Round 2 of NBA Playoffs Features Star PGs Who Jumped the Learning Curve

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Round 2 of NBA Playoffs Features Star PGs Who Jumped the Learning Curve
USA TODAY Sports

The NBA's point guard game is on fire right now. And the charge is being led by a number of fresh young floor generals who've only just gotten started. 

This year, the second round of the NBA playoffs is just loaded with talented point guards, from your usual characters to the breakout performers. 

The Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul, San Antonio Spurs' Tony Parker and Brooklyn Nets' Deron Williams have been doing their thing for a while now, but it's this next generation of ball-handlers who've helped raised the bar for future and incoming point guards.

And it starts with the Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook, who's fresh off a sizzling 27-point, 16-assist, 10-rebound Game 7 triple-double.  

 

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

First-Round Stats vs. Memphis Grizzlies
Points per game Assists per game Rebounds per game Field-Goal Percentage Three-Point Percentage
25.6 8.0 9.7 .382 .238

NBA.com

It seems like Westbrook has been around forever, given his immediate success as a pro following the 2008 draft.  

Few players have developed more in such a small amount of time—Westbrook was a mid-major recruit his junior year of high school and an NBA All-Star his junior year with the Thunder. 

As a prospect out of UCLA, Westbrook's sales pitch to the pros centered on his potential and towering ceiling. He had all the tools—just not the polish or production to show for it. With averages of 12.7 points and 4.3 assists his sophomore year, Westbrook was taken No. 4 overall despite his minimal offensive role and lack of a true position in college.

And now we're seeing that potential he flashed in doses with the Bruins on an every-game basis with the Thunder. Ironically, Westbrook's strengths and weaknesses haven't changed much since UCLA. But those strengths have just gotten too strong. 

His game was, is and always will be predicated on his blazing-quick first step and explosive last one up toward the rim. He beats defenders off the dribble in line drives, and he beats help defenders to the spot in the paint. 

I'm not sure there's a more potent backcourt weapon in space, whether that's in transition, half-court isolation or out of a pick-and-roll.

Still, Westbrook's passing game has matured over the years. More than just a drive-and-disher, he's improved his ability to find shooters as a facilitator within the offense. 

But where Westbrook has really taken off is as a scorer in the mid-range. Only Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving averaged more points per game this year with their pull-up jumper.  

What looked like a weakness coming in has evolved into a strength by his sixth year in the pros. Westbrook shot 43.5 percent in the mid-range this year, a career high and a terrific number:

Online Graphing

Though Westbrook's three-point percentage hasn't moved much—he's never finished a season above 33 percent from downtown—his shot-making ability has steadily risen for the most part. He hit 1.5 three-pointers a game this year, another career-high number:

Online Graphing
Westbrook can still struggle with shot selection and decision-making—he averaged 3.8 turnovers a game this season on 43.7 percent shooting. And if there's a hole in his makeup, this is where it's at. 

But even though he lacks the vision and natural feel of a guy like Chris Paul, there might not be a more dynamic playmaker with the ball. If Westbrook can stay healthy and keep his efficiency from dipping, he should continue finding himself in the conversation for best point guard in the league. 

 

John Wall, Washington Wizards

First-Round Stats vs. Chicago Bulls
Points per game Assists per game Rebounds per game Field-Goal Percentage Three-Point Percentage
18.8 6.8 4.6 .364 .273

NBA.com

John Wall has been this team's everything since entering the NBA, and in his first career playoff appearance, he got the Wizards into the second round. 

Wall has been productive since his rookie season, but this was the first year he's been able to convert stats into wins. 

Dating back to his one-and-done career at Kentucky, Wall's upside has always been driven by his tremendous blend of size, world-class athleticism and dynamic attack game. It's why he was a top recruit and the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft. 

And he looked like a natural point guard right out of the gate for the Wizards, having averaged 8.3 assists as a rookie, eight as a sophomore and 7.6 his third year in the league. 

But this year, Wall took his game to a new level, and in turn, he made things easier on his teammates. Just ask Trevor Ariza, who erupted for his best season in years. Wall averaged 8.8 assists per game, and outside of Chris Paul, who only played 62 games, and Rajon Rondo, who only played 30 games, nobody created more points for their team through their assists. 

Points Created by Assists per Game in 2013-14
NBA Rank Player Points Created by Assist per game Games Played
1 Chris Paul 24.5 62
2 Rajon Rondo 23 30
3 John Wall 21.3 81

NBA.com

But despite his vision and playmaking ability, Wall has always been held back by a lack of range and consistency on his jumper. 

Wall shot below 30 percent from downtown in each of his first three seasons in the league. He bottomed out as a sophomore, when he hit just three three-pointers on 42 tries. But in 2012-13, even though his range didn't expand, his mid-range game started to take shape. He made one more mid-range jumper per game in his third year with Washington than he did in his second. 

And that led to Wall's breakout shooting season this year, where he shot 35.1 percent from downtown and 36.2 percent in the mid-range.

Online Graphing

You still wouldn't label Wall a shooter, but he's at least reached the point where you can't leave him open. 

Between his physical tools, dynamite floor game and improved jumper, Wall has emerged as one of the game's premier NBA point guards, one who still has a way to go before peaking as a pro. 

 

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

First-Round Stats vs. Houston Rockets
Points per game Assists per game Rebounds per game Field-Goal Percentage Three-Point Percentage
25.5 6.7 6.3 .468 .489

NBA.com

The transition from mid-major Big Sky competition to the NBA's Western Conference hasn't fazed Damian Lillard. The 2012-13 NBA Rookie of the Year and a 2013-14 All-Star, Lillard has seemingly improved with each season dating back to his freshman year at Weber State.

He actually broke a bone in his foot that limited him to just 10 games in 2010-11, but Lillard bounced back for what turned out to be his eye-opening breakout season in 2012. 

Lillard averaged 24.5 points a game on 40.9 percent shooting from downtown his final year in college, causing the draft buzz and alarms to sound. But given his age (he turned 22 just a few weeks after the draft) and his production in a weak conference, he hadn't convinced everyone. He saw Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Dion Waiters both go ahead of him in the 2012 draft, and despite the Sacramento Kings' need for a point guard, they drafted Thomas Robinson instead. 

Whoops. 

The Blazers caught a break with Lillard, who took home co-MVP of his first summer league before entering Portland's lineup NBA-ready to roll. 

And unlike Westbrook and Wall, Lillard's strengths didn't center on his above-the-rim athleticism. He has thrived where they initially struggled—on the perimeter. 

Lillard has been absolutely deadly with the jumper, which has helped make up for his lack of explosiveness in terms of finishing around the rim. He has unlimited range and a quick release, particularly off the dribble.

With the ability to stop and pop from anywhere on the floor, he's a threat to pull up in transition, and he makes defenders pay for not fighting through screens in the half-court.  

Only Chris Paul and Brandon Jennings hit more pull-up jumpers per game than Lillard did this season:

Pull-Up Three-Pointers
NBA Rank Player Pull-Up Three-Point Makes per game
1 Stephen Curry 2.0
2 Brandon Jennings 1.3
3 Damian Lillard 1.2

NBA.com

Lillard also drained 218 three-pointers on the year, good for No. 3 in the NBA behind Curry and Klay Thompson. 

Just take a look at how lethal he's become outside the paint:

NBA.com

As a facilitator and primary decision-maker, Lillard still has room for growth—he tends to get a little trigger-happy from outside, while his 5.6-assists-per-game average won't blow anyone away. 

Defense is another area where Lillard isn't up to par with guys like Westbrook or Wall. 

But there's no denying his poise and leadership ability. This is a guy you want with the ball in his hands down the stretch of games, as he continues to remind us how cold-blooded he can be in crunch time:

The success some of these teams are having helps re-emphasize the significance and value of strong point guard play. And right now, point guard play in the pros is as good as it's been. 

Westbrook, Wall and Lillard should each have a good shot at reaching this year's conference finals, and all of them are younger than 26 years old.

 

All stats courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

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