When it comes to expanding and improving their games, the best never rest in the NBA.
Kobe Bryant picked Tim Duncan's brain about the art of the bank shot during the All-Star break some years ago. LeBron James was already a two-time league MVP when he decided to beef up his post game. Dwight Howard has spent his summer working, once again, alongside Houston Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon, while Derrick Rose has been busy smoothing out his jump shot and adding a lefty floater to his game in anticipation of his return to the Chicago Bulls' lineup, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.
If these highly decorated veterans can still be students of the game, then why shouldn't the next generation of stars do the same? The sky's still the limit for these seven youngsters, each of whom could use one tweak to his game in order to reach that proverbial next level come 2013-14.
To call Blake Griffin a "budding" star is to undersell his present position in the NBA landscape, if not egregiously so. Say what you will about Griffin's game, but the guy's already a three-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA performer. He also did a swell job of filling in as the best power forward on the planet while Kevin Love was struggling with a hand injury last season.
That being said, Griffin's game isn't without its rough spots. Blake often catches flak for his mechanical-looking post game, though as HoopChalk's Jared Dubin pointed out last season, Griffin's far more effective and diversely skilled on the block than popular sentiment would have you believe.
And while Griffin has improved as a jump shooter from his bricklaying days, that single skill still stands as the difference between him being merely very, very good and truly elite. According to HoopData, Blake upped his shooting percentages from nearly every depth between his second and third campaigns:
|At Rim||3-9 Ft||10-15 Ft||16-23 Ft||3Pt||FT|
Griffin's clearly getting better, but even he understands that he has a ways to go. He recently told Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles that he needs to become a more effective option late in games, particularly as a shooter:
...in my mind, this is the year I need to step into that role and really help [Chris Paul] shoulder that load. I'll be right there with him at the end of games, being the guy that he can always count on.
My workouts with [shooting coach] Bob Thate and our coaches have been geared around figuring out how I'm going to be used this season.
I'm doing a lot of stuff at the elbow, a lot of shooting. One of the things [new coach Doc Rivers] said to me was, 'I don't want you to be afraid to go 0-for-15.' In other words, just have the mindset of a shooter. And with the work I've done this summer, I'm starting to get that confidence and think like a shooter.
This all bodes well for the Los Angeles Clippers, who will need Griffin to knock down mid-range jumpers and convert his free throws at a reliable rate—especially in crunch time and especially with their lack of depth up front—if they're to contend for the Western Conference crown.
Like Griffin, John Wall showed off a much-improved shot upon his return from a knee injury that sidelined for the beginning of the 2012-13 season. As a result, Wall's shooting percentages jumped nearly across the board, per HoopData:
|At Rim||3-9 Ft||10-15 Ft||16-23 Ft||3Pt|
|NBA Avg (12-13)||64.7%||39.9%||41.9%||38.4%||36.0%|
Trouble is, he's still a below-average shooter from every range save for that between three and nine feet from the rim. It's all well and good that Wall is more confident if his shot, but if he opts for mid-to-long twos over looks right at the basket, then whatever added sharpness he shows won't matter much, at least as far as his overall efficiency is concerned.
That being said, it's vitally important that Wall continue to transform his jumper into a legitimate threat for which opposing defenses must account. Chances are, he's going to run pick-and-rolls about a third of the time, as he did in 2012-13. It's crucial, then, that he be able to knock down jumpers as the ball-handler in such situations, if only to keep opposing defenses honest.
For now, shooting at a 40.1 percent clip out of pick-and-rolls, per Synergy Sports (subscription required), isn't going to cut it for Wall; on whose shoulders the Washington Wizards' playoff hopes will rest squarely in 2013-14.
As long as we're on the topic of young point guards playing pick-and-roll basketball, let's take a moment to discuss the exploits of one Kyrie Irving. The Cleveland Cavaliers' cornerstone is already an elite-level scorer, including in the two-man game.
Next up for the 21-year-old All-Star: a better feel for the distribution side of his duties as a floor general. According to HoopData, Irving's assist rate of 20.05 percent in 2012-13 ranked 50th out of 56 among his point guard peers who played in at least 20 games and averaged no fewer than 20 minutes per outing. That could be troubling information, especially when you consider that Irving turned the ball over more than 17 percent of the time in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports (subscription required).
In Irving's defense, he's still young and has yet to run with a supporting cast that warrants touches on the offensive end. Like Brandon Jennings of the vintage Milwaukee Bucks before him, Kyrie has been tasked with carrying the scoring load for his Cavs. That leaves little time with which (and incentive) to spread the wealth.
Irving's circumstances should change in 2013-14...if Anderson Varejao, Andrew Bynum, Dion Waiters, and rookie Anthony Bennett are all healthy. It's a big "IF," even more so if you throw in Kyrie's own physical fragility.
But a more pass-happy Irving, particularly in the pick-and-roll, may well yield a landmark season for the Cavs, who are gunning for their first postseason appearance since LeBron James left town.
These days, you can't spell "raw" in the NBA without Andre Drummond...or something like that.
The now-20-year-old big man was a force of nature in limited minutes for the Detroit Pistons last season. His strength, athleticism, quick feet and soft hands led to many awe-inspiring alley-oops in the Motor City, all the while leaving folks in Detroit to wonder why Drummond was only playing 20.7 minutes per game.
The answer? In large part, because the kid couldn't hit the broad side of a barn from the free-throw line. He didn't get to the line that often (2.7 times a night), but when he did, the results were awful; he converted just 37.1 percent of his attempts.
That's simply unacceptable for a guy who's going to spend so much of his time on the interior, where he's bound to draw contact and the fouls that come with it. It stands to reason, too, that opposing teams will "hack" 'Dre from time to time and take their chances with him at the line.
The last thing the Pistons want is to see their young stud sapped of his confidence and effectiveness by the most deceptively difficult shot in basketball. The team is well aware of the situation, as GM Joe Dumars made clear during a recent interview with Grantland's Zach Lowe.
Drummond can develop and perfect all the post moves in the world—and the Pistons surely hope he will—but if he's not confident when shooting his free throws, he'll be fatally hesitant to do much of anything when he catches the ball in the middle.
Okay, so maybe "attitude" doesn't count as a maneuver, but for DeMarcus Cousins, approaching the game in a more professional manner can mean the difference between developing into an All-Star and regressing into a lottery bust.
Boogie's defense (or lack thereof) is clearly his biggest concern. As Zach Lowe recently noted, it's not so much that Cousins can't defend so much as he has yet to show the proper interest and discipline in doing so.
That lackadaisical play seeps into his performance on the offensive end as well. No big man with Cousins' size, strength and skill should struggle to shoot 50 percent from the field. Yet the three-year veteran has yet to hit that mark over the course of a season. More attempts in the paint and less drifting to the perimeter would certainly help in this regard.
The fault doesn't lay solely on Boogie's shoulders. The Sacramento Kings haven't exactly employed the best distributors at the point through Cousins' tenure with the team.
That being said, the vast majority of the onus still falls on Cousins to improve his attitude and effort on both ends of the floor. If he hustles and bangs on offense, he'll get more and easier touches.
And if he's feeling better about his offensive game, chances are, he'll play with greater intensity and purpose on the defensive end.
Tyreke Evans' decision to part ways with DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings was probably for the best. In many ways, Evans' game had stagnated after his Rookie of the Year campaign, amidst the instability and positional uncertainty that had turned Sacramento into a basketball wasteland.
A new start with the New Orleans Pelicans should serve Evans well, so long as he's fit into the proper role. He's more than capable of handling and distributing the ball on occasion. However, given his own issues with miscues (a 21.1 percent turnover rate on pick-and-rolls last season, per Synergy Sports) and the on-ball skills of his new teammates, Eric Gordon and Jrue Holiday, it'd behoove Evans to play a bit more off the ball.
Except, Evans still has a ways to go as a shooter. To his credit, 'Reke posted career highs in field-goal percentage (.478) and three-point percentage (.338) last season.
But his accuracy away from the rim remains well below average. The numbers are even less flattering when looking at his performance in isolation and on spot-ups, which combined to comprise more than a third of Evans' possessions, per Synergy Sports:
The point being, Evans has quite a bit of work to do to improve his performance both on and off the ball. He clearly has the talent to be a star in this league and, with his 24th birthday around the bend, is far from a lost cause. A better jumper (and better shot selection) would go a long way toward help Evans achieve that end in the Crescent City.
The top of the NBA's turnover list is practically a who's who of the biggest and brightest stars in basketball, and deservedly so. Perimeter players like James Harden, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving are asked to do so much with the ball in their hands for their respective teams that it only figures they'd lose it more often.
The same could be said for Jrue Holiday, though, as far as star power is concerned, he seems an odd fit. Indeed, the Philadelphia 76ers didn't think Holiday fit the bill as a successful franchise cornerstone, so they shipped him to New Orleans on draft day in exchange for the rights to Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams as well as the Pelicans' 2014 first-round pick.
Sharing on-ball duties with the likes of Evans and Eric Gordon should help Holiday cut down on the 3.7 turnovers per game he tallied in 2012-13. After all, if he doesn't have possession of the ball, the responsibility for the turnover won't fall on him, at least as far as the statistics are concerned.
But Holiday will be hard-pressed to repeat as an All-Star and guide the Pelicans into playoff contention if he continues to give the ball away 17.3 percent of the time. He'll have trouble finding success in Monty Williams' pick-and-roll-heavy approach if his turnover rate in those situations hovers around 19 percent, as it did in Philly.
And what good can Jrue do for the young, running Pelicans if he's losing the ball a fifth of the time in transition, per Synergy Sports? Holiday's also spoken this summer about the need to get to the free-throw line more, but doing so will require that he dribble his way into more perilous (and turnover-inducing) circumstances.
All of which is to say, Holiday would do well to shore up his occasionally shaky handles if he's to be trusted with the ball on his new team.
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