Category Archives: Profile Paroxysm

The Tremendous Growth of Demetri McCamey

Photo: Flickr/Matt Heidelberger

Demetri McCamey just wrapped up his fourth summer league game with the Minnesota Timberwolves in a 92-54 throttling of the Sacramento Kings. McCamey has been a bit of a revelation for Minnesota here in Las Vegas, posting incredible efficiencies of .650 percent from the field and .727 percent from deep. Those are incredible numbers for a center, no less a 6’4 guard. On top of that, McCamey has been getting it done on both ends, leading the team in scoring with 11.3 points per game and 1.7 steals to boot.

While McCamey has been a big reason for the Timberwolves’ two-game winning streak after dropping their first two, he doesn’t take all of the credit for it. “We’ve got a great group of guys here,” said McCamey. “It’s easier to play when you have a group of guys like this willing to share the basketball and play hard on every possession. That’s what it’s all about when you get a great group of guys like that—it’s a great team and anything can happen. And fortunately I’m playing well.”

Strangely enough, it’s very unlikely that he will be joining the Timberwolves for the 2013-’14 season. After drafting Shabazz Muhammad and Lorenzo Brown and signing Kevin Martin to add to their backcourt, the Timberwolves likely won’t have room for McCamey despite his strong showing. However, with scouts from all over the NBA, D-League and overseas, McCamey knows that his performance will not be for naught.

“You’re playing for everybody,” said the guard. “I’m a free agent right now and I’m playing for everybody in the building. You’re playing for a job, you’re playing to survive and you’re playing for your family. After this, I’ll give it a week and talk to my agent, but you’re playing for everybody.”

And he certainly knows what he is talking about. Following a decorated career at the University of Illinois where McCamey earned All-Big Ten honors in three of his seasons and led the conference in assists in 2009-’10, he bounced around the professional basketball ranks a bit. First it was off to Turkey and Jerusalem the next season. Following his time overseas, McCamey earned a summer league invite with the Houston Rockets last season, and turned that opportunity into a stint with the Rockets’ D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Vipers. Finally, he finished the 2013 season with the Erie Bayhawks and the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

McCamey talked about the variance in playing overseas and in the D-League. He noted that once you get past that first month abroad, and get accustomed to the language barrier and adjust to the culture, it’s an enjoyable experience. However, McCamey also enjoys the familiarity of his surroundings in the D-League and being able to have his family watch his games.

Despite all of this movement, Demetri remains determined to earn an NBA roster spot. After all, McCamey went undrafted in 2011 and signed a one-year deal to play in Turkey only after the lockout went into effect. McCamey has also kept a positive attitude, viewing each opportunity as a chance to improve his skill set. The former Illini star noted that he’s grown tremendously since leaving school and the differing styles of play between the American and International game have brought the best out of him.

“Just knowing the game, playing the different games—playing the Europe games — that helps you with your shooting because they get a lot of shots over there,” said McCamey. “ In the NBA game, for point guards you’re learning reads and picking people apart with pick ‘n rolls and the spacing on the floor. The different areas made my game grow so much to that next level.”

As a point guard McCamey says he’s always looking to find his teammates first, but now he’s able to apply even more pressure on the defense because has evolved into a better scorer, being able to penetrate in the lane and keep opponents honest with his outside shooting. McCamey showcased his able to do these things during summer league, but he also displayed a thorough understanding of the game.

While he’s listed as a point guard, McCamey doesn’t subscribe to set positions saying, “It’s playing basketball and when you’re a basketball player there’s no such thing as positions.” He added, “You might get designed that [way] but in the game you gotta be able to play multiple positions. And that’s why I’ve been able to be successful so far in summer league playing off the ball and on the ball and just try to do my best at that position at that time.”

Basketball I.Q. is a trait that you can’t teach, and neither is the ability to seamlessly adapt to playing as the off-guard in a small ball lineup with teammates Kee Kee Clark and Lorenzo Brown to running the offense with bigger lineups as McCamey has during summer league. While playing as a 6’3 wing player may seem disadvantageous, smart players know how to use the tools that they have, as McCamey has by forcing turnovers and getting the Timberwolves quick fastbreak points.  McCamey’s point is evident here: put smart basketball players together in a sensible order and they will acclimate.

With a determination to be great, an elevated basketball IQ and a number of valuable NBA tools, Demetri McCamey’s NBA debut could come sooner rather than later. McCamey’s performance this past week is what Chicago Tribune voters imagined when they voted him first team all-state alongside Evan Turner and Derrick Rose years ago. Considering how well McCamey has thrived in front of hundreds scouts on this stage, he may just be ready for the big stage.

The Millsap Family Business

Photo: Hockadilly/Flickr
You may be familiar with Paul Millsap, the veteran forward who just signed a two-year, $19 million dollar deal with the Atlanta Hawks. You may not be aware of the fact that he has three brothers – John, Elijah and Abraham – who have either played basketball professionally or currently playing at the collegiate level. The Millsap’s close family ties brought the entire clan, including Paul, to support John with the Hawks’ summer league team and Elijah with the D-League Select team.

Although basketball was the first love for the eldest Millsap brother ,John, Elijah and his younger brothers discovered basketball later on.

“At first football was really the family game,” said Elijah. “We were in Denver, Colorado and it’s predominately a football state so that’s what we were doing at first. We moved to Louisiana and that’s when we picked up basketball and got serious about it.”

Interestingly enough, the four brothers would take their own unique path into professional basketball. Paul was selected with the 17th pick of the 2006 NBA Draft. John and Elijah each went undrafted but have been able to latch on with various teams overseas, in the D-League and even a couple NBA teams during preseason. And as for Abraham, his journey is just beginning after wrapping up his freshman year at Tennessee State University.

Yet, even though Paul was able to stick with the Utah Jazz from the beginning, opportunities with the D-League have given John and Elijah the chance to keep their NBA dreams alive while also being able to still provide for their families.

“It’s provided me with a little bit of financial stability and some extra cushion,” commented Elijah. “It’s given me a start and an opportunity, but you try to do everything you can to make it to the NBA. But you can’t lose sight of your family and being able to take care of them, so I had to go over there to get a paycheck.”

John added,” I’m just trying to figure out where I can get in. I’ve been in-and-out so I’m just trying to find somewhere that I can stick.”

Considering that the Millsaps brought their entire family with them to Las Vegas to cheer on John and Elijah, the ability to provide for their families and being as close to each other as possible is important. That’s where things like the D-League and Las Vegas Summer League benefit  players like the Millsaps who want to play professional basketball and would prefer to do it as close to home as possible.

Another bonus to playing closer to home is that it’s more cost effective to send scouts to D-League games than international games and therefore increasing the likelihood of getting that call-up. On top of that, Elijah enjoys the comfort of not having to fret over playing time, saying that, “Being on a team to be able to showcase my game has meant a lot. Whereas overseas where you worry about whether you’re going to play or not.  It’s a good place to showcase my ability.”

As for John, he’s a firm believer in the D-League as a proving ground, later adding, “It’s good exposure for guys who are trying to get to where they need to be. It’s one step under the NBA, it’s a great stepping stone for getting to where you need to be.”

John and Elijah also know the importance of summer league for an aspiring NBAer. This is because the scouts are not just from the NBA, but also from overseas which can open more doors for players as well. Elijah has come to recognize scouts from Russia and China, further proving that you never know just who is watching and who is ready to give you an opportunity to get to the next level. After all, roster spots nationally are finite in volume, meaning that if you want to be seen and take care of your family, impressing the overseas scouts is crucial.

Everything the elder Millsap brothers do also paves the way for their youngest brother, Abraham, who one day will likely make the leap to professional basketball on some level.  Elijah commented that although Abraham didn’t play as much, he’s working hard to earn the opportunity to showcase his game. And if he’s anything like his brothers, we already know that he will be more than willing to put in the time required to improve. Like the rest of his brothers, he knows that he will have those closest to him supporting him throughout his own journey, no matter where it takes him. After all, family comes first with the Millsaps.

 

Profile Paroxysm: Darnell Jackson and the Value of Age

Age is our savior and our demise. It weakens the body, robs us of our speed, our vigor, our endurance. The decline is gradual, but noticeable. Just a year’s difference is enough to make us slower to rise and quicker to fall.

Yet with those years also comes wisdom and knowledge heretofore ignored or unknown. The lessons of our fathers, mothers, mentors and those who ever deemed us worthy of their insight are savored — experiences teach us what our elders told us.

Darnell Jackson isn’t old, but he is older. Do not, however, mistake that to mean he is a lesser player because of his age. If anything he is better because of it.

Jackson is five years removed from his senior year at the University of Kansas, and since that time has played in the NBA (with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Sacramento Kings and Milwaukee Bucks), overseas (with BC Donetsk of Ukraine and the Xinjiang Flying Tigers in China), and the NBA D-League (with the Erie Bayhawks and the Reno Bighorns). His journey is not of those bouncing from team to team, league to league, trying to find a home, but rather of learning, acquiring and honing skills that will allow for a lengthy NBA career, whatever his given role.

In Cleveland, he studied the importance of the “little things” as displayed by the likes Shaq, LeBron James and Anderson Varejao. He attributes his time overseas as the genesis for the development of his passing acumen, and values the D-League as a place to display his talents as a player and a teammate.

“When you’re on an NBA team, and you’re not in the rotation, you can’t get out there to show what you can do.” Jackson says the D-League gave him the opportunity to just play and work on every aspect of his game, from his shot, to his face-up play, even moving his feet faster. He extolls the virtues of the D-League for teaching him how to play a role, and play it correctly. “It’s not about scoring all the points. There are plenty of guys in the NBA that can do that. Whatever your role is, whatever you do well, do it consistently. Do it every game, every practice.”

Over the summer, Jackson, who plays with the NBA D-League Select Team in the Las Vegas Summer League, worked out with strength coach Chris Johnson, who counts players such as Mike James and Glen Davis among his clientele. It was during a sit down with coach Johnson that Jackson learned what he must do to last in the NBA: he must become a pig.

“(Coach Johnson) told me ‘I need you to be a pig. You need to play with Passion, Intensity, and I need you to have Guts. Pigs are in the mud, eating the nasty stuff. You need to be that guy that’s on the court setting hard screens, crashing the glass and running the floor as hard as you can.’”

It’s a mantra that’s since driven Jackson, pushing him through coach Johnson’s grueling workouts he describes as a cross between military and NBA training. The rigors of Johnson’s two and three-a-day workouts have clearly benefited Jackson, who now sports a stronger, yet slimmer physique.

On the court, Jackson plays with same swine mindset that inspirited him during the summer. He may not always secure the rebound, but he always battles for it. Be it diving for loose balls, running the floor — perhaps not the fastest, but certainly the hardest — or stonewalling opponents with screens, he is always in the mud.

Just as notable as Jackson’s newfound physique is his improved passing. Whereas before Jackson’s main contribution on offense would be in the form of a mid-range jumper or offensive rebound, he is now an able facilitator, making crisp passes from the post or in high-low situations.

“(Johnson) told me I need to be a point forward,” says Jackson. “I need to play with a base and see the floor. Back in the past, I wasn’t certain about making the right pass. One of my biggest fears was, and is, turning it over.” To help Jackson with his precision and vision, Johnson would give him a twenty pound medicine ball and have him do “frog jumps,” while also twisting and turning with the ball.

But to acclaim Jackson’s growth as a passer as simply a result of increased strength and conditioning is to ignore the maturation of his mind. “I’m 27, I’m getting old,” Jackson jokes. “The more I play, the more I work out, the older I’m getting, the easer the game comes to me. It’s slowing down.”

The speed at which Jackson is able to process the game and then make a play is the prefect synthesis of mind and body — the age of both now a boon.

We cannot hope to stop age, and thereby his elder sister, death. But we can stave them off, if we so choose, through exercise, diet, continuously challenging ourselves both mentally and physically.

Basketball is a microcosm of this. The longevity of a player’s career depends not on skill alone, but also on a commitment to fitness, to maximizing, then maintaining, one’s physical and mental gifts. Eddy Curry was blessed with myriad skills, yet cursed with the inability to control his appetite. Steve Nash, meanwhile, has sustained such a high level of play well past his supposed expiration date due to his maniacal dedication to health. Players who learn to think the game, to anticipate the action rather than solely react, often last longer than those who lean only on their athleticism.

If Jackson were stubborn, refusing to grow as a player and a person, unwilling to accept any role given to him, his advanced age would seal the already swiftly shutting window into the NBA. And while that window still continues close, Jackson’s maturity is an asset, as is his progression both mentally and physically. Combined, they’re a crow bar allowing him to keep the window from shutting, or perhaps even pry it wide open.

 

Image by Kevin_Morris via Flickr

Quincy Miller Looks to Prove Himself Again

Photo: AdamBowie/Flickr

In 2010, the Denver Nuggets’ Quincy Miller was seen in a very different light. Coming out of high school he was ranked among other top prospects in his class, such as Anthony Davis, and had begun to receive Kevin Durant comparisons before he received his high school diploma. Despite tearing his ACL during his senior year, Miller was heavily recruited by many top schools but ultimately chose to join Perry Jones III at Baylor University. With Miller in the fold the Bears drew national attention as a team to watch and expectations were raised for everyone. Then, after just one season at Baylor, Miller elected to turn pro by entering the 2012 NBA Draft.

Once expected to be a top-10 pick, Miller fell into the second round. There were concerns over his injury history being just one year removed and over his size. Evidently Miller’s productive season at Baylor post-injury was not enough to convince NBA teams that he was still capable of becoming the player he once was and he was now going to have to prove himself yet again.

“The D-League helped me a lot. I went down there and showed a lot of people what I could do. It was going well with my team even though we were losing, and I think I played pretty consistent,” said Miller following the Nuggets’ 93-81 summer league loss to the Chicago Bulls on Monday night.

Playing for the Iowa Energy gave Miller the chance to earn those crucial developmental minutes that a young player like himself needs. For a team like last year’s Nuggets that was full of playoff aspirations it would have been very unlikely they could have given Miller the 24 minutes per game he saw with the Energy. Sure enough, Miller played well enough to earn a call up in December after putting up 11.3 points per game and 6.8 rebounds to go with 1.4 blocks per game, although his efficiency never reached that of his Baylor days.

According to Miller the biggest benefit he saw from his time with the Energy was that it helped ease the transition from college to the pros by allowing him to adjust to the speed and physicality of the professional game at a steady pace. Although Miller still struggled during his first six games with the Nuggets, his seventh and final game before returning to Iowa was encouraging. In that final NBA appearance he shot 2-3 from the field with a rebound and no fouls or turnovers in four minutes. While that statline may still have been unspectacular, Miller returned to the Energy on a high note.

While Miller would love to remain with Denver next season, he views the D-League as an excellent proving ground for his abilities and only looks to continue improving. “As long as I’m getting minutes and getting better,” Miller added before admitting, “I want to spend more time with the Nuggets next year, though.”

Like the other top prospects in his class Miller understands the amount of hard work that goes into being a successful NBA player. Some enter the league and shine right away, while others have to cut their teeth on other levels to reach that point. As we’ve seen from Miller before, having rehabbed from a torn ACL as a 17-year old to becoming a productive college player, he’s not afraid to do what it takes to get there. Miller noted the widening fan interest across the league but also an improved ability to develop promising young talents like himself. While being an everyday player in the NBA remains his ultimate goal, Miller is willing to do whatever it takes and go wherever he has to go reach it.

What is Tiago Splitter

There are few other teams, if any, that affect our view of a player when they’re acquired by a team than the San Antonio Spurs. For over a decade we’ve seen the Spurs pluck valuable role players out of the bottom of the first round of the draft and salvage reclamation projects other teams didn’t know what to do with. We assume that these players are quote-unquote fundamentally sound and do all the little things while playing within the team concept. They may not all be great, but the rest of us non-Spurs fans wish our team operated similarly. We’ve seen it with Luis Scola, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, George Hill, and even Tiago Splitter.

But what do we really know about Splitter? It feels like he’s widely presumed to be a good player because he’s a Spur and that our perception of him has more to do with how much we revere his team than Splitter himself. And with Splitter set to become a restricted free agent, someone in need of a center is likely going to make a serious run at him this summer. Because of this, let’s take a look at two ways to view Splitter.

What is Tiago Splitter? Tiago Splitter is an Unsung Hero, Damn’t! 

Tiago Splitter is next in a long line of savvy moves by the Spurs. First off, he’s a valuable cog in the Spurs’ offense, exhibiting a nice two-man game with Manu Ginobili and works with Tony Parker to form a formidable pick ‘n’ roll duo. In fact, Splitter posted a 1.27 mark in points per possession (PPP) in pick ‘n’ roll man situations according to MySynergySports.com, good for 11th overall in the entire NBA. Furthermore, Splitter posted an impressive 60% True Shooting Percentage this season with average usage and turnover rates. And even though he plays frequently next to Tim Duncan, he’s managed to average a 15.3% Rebounding Rate for his career, helping the Spurs get second chance points and control the tempo of the game.

Defensively, Splitter is a terrific low post defender. Last season he was posted up 35.7% of the time and still managed to post a 0.64 PPP, good for 15th in the league. Seriously, why aren’t we talking more about Tiago and how the Spurs need to retain him since he clearly makes Duncan’s life on the block much easier. His 3.5 Defensive Win Shares and a Defensive Rating that has gone down every year he’s been in the league really don’t lie, either.

Tiago Splitter is a big reason the Spurs have been able to finally return to the NBA Finals following a six year absence where they have typically run out of gas in the conference finals. He’s been the secret ingredient that makes everything go for the Spurs and a big question this offseason will be if they will be able to keep him around to continue making these runs. The Spurs have done it again, I tell ya.

What is Tiago Splitter? Tiago Splitter a Menace! 

A hero? Don’t fool yourself– Tiago Splitter  is a menace and he must be stopped. This blind reverence towards the Spurs needs to stop because not everything they have done has been as perfect as people make it out to be, Splitter included.

You may be tempted to fawn over Splitter’s 18.7 PER this season, but you have to remember that Anthony Randolph once posted a 17.6 PER not that long ago and you don’t see anyone praising his brilliance. You know why he’s so efficient on offense? He took 417 shots at the rim, made 68.3% and was assisted on 81.7% of those makes. And do you know what he shot from three-feet-and-out? .285 on 189 attempts. As a player who is just under 7-feet tall, you would hope that he would be able to score at the rim, but his inability to do much else anywhere else makes him rather one-dimensional on offense. If he can’t shoot, you think he’d be able to post up, but he posted a 0.86 PPP on Post-Ups this season, which is below-average.

See, his offensive production comes in part  from being big and underneath the basket, and if it weren’t for Parker’s ability to draw defenders while driving in the lane or Duncan’s excellent offensive spacing, you could remove the “almost” caveat at the beginning of this sentence. Playing with Hall of Famers really makes your life easy, huh?

I can’t argue with his PPP in defensive post-ups this season, but I can argue with just about every other part of his game defensively. You can’t mention his Defensive Rating without pointing out that he often shares the court with Duncan and Leonard– two good defenders who positively affect his defensive rating as well. It’s not that he’s a bad defender; he’s just closer to being average than elite. This would be an entirely different story if opposing teams ran post-ups on him every possession, but that’s never going to happen.

So, which one of the above is Splitter? Likely somewhere in between. He’s a center with limited range that works well in the pick “n” roll and finishes very well at the rim, but will likely never be a featured center in an offense since he’s 28 and therefore the room for further development is shrinking. Defensively, he can defend an opponent’s best attempts to post up quite well, but is perfectly average just about everywhere else, which is still more than you can say for a lot of players. With Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter works as their complementary center in the starting lineup. As Aaron McGuire of Gothic Ginobili told me, Splitter is opportunistic in that he can catch his man off guard and was intelligent enough to develop a synchronicity with the Spurs’ best players from the get-go. Who knows how he would fare outside of the Spurs’ system where he might be asked to do more than he’s capable of, but those limitations are well-hidden in San Antonio. In fact, the Spurs’ ability to hide those weaknesses and accentuate his strengths where other teams might not is a very Spurs thing to do.

Thanks to Aaron McGuire  of Gothic Ginobili for his input on this piece. Clearly Aaron knows more than the average person should know about Tiago Splitter, but I’m grateful for that. Be sure to check out his site and follow him on Twitter: @docrostov. 

Profile Paroxysm: The Education of Reggie Jackson

The Thunder’s selection of Reggie Jackson in the 2011 NBA draft was surprising, to say the least. Clearly, the Thunder didn’t bring in Jackson to supplant Russell Westbrook, but with super-sub Eric Maynor firmly entrenched as the team’s back-up point guard, it was hard to see where Jackson figured into the Thunder’s plans.

Sam Presti, in his press conference on the night of the draft, said of Jackson: “He’s a guy that is a willing learner. He’s a guy with great athletic ability. He’s a guy that can shoot the ball. And he’s a guy that really understands that he has room to grow and wants to improve. And that’s what his focus is.”

That learning process sped up in Jackson’s rookie season after Maynor tore his ACL just nine games into the lockout-shortened season. Jackson, however, failed to make much of an impact, averaging just 3.1 points per game while shooting thirty-two percent from the field and twenty-one percent from beyond the arc. The Thunder signed Derek Fisher, and Jackson’s minutes quickly diminished.

In this, his second season, Jackson’s improved play, coupled with Maynor’s slower-than-expected recovery from his ACL tear, inspired enough confidence in the Thunder to trade Maynor to the Portland Trail Blazers, leaving Jackson as the team’s clear-cut back-up point guard.  The increase in minutes—17.8 minutes per game after the Maynor trade, versus 11.8 prior—and responsibilities granted Jackson a greater opportunity to show his talents. An even greater, though unfortunate, opportunity arose just a few weeks ago, when the Thunder lost Westbrook for the remainder of the playoffs due to a meniscus tear. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Jackson was thrust into a starting role for a team many picked to represent the Western conference in the NBA Finals.

Injuries, be it to a role player or a star, are both unfortunate and inevitable parts of the game. And when one player goes down, the next in line has to be ready to step up and fill their predecessor’s role.  Keyon Dooling, a 13-year NBA veteran, has seen more than his fair share of these “Next Man Up” situations, and knows the value of this always-ready mentality. “Being ready and mentally focused, and having that confidence in yourself knowing that you can play. It’s a catch 22, getting to play behind somebody as great as (Westbrook), because you don’t get to play that much, but you get to learn a lot. He’s shown in a short amount of time that he’s a good player.”

Jackson is no Westbrook, but Dooling does see parallels in their playing styles. “Their games are similar: [they’re both] athletic, good with the ball, have size and can pull up.”

Nick Collison, who has been with both Westbrook and Jackson since their respective rookie seasons, also notices the similarities between the two. “They’re both guys that like to attack off the dribble, and both can make jump shots.”

In fact, taking and making more shots is one of the biggest reasons Jackson’s filled in so admirably for Westbrook.

Per NBA.com, Jackson is attempting nearly three more three-pointers in the playoffs (4.1) than he did the regular season (1.5), an uptick Jackson attributes to sharing more time on the court with Kevin Durant. “Playing with KD more, everybody’s collapsing, so I’m getting better looks,” says Jackson, who knows that knocking down those shots is key to taking pressure off Durant. “I have to continue to believe in myself and work on it.”

Collison is impressed with Jackson’s production as a starter, and attributes the second-year guard’s improvement to an increased comfort level within the team. “Early in their careers, it’s tough for all players that get limited minutes, especially point guards, to know exactly what to do. But he (Jackson) is a lot more comfortable. When he has chances to attack, he’s doing it. He’s pulling up or making the pass when it’s not there.”

The circumstances may not be ideal, but Jackson now has the opportunity to put those lessons learned observing Westbrook to use at time when the Thunder needs him the most. Says Collison: “It’s huge to lose Russell, but this has been huge for Reggie to be able to get time and experience. He’s really improved and we’re counting on him.”

Statistical support for this story provided by NBA.com

Profile Paroxysm: Cory Joseph, Solid As Spurs’ Starter

You might not have noticed Cory Joseph starting for the San Antonio Spurs. Far from flashy, you can watch them for a few minutes and miss his presence. With All-Star Tony Parker out of the lineup due to a sprained ankle, Joseph is in his place at point guard but he isn’t piling up points. Asked if plays would be designed for Joseph, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News, “When we put one in for [ex-Spur] Mario Elie, we’ll put one in for Cory.”

Cory Joseph putting in work

Cory Joseph putting in work. Photo by John Bennett.

If you pay attention to Joseph, you’ll see him pick up his man in the backcourt and take a few seconds off the shot clock. You’ll see him make proper passes but sometimes not even bring the ball up or initiate the offense. You’ll rarely see him make a big play or a big mistake. Playing 42 minutes in his two starts, Joseph turned the ball over only once.

“The thing that I respect about his game is I don’t know that he’s great at anything, but boy is he solid,” said Houston Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson in late August at the Air Canada Centre. On Jay Triano’s staff with the Canadian Senior Men’s National Team, Sampson saw Joseph up close at a five-day training camp.

“He’s just good,” Sampson continued. “You name me one area of the game and I’m going to say he’s pretty good at it. There’s some guys … they can dribble, can’t shoot. They can shoot, can’t dribble. Not really good passers or non-willing passers. Cory Joseph is a solid passer, solid shooter, solid defender, great teammate. He’s dependable.”

Joseph’s jumper wasn’t always described as dependable. There were concerns about his ability to consistently hit NBA threes when the Spurs drafted him No. 29 in 2011. As a guard in a system like the Spurs’, the ability to space the floor is pretty much a prerequisite for playing time.

“His shot’s improved so much,” said Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson, a childhood friend of Joseph’s and his teammate at both Findlay Prep and the University of Texas. “Cory back in college and in high school had kind of a slow release but now he has a quick release and he’s knocking shots down.”

“When he’s open, you think it’s going in and that wasn’t the case two years ago,” said Sampson. “When he was in college I thought he was a spotty, streaky shooter at best.”

This year in 26 games with the D-League’s Austin Toros, Joseph was averaging 19.4 points per game and shooting 46 percent from the field 48 percent from behind the three-point line before being called up just over a week ago. Appearing in only 29 games in San Antonio as a rookie, he split his time between the two teams in his two seasons, winning a D-League Championship in his first and making the D-League All-Star team in his second.

“There’s no experience like game experience,” Joseph said of his time in Austin. “I work out all the time, but you can work out every day but it’s nothing like game experience, so it was good to get down there, work out and also play in the games. And also have the opportunity to play a lot of minutes and learn from your mistakes. That helped me a whole bunch. The coaching staff down there was good — it was an extension of the coaching staff from the Spurs, so it was great.”

Joseph showed off what he learned in his first season during NBA Summer League in July, averaging 17 points, 5.2 assists and 4.4 rebounds and making the All-Summer League Team. He credits his improvement to learning from Popovich and point guards like Parker, former Spurs assistant coach and current Orlando Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn and a couple of familiar faces.

T.J. Ford, an 8-year NBA veteran and a fellow Longhorns alum, spent significant time with Joseph last season in San Antonio and Austin, where he went from player to assistant coach.

“That’s almost like my brother,” Joseph said of Ford. “Last year, me and him were close. He took me under his wing. He taught me a lot … He’s done it and he’s played at all the levels that I want to be at.”

Steve Nash, then a Phoenix Sun and now a Los Angeles Laker and the general manager of Canada’s national team, reached out to Joseph before he played the Spurs last season. Joseph now counts the future Hall of Famer and the best player his country has produced as a friend and a mentor.

The advice Nash gave him? “Just go in there and work,” Joseph said. He couldn’t control how much he played in San Antonio last season but he could command respect with his competitiveness and his work ethic.

“Every first year is a hard year for anybody, said Joseph. “Just like when [Nash] was a rookie. I know I was only five years old when he was a rookie but he was just telling me about his experience, just working hard, coming early, staying after … Just try to get some more playing time and do what it takes for your team to win.”

In this situation as a starter, Joseph doesn’t need to do much for his team to win. His job is to play tough defense and put his teammates in positions to make plays. Getting his chance to share the floor with stars like Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, he’s asked only to be a steady stand-in. It’s okay if he doesn’t stand out.

Profile Paroxysm: Evan Turner

Overrated

Image: Eureekaa14/Flickr

The Minnesota Timberwolves had just finished the 2009-’10 NBA season with the league’s second-worst record: a dreadfully soul-sucking 15-67. Their reward for enduring such a trying season? The fourth pick in the draft. Far from ideal from a Timberwolves fan’s perspective since they had coveted Ohio State University’s Evan Turner, who would likely be off of the board by the time they made their selection. Sure enough, the mock draft predictions were correct, as Turner went off of the board to Philadelphia at number two, and Derrick Favors, who the Timberwolves had also coveted in that draft, went three to the then-New Jersey Nets. The Timberwolves settled for Syracuse’s Wes Johnson, and we hoped that he would end up to be more than a beaming smile.

In the summer of 2010, you could have counted me as one of the Turner fans. Watching him at Ohio State, there was much to love. He was coming off of a junior season in which he averaged 20-9-6 while shooting .519/.364/.754. What’s more is that he accomplished all of this while playing every position on the floor but center, showcasing his remarkable versatility for onlooking NBA scouts. If all of that weren’t enough, Turner appeared to be the type of player who you could count on when you needed a basket since he looked incredibly comfortable with the ball in his hands with the game on the line, and his teammates trusted him to come through. Yet, he wasn’t a selfish player and seemed to have a good sense of when to defer and when to take over.

The 2010 Timberwolves desperately needed a player with Turner’s capabilities, to put it kindly. Since these were during my primitive pre-blogging days of message boards, I took to my favorite forums to tell anyone and everyone how great Turner would be for the Timberwolves. I spent many hours in threads debating ways to move up and get the Sixers to swap picks using anyone and everyone not named “Kevin” or “Love”. Yeah, Favors would’ve been great, but I was all about #TeamTurner.

Well, that never happened, and we had to deal with the ups-and-downs of Wes Johnson’s career. Of course, dealing with Johnson’s struggles was much easier considering that Turner wasn’t exactly lighting the NBA on fire either. Any metric, basic or advanced, would tell you that Turner had a lot to work on, too.

However, some of Turner’s issues should have at least been somewhat predictable. Not only was he a rookie learning a new system with a new coach, but had to adjust to the playing in the NBA where the players are more intelligent and athletic, and where the opposition’s defensive schemes are more advanced than he saw at the collegiate level. On top of all of that, he was working physical skills that were relatively average for a player his size. In this case, we’ll put his pre-draft measurements against the Charlotte Bobcats’ Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who is the same height (6’7) but twenty pounds heavier.

Turner (Wingspan): 6’8

Kidd-Gilchrist (Wingspan): 7’0

 

Turner (Standing Reach): 8’7 1/2

Kidd-Gilchrist (Standing Reach): 8’8 1/2

 

Turner (Max. Vert): 34.5

Kidd-Gilchrist (Max. Vert): 35.5

 

Turner (No-Step Vert): 27.5

Kidd-Gilchrist (No-Step Vert): 32.0

Of course, the better athlete doesn’t always make the better player, and this isn’t about MKG vs Turner either. The point I’m merely trying to make is that Turner’s physical traits were more easily hidden in college, and having average measurements was going to make his adjustments to the pros all the more difficult. Still, today Turner is still trying to overcome some of those limitations. We saw on Wednesday night against the Timberwolves where Rick Adelman threw players with superior length such as Andrei Kirilenko and Mickael Gelabale on Turner. On the ball, the Timberwolves were able to keep Turner from getting in any rhythm offensively since the defense was able to alter his shots (this is where his leaping ability comes into play), obstruct passing lanes to force bad passes, and added up to ultimately negate his strength of being able to create for the first half.

However, Turner’s inability to live up to the expectation of his draft slot aren’t all related to his physical assets. This season we’ve seen Turner’s numbers hover just above his numbers for the ’11-’12 season. One possible reason: the emergence of Jrue Holiday. Now, Holiday is a talented point guard, but when you stick another player on the floor next to him that also needs the ball in his hands, you’re going to have problems, and one of those players is going to be affected negatively. So far, it’s been Turner. For his position, Turner 21.2% Usage Rate is above the league average for Small Forwards of 17.7%. Heck, his usage is above the league average for point guards (20.08%). Holiday current ranks fifth among eligible point guards with a Usage Rate of 27.32%, according to HoopData.

This is an issue because that means when Turner and Holiday are on the floor together, Turner suddenly has to play a completely different style than he’s used to. At Ohio State, Turner was used in more of a point forward role in which he would use his Basketball IQ to either create a good shot for himself or setup a teammate. And this is more of the Turner we see in Philadelphia when Holiday is resting on the bench. Conversely, when they’re forced to share the ball, it’s Turner that ends up standing in the corner, lost, while Holiday runs the offense. And even when Turner does get the ball in these situations, he doesn’t play with the same confidence as when Holiday is on the bench, defers unnecessarily and plays with a frustrating lack of aggressiveness. As a result, the Sixers offense sputters, and so does their watchability.

When you add in Nick Young, who also has an above average Usage Rate, and requires 10 shots per game to average 11.5 ppg, that only further takes Turner away from his natural role.

What happens when Turner takes over the offense when Holliday sits (Or vice-versa)? The flow of the offense improves, stagnates much less, and Doug Collins’s playbook gets a little more creative. Furthermore, we see Turner confidently take command of  the offense and do some of the things we saw that made him a number two pick. Faced with an agile 6’7 point guard, the defense is suddenly on the wrong end of a mismatch and forced to adjust. In situations like these a player like Turner is able to not just see the defense set up, but use his Basketball IQ to make the best play for the team.  In fact, once Turner and Holliday alternated their rests against the Timberwolves, the Sixers began slowly climbing back into the game. This isn’t to say that Turner is the better point guard, because he’s not. All this means is that the Sixers strike more of a balance when one is on the court and the other is on the bench.

For more on how to better utilize Turner, here’s an example of how the Sixers were able to off-set Turner’s physical disadvantages and get the ball into his hands in the second half against the Timberwolves as a part of their adjustments by employing things like the motion offense:

What happened? Let’s look a little closer.

- Turner brings the ball up court as Kwame Brown takes up residence on the elbow opposite of Damien Wilkins, Nick Young is in one corner and Royal Ivey is in the other.

- Turner, covered by Kirilenko, dumps the ball of to Wilkins in the high post and begins to cut into the paint. Ivey begins his cut, too, as right before Turner hits the restricted to body check screen Ricky Rubio and Kwame sets a screen on Pekovic.

- Meanwhile, Turner’s man, Kirilenko is stuck further behind the play making sure Wilkins doesn’t pass it to Ivey on the cut, but Turner runs right around the Pekovic and Rubio screens for the easy elbow jumper as no one is able to step up and successful switch onto him.

Realizing they could use sets like this to free Turner of a lanky defender to minimize his lack of length and maximize his athleticism and decision making freed Turner up for several easy baskets in the second half against Minnesota. Tactics like the play we saw above, and others where they can get the defense to switch into a more favorable matchup. For example, on Wednesday, the Sixers worked to make sure they could get the Timberwolves to switch Derrick Williams on to Turner because he is less-physical and has less of a wingspan than Kirilenko. This worked so well, the Timberwolves eventually just made sure they kept Kirilenko and Williams on the same side of the court to prevent Turner from exploiting this mismatch every time.

Down the road, the solution to this problem may be to bring Turner off of the bench to run the second unit in a role in which he is much more comfortable. Until the Sixers add more productive players around both Turner and Holiday this may not be a wise move, but something to seriously consider if they truly envision both players as a part of their future. No one ever drafts a player at number two to become a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, but it could provide a team with an athletic and versatile talent that could give opposing second units trouble. Despite his struggles, Turner is still a young player who reminds us from time-to-time why fans from all over the NBA were clamoring for him in 2010. When properly utilized, Turner is a player that looks very valuable to an NBA team, but when he’s not, he’s prone to turnovers and inefficient shooting. While Turner may still be figuring the NBA, the NBA may still be trying to figure out who Evan Turner is.

2013 All-Star Profiles: Zach Randolph

Photo from bestarns via Flickr

Photo from bestarns via Flickr

It’s not even surprising that Zach Randolph is an all-star at this point.

It’s a weird realization to have, but it’s true. This is only Z-Bo’s second all-star appearance (personally, I keep forgetting that he didn’t make it in 2011), and only the fourth year of his Memphis tenure (before which coaches wouldn’t even go near him for the all-star game), and yet, it feels as if Z-Bo just belongs and that’s that.

There was, perhaps, some discomfort that the “token Grizzlies spot”, if such a thing exists, went to him over Marc Gasol this year. However, such discomfort only survived so long before it was washed away by just how natural a part of today’s NBA it is to see Randolph in the all-star game. Just four years removed from the trade that brought him from Los Angeles to Memphis – an outright salary dump for which the Clippers were commended and the Grizzlies ridiculed – Zach Randolph’s transformation from malcontent to all-star is not just complete, it is so ingrained that we almost forget it ever happened.

Instead, the focus with Z-Bo is on that next level. Watching his rainbow jumper splash again and again on the Spurs and Thunder in the 2011 playoffs, it’s almost impossible not to view Randolph through a superstar prism. For that one spring, Randolph was a rare glimpse of brilliance, a surefire bucket in times of need and an offensive centerpiece rivaled only by an eventual Finals MVP in Dirk Nowitzki. It stands out against his career norms, but since Randolph’s entire time in Memphis stands out against his career norms anyway, expecting him to overachieve is almost part of the game. We were treated to the best, and we expect it back. Whether this is even remotely fair is irrelevant.

The Grizzlies depended on that Randolph to distressing degrees in 2011, asking him to carry an offense just high enough for the defense to get the knockout, and they promise to depend on another transcendent Randolph postseason just as much in a post-Rudy Gay world. As balanced and defensively brilliant as this Memphis team may be, the offense was always over-dependent on the individual abilities of either Randolph or Gay to create. This is partially by design – a confusing, deservedly criticized design – but it is a design that has worked for the Grizzlies in the aggregate, one that could, if subjected to any further tweaks, potentially proving disastrous to a delicate locker room situation.

Is Randolph even capable of replicating such heights? It’s a fair question. We’ve only seldom seen 2011 Randolph ever since those playoffs. This contest stands out as the best example, but it came against your Phoenix Suns, hardly the Thunder or  Spurs. That player may no longer exist.

One can easily make the case that even 2010 Randolph is long gone – the past two seasons have seen Z-Bo post career lows in usage rate and points per minute. Randolph’s game is built around phenomenal hands and a low center of gravity, not so much elite athleticism, but Father Time works in mysterious ways, and Father Time dictates that Randolph is 31 years old and had serious knee issues in the past. It’s possible that this is the last year an all-star selection for Randolph is met by a collective nod of approval.

But Randolph was so good in those playoffs, just two years ago, that he has some leeway with us. This, too, would be unimaginable just a few years ago – Zach Randolph! Leeway! Imagine the odds! – but that just goes to show how deep his transformation has gone. For now, we’ll accept him with open arms, an all-star berth that was basically a coin toss between him and his teammate, and hopes that he can be a short-term superstar once again.

2013 All-Star Profiles: Brook Lopez

Photo by Doug88888 via Flickr

Photo by Doug88888 via Flickr

It’s amazing what desperation can do to a person. It drove me into the giant arms of Brook Lopez. Figuratively, I mean — I’m not sure that Brook would have me, given my seething neutrality with regard to comic books, though that’s really neither here nor there.

After 20-plus years in various desert climates ranging in population density from “sardine can” to “ant farm in a big top circus tent,” I made the cross-country trek to upstate New York in December of 2010. Without a job lined up and few earthly possessions other than my laptop and bed, League Pass wasn’t really an option upon arrival. When it came to my basketball fix, the choice between grainy illicit feeds of Suns games on a 10.5″ netbook, pre-Carmelo Knicks or Nets games voiced by the golden god himself, Ian Eagle was obvious. The Nets would get the majority of my attention, if for no other reason to hear Eagle call a game.

And other than Eagle and a rotating crew of announcers with whom he had a chameleon’s sense of chemistry, The Artists Formerly Known As Phantoms Of Prudential Center didn’t really offer much. The 2010-11 Nets won just 24 games, and quite a few of those victories came by the skin of Avery Johnson’s vocal cords. More than 10% of New Jersey’s games that year went to overtime. Often when a bad team offers up the gift of free basketball, fans are quick to smack the platter right out of their hand. With those Nets, though, the disharmonious collective of the first 47 minutes gave way to a beautiful, elegant simplicity in the waning moments of a close contest.

Give the ball to Brook. Let him create in the post, be it via drawing a double team or winning a one-on-one matchup with a pure hookshot or turnaround jumper. For two or three possessions in this specific setting, Brook channeled his inner Patrick Ewing and went to work where the wild things are. It was pure old school basketball — not for the sake of itself, but to maximize the chance of victory. Brook Lopez was the best option, even if only by default, a garnet in the rough in a toxic landfill.

Yet he wasn’t an All-Star. He wasn’t capable of consistently finding that beast within, of being the throwback to a time of dominant big men around whom entire galactic basketball systems revolved. First of all, Brook wasn’t (and isn’t) nearly the defender the gentlemen of yesteryear were. The more repugnant flaw, according to most, was his sudden inability to grab a damned rebound. While Lopez posted above average pace- and minutes-adjusted rebounding numbers his rookie season (9.6 board/36 minutes, 15.8% total rebound percentage) and continued to be solid on the glass in his second year, that 2010-11 season represented a significant drop in his rebounding, largely due to a bout 0f mononucleosis during the summer before. Regardless of the cause, his offensive capabilities weren’t enough to bolster his weaknesses on the defensive end, including those rebounding woes. Lopez became a punchline, a 7-footer who couldn’t grab a missed shot to save his twin brother’s life. He might have been Patrick Ewing for 30 seconds at a time, but for the other 29.5 minutes he played per game in ’10-11, he was more likely to summon the spirit of an earthbound Spud Webb who couldn’t dribble.

After a lost season due to injury and lockout, those problems are gone. The Brookie Monster (h/t @uuords) is feasting on chocolate chip caroms at the best rate since his inaugural tour. He looks fully energized and active in his pursuit of rebounds, instead of simply planting himself in one spot and hoping that the ball will find its way there. A first time selection to the All-Star team coincides with the best year of his career by far — Lopez is 5th in the league in PER.*

*PER is a stat with its flaws, as many love to point out incessantly like students with a dyslexic English teacher who gives extra credit for correcting the things he writes on the chalkboard. It seems strangely perfect for measuring Brook Lopez, though.

The player who was once his team’s lone bright spot has fortified the most glaring weakness in his game and turned it into a strength. Whether or not he can maintain this rate remains to be seen; for now, though, Brook Lopez is scoring, rebounding and even occasionally defending like an All-Star. He’s a better player, and his team is better for it.