If you thought you knew Kenneth Faried, think again.
The Denver Nuggets big man struggled during the opening salvo of the 2013-14 season, but he's taken his game to that proverbial next level since the All-Star break came and went. The dunks and rebounds are still coming with some serious frequency, but everything else is falling into place as well.
And with each scoring outburst, we're being forced to re-evaluate Faried's NBA ceiling.
The current campaign had depressed his stock, as he'd been unable to display any sort of consistency while stylistically clashing with Denver head coach Brian Shaw. Even with a few NBA seasons under his belt, Faried hadn't developed into a capable offensive contributor, and his ceiling was sinking to role-player levels.
But that was before he caught fire.
Apparently Faried has decided that he's a different player ever since the All-Star festivities in New Orleans.
Before the break, he was a semi-disgruntled power forward locked in a struggle with Brian Shaw that revolved around style of play. But since the All-Stars returned from the bayou (except for Anthony Davis, who obviously gets to stay put in NOLA), he's been completely engaged.
All you need for proof is to see his pre- and post-All-Star splits heading into the Nuggets' March 19 contest against the Detroit Pistons, one in which he recorded another 15 points, eight rebounds and two assists:
Faried's improvement has been absolutely ridiculous.
He's averaging slightly over 19 points per game since the break, a number he managed to top only three times throughout the entire first half of the season. Interestingly enough, I was in attendance for each of those three games, so maybe his lackluster start to the year was due to a lack of presence from yours truly.
During the 17 games in question, Faried has produced a single-digit output only once. He even scored a career-best 32 points against the porous defense of the Los Angeles Lakers, though I'm not entirely sure numbers against that unit should count at this stage of the season.
As CBS Sports' Matt Moore wrote, the dreadlocked power forward now appears to have everything clicking:
Faried struggled in Shaw's system early, having never developed a post game or a mid-range jumper. The general consensus was that Faried woud never fit in Shaw's system, that Faried needed Karl's type of up-and-down running game to succeed. Instead, while there's a lot left for Faried to improve on, everything has been different as of late. He's always made effort plays defensively, but now his rotations are better, as it was when he chased down a steal attempt and then recovered back for a huge block on DeAndre Jordan Monday.
And offensively? In March, Faried is averaging 21.5 points, 10.4 rebounds and .8 blocks per game and shooting a startling 62 percent from the field. It may just be a momentary blip in a lost season, but Faried shows legitimate signs of "getting it" within the scope of Shaw's offense.
Moore also revealed that Darrell Arthur, a veteran on the team and a vocal leader, is giving credit to Faried for doing exactly the same thing—using his voice for beneficial purposes. That stands in stark contrast to what happened earlier in the season, when the big man was internally clashing with Shaw.
"And there’s your problem. Faried knows what Shaw wants—a half-court game and stingy defense," Eric Goodman explained back during the All-Star break for MileHighSports.com. "But Faried doesn’t have any interest in doing it consistently. Kenneth wants to do what Kenneth wants to do."
Oh, what a difference a month can make.
For some players, this type of 16-game run would be viewed as nothing more than a fluke created by a hot streak and small sample size. But with Faried, it's relatively safe to assume he's putting all the pieces together.
After all, the expectations were moderately high when he was entering the league, mitigated largely by factors like height and level of competition that were outside his control. Plus, let's not forget that Shaw has a history of developing promising big men in successful fashion, as he did exactly that with Andrew Bynum for the Los Angeles Lakers and Roy Hibbert for the Indiana Pacers.
Remembering the Original Expectations
Faried was absolutely dominant during his career at Morehead State.
No player in college basketball grabbed more rebounds than he did, as his senior season pushed him ahead of Tim Duncan and the rest of the post-1973 field. During that final year with the Eagles, the big man averaged 17.3 points and 14.5 boards per game, shooting 62.3 percent from the field.
He may have been undersized, but he made the competition feel overmatched on a regular basis.
Accordingly, his draft stock rose, and he was viewed as a first-round prospect throughout his final year at Morehead State. DraftExpress.com's mock-draft history shows that Faried's stock rose as high as No. 17 heading into the 2011 NBA draft, and while expectations were tempered due to his lack of time against elite competition and his size, a solid career was still in the cards.
Here's D/X's Matt Kamalsky's conclusion while scouting Faried during the final March of his collegiate career:
However, he has a clear NBA-level skill, and the type of motor coaches dream of, which can't be said for every prospect. Expecting him to come in and emerge as a major impact player early in his career is a stretch, but Faried certainly seems to have the tools to fill a Louis Amundson-type role for a team looking for a workhorse to infuse their team with energy off the bench. If he works on his weaknesses and adapts to the professional game, Faried could live up to the lofty expectations he's set for himself with his outstanding college career.
Ultimately, Faried was drafted by the Nuggets at No. 22, and the reactions were generally kind.
Sports Illustrated's Sam Amick gave Denver a "B+" for its draft, which also included selecting Jordan Hamilton out of Texas.
"The Nuggets had a need for another rugged rebounder and defender, and they filled it with Morehead State's Kenneth Faried (No. 22)," Amick wrote. "He is expected to be a longtime pro who cleans the glass in ways that few guys can, but his ceiling doesn't go far beyond that."
ESPN's Chad Ford (subscription required) was another one who gave a hesitatingly optimistic opinion: "I love Faried. He has great energy and can really rebound the ball. Faried probably won't be a star—he may not even be a starter. But given his relentless enthusiasm for playing defense, it's hard to see how he doesn't stick in the league."
I was slightly more excited about the power forward than the two aforementioned writers, expecting him to become a mid-tier starter who thrived on the glass. But that's about as optimistic as it got, among realistic predictions, of course.
This recent run wasn't supposed to happen, largely because Faried's ceiling was supposed to prevent him from becoming a key offensive contributor.
And that makes the next question all the more important.
Is This Sustainable?
Based on the eye test, absolutely.
Faried's predraft ceiling never pointed toward All-Star-caliber production on the offensive end of the court, but it's not like those early predictions should ever be treated like gospel. How often have we seen high-upside players flame out rather quickly? How often have we seen unheralded prospects make giant leaps during their NBA careers?
Even after the young big man—let's keep in mind that he's only 24 years old—had a lackluster outing against Detroit, Shaw had nothing but positives to say, via Aaron J. Lopez of Nuggets.com:
He’s just playing with a lot of confidence. He has been rebounding the ball well on the defensive end and really pushing and igniting the break for us.
He’s getting down the floor before the other team’s defense can set and our guys are doing a good job getting the ball into him inside and he’s just turning and scoring on everybody inside. You want to get the ball in his hands as much as possible.
And as Lopez wrote, "You know it’s a good month when a 15-point, eight-rebound night is considered a quiet game."
This has lasted too long to be a fluke, even if Faried might still regress to the mean throughout the remaining portion of the 2013-14 season. Based on the confidence with which he plays, that mean is just higher than previously thought.
It's readily apparent that Faried has the offensive tools to be a contributor on that end while remaining a dominant rebounder.
On a more surface-level note, his free-throw shooting has improved rather drastically since the All-Star break. The very fact that it's risen from 58.8 percent on 2.8 attempts per game before the break to 70.7 percent on 5.8 attempts per contest is a sure sign of increased confidence, seeing as shots at the charity stripe are the most exposed, most individual plays possible.
More subtly, Faried has become a consistent post-up player who can be fed the ball. The sweeping jump-hook going to his right remains the go-to move, but there are now plenty of options. This one, for example:
That's an incredible play, simply because it requires loads of confidence, but I'm including it more for the coolness/entertainment factor than anything else. This is a better example of the developing footwork with his back to the basket:
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Faried is scoring 0.97 points per possession in post-up situations during the 2013-14 campaign. That's the No. 22 mark in the NBA among all qualified players, and that's not fluky now that he's recorded 152 attempts throughout the season.
No matter how you look at this development from Faried, it appears legitimate. And when it's legitimate, it's usually sustainable.
For this particular member of the Denver frontcourt, it's fantastic timing.
What is Faried's ceiling?
Faried is up for an extension this offseason, but his lackluster season made it appear highly unlikely that he'd be cashing in. In all likelihood, he'd be signing a smaller deal or waiting for his contract to expire before seeing what happened in free agency.
But this should change things. After all, this run has already forced his perceived ceiling to reach new heights, and his earning potential should follow in a similar pattern.
Calling Faried a future All-Star starter is still too aggressive a statement for my liking, but it's not at all unrealistic to say that he'll be an upper-tier starter and candidate for the midseason classic's bench if he can keep up this type of production.
And based on the evidence, that's exactly what he should do.