How Kyle Lowry's Improvement Is Fueling Toronto Raptors

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How Kyle Lowry's Improvement Is Fueling Toronto Raptors
Jonathan Bachman

By all measures, Toronto Raptors starting point guard Kyle Lowry is having the best season of his career. His 17.6 points, 7.6 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game are all career highs

Because he has begun to shed much of the attitude problems that have dogged him throughout his career, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has rewarded him with a career-high 36.3 minutes per game. 

With Lowry, talent has never been the issue; it's why both the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors were willing to take a chance on him. This year, the potential every scout and GM knew was there has come to fruition.

For most rising stars in the NBA, development isn't so much physical as it is mental. While younger players might need time to develop an NBA body or certain skills, most come into the league with a raw skill set that is only fine-tuned with time.

Maybe a three-point shot is developed further; maybe a player becomes a better finisher at the rim; maybe ball-handling is improved. These are all tweaks, and top-notch abilities don't appear out of thin air. There's an underlying talent that just needs to be brought out. 

The real development comes from a greater understanding of the NBA game. Because the talent gap isn't that wide, it's the players who understand the game in terms of on-the-fly decision-making that thrive the most. 

Take LeBron James or Kevin Durant, who have both improved their efficiencies significantly over the last several years. While both can pour in 40 points on any given night, they understand that scoring on fewer field-goal attempts helps the team more. 

For Lowry, and the point guard position as a whole, this type of decision-making becomes especially crucial. As the primary ball-handler, great point guards are able to get their teammates in sets as well as understand when to shoot and when to pass.

Early in his career, Lowry tried to use his thick frame to bully his way to the basket. Though he experienced some success, it was limited due to a flurry of turnovers when he pressed the action. Over the last three seasons, his turnover rate went from 10 to 12.5 to 11.9 in 2012-2013, according to NBA.com

As Lowry became a better scorer, his turnovers rose. This is normal for most players, but his rise of around two percent was large. This season, however, it has dipped back down to 9.6. This has also coincided with an increased finishing percentage in the restricted area of 54.04 percent, his best in the last three seasons.

This is no accident. The fewer turnovers reflect better decision-making, which in turn suggests fewer reckless attacks of the rim. Lowry is finishing at the rim when he's supposed to and dishing it to rolling bigs and shooters in the proper situations as well. 

This doesn't mean that Lowry's rim pressure has decreased; he's just creating more for teammates than he used to.

According to NBA.com's player tracking data, Lowry is creating 14.4 assist opportunities per game—meaning he would average 14.4 assists per game if his teammates finished on 100 percent of his passes. He's tied for 10th in the league in this category, averaging more assist opportunities than Tony Parker, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, Deron Williams and many other great passers. 

The real key has been Lowry's choices in pick-and-roll situations, where he's typically been at his best. Last season, he was turning it over on 13.5 percent of pick-and-rolls that ended with a Lowry shot or assist or turnover, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). This year, that number is down to 10.5 percent.

As mentioned before, it's all about his newfound ability not to force the ball up at the rim. Take a look at this clip from last season against the Chicago Bulls. After Toronto's Jonas Valanciunas sets a pick, he rolls to the rim. 

The Bulls choose to trap Lowry, with Nate Robinson and Malcolm Thomas both picking him up on the left wing. Valanciunas, meanwhile, rolls down the middle of the lane to the rim. Chicago's weak-side defense shifts to pick him up, but Rudy Gay is wide open in the weak-side corner. 

Credit: CSN

This is certainly a difficult pass, but with one or two dribbles back to the middle of the lane, it's certainly doable. And even if Chicago's defense can rotate back, Gay is more than capable of attacking a defensive closeout off the dribble. 

Instead, Lowry decides to attack the double-team and dribble into a crowd. That's him, right there, among all the players.

Credit: CSN

The drive into traffic leads to a turnover. As you watch the video, notice how Lowry hesitates: He sees two players and consciously decides to attack them anyway.

Now, compare that to another play from this year, once again with Valanciunas and Lowry involved in a pick-and-roll.

This time, Valanciunas sticks his body in the way enough to force Philadelphia's Tony Wroten to wiggle around the screen. By the time he has swerved around it, he's well behind Lowry and in a compromised position.

Credit: CSN

There's a two-on-one developing here, with the dropping Philadelphia big, Jarvis Varnado, responsible for containing it. At first, it seems like Lowry is up to his old tricks. He dribbles directly at Varnado, who his a good shot-blocker in his own right. 

Credit: CSN

The straight-line explosion, however, puts Varnado on his heels. When Lowry all of a sudden puts on the brakes, Varnado lunges out to guard against the quick floater. This extends Varnado a bit too much, leaving him out of position to defend the rim should Lowry give it up.

Lowry's attack, however, serves another purpose: It gives Valanciunas enough time to release from the pick and rumble down the middle. All of this allows Lowry to find him for an easy dunk.

Granted, this is very poor defense by Wroten on the play, as he gives up after the screen, but it's Lowry's ability to suck the defense towards him that gives his teammate an easy dunk.

When Lowry blindly attacks the rim looking for his own shot, there's not much a coach can say other than tell him to pass more. Oftentimes it's on the player to arrive at this realization himself, and we've seen that much more this year from Lowry's play.

For the Raptors, it's been especially helpful since the Rudy Gay trade. Now that Lowry has been handed the offensive keys, he's had to be much more responsible distributing the ball to all of his teammates.

Due in large part to his development, the Raptors are likely to win the Atlantic Division and earn the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. As for how far he can lead his team, we'll see. Toronto probably needs a few more pieces to be true title contenders. 

But for Lowry and his future as the Raptors floor general, he's taken several significant steps forward.

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