressions, revealed to be folly only when performance far surpasses the common perception of a player. And even then, the pendulum swings too far in the other direction, creating a whole new hornets nest from which we must extricate ourselves.

The book on Kendall Marshall coming into the league was that he was an old school, pass-first point guard whose shot needed some work in order for him to stick in the league and get minutes in a rotation. Unfortunately, Marshall wasn’t afforded much opportunity to change that perception during his rookie season. In fact, the extent to which Marshall was kept on the bench is almost unheard of for a modern lottery pick. Marshall played just 702 minutes in 48 games as the third point guard in Phoenix’s rotation, stuck behind Goran Dragic and Sebastian Telfair. Since 2000-01, there’ve been but a dozen or so lottery picks who played fewer than 800 minutes in their rookie seasons without being severely limited by injury. The majority of the other picks taken in the top half of the first round who saw limited playing time in their rookie seasons are project big men and wings caught in a mosh of other capable backups. Perhaps the only player whose rookie season mirrored Marshall’s was Jerryd Bayless, an off-guard crammed into the role of point guard during his first year in Portland. That’s not the most flattering comparison for someone you hope can take the keys to an offense.

And in the few minutes he played, Marshall’s efforts tended to skew toward the lowered expectations that many had for him. His effective field goal percentage was just 44.7% on 151 field goal attempts, including a 31.5% clip on 73 3-pointers. Such a pedestrian effort from the field merely reinforced the concept of Kendall Marshall, NBA player, forged before he’d ever set foot on the court. Where Marshall’s limited minutes called into question those preconceived notions was his passing prowess. His limited playing time meant that Marshall averaged just three assists per game; his per-36 rate of 7.3 dimes was more than acceptable, but it was far from enough to make up for his limited proficiency shooting the ball. For a point guard to be unable to space the floor with his jump shot, he has to be a veritable savant in his court vision. Last year, Marshall simply didn’t reach that level.

Yet the tale of Kendall Marshall is far from its denouement. The small sample size with which we have to work based on his rookie season is simply too restrictive to draw any major conclusions, particularly since he plays a position that’s often associated with a slower growth curve for all but the most elite point guards. He worked on his jumper during the offseason and took the opportunity to get in his reps at the Las Vegas Summer League. And taken with the context of last year’s Phoenix Suns, there’s something truly admirable about Marshall’s efforts to lead the offense. The most common lineups of which he was a part included players like Wesley Johnson and Michael Beasley. When a point guard is setting up players of that caliber, how many assists can he truly be expected to accumulate?

What Marshall needs might very well be a change of scenery. With the Suns acquiring Eric Bledsoe this summer, there’s a good chance Marshall’s minutes will once again be limited, unless Phoenix commits wholeheartedly to starting both Bledsoe and Dragic. If he’s once again stuck to the bench, then we’ll learn little more about Marshall’s fit in the NBA. To know what we should expect and whether or not he can surpass those expectations, something needs to change. Whether it’s an opportunity to play with Suns teammates who can more efficiently score or a chance to be the lead guard for a team replete with long range snipers, another year like the last will simply pile on to a perception of Marshall that might or might not be true. What he’s shown us so far has been frustrating, perhaps most of all for Marshall himself. He’ll do his damnedest to make the most of every opportunity, but without a chance to change our view, our expectations will seldom matter.

Expectation and hope are nothing if they can be neither confirmed nor refuted. The worst case scenario for Kendall Marshall’s second season isn’t poor play; it’s not being able to play with our perceptions at all.

Andrew Lynch

When God Shammgod created the basketball universe, Andrew Lynch was there. His belief in the superiority of advanced statistics and the eventual triumph of expected value-based analytics stems from the fact that he’s roughly as old as the concept of counting. With that said, he still loves the beauty of basketball played at the highest level — it reminds him of the splendor of the first Olympics — and the stories that spring forth from the games, since he once beat Homer in a game of rock-paper-scissors over a cup of hemlock. Dude’s old.