It's time for the Manimal to start growling and claiming some territory throughout the NBA's 29 host cities.
Kenneth Faried began his breakout during the second half of his third go-round with the Denver Nuggets, but now it's appearing quite likely that he'll continue what he started at the beginning of the 2014-15 campaign.
This summer is setting up to afford Faried an opportunity to work on his biggest weaknesses, and he was already minimizing them during the season just prior.
Each season offers a new set of candidates for massive breakouts, ones that put the players in question into the thick of the All-Star conversation.
This summer, Faried is setting up to be chief among them.
Playing to Strengths
Everything clicked for Faried during the second half of the 2013-14 campaign.
After the All-Star break, the Manimal averaged 18.8 points, 10.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.7 blocks per game while shooting 54.6 percent from the field. He was particularly dominant over the last 11 games of his season, putting up 20.6 points and 12.3 rebounds per contest.
It wasn't a drastic uptick in involvement or playing time—even if there was an increase—but rather an acceptance of the system and a willingness to play to his strengths.
Though they go hand in hand, let's begin with the latter, as Faried's proclivity for lofting up mid-range attempts didn't mesh with Denver's philosophical stylings under head coach Brian Shaw.
Chances are, the offense would be aided by the development of a mid-range jumper, one that would allow Faried to function as a stretch 4 for the Nuggets. We'll discuss that more later, but for now, playing to strengths is more important, as he was hindering the offense with his desire to shoot from outside the paint.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, he just wasn't very good in 2013-14 when he strayed too far from the basket.
Faried made 69.1 percent of his attempts at the rim, and the number dipped to only 41.9 percent when he was between three and 10 feet from the basket. Stepping out further, he connected on 38.8 percent of his looks from between 16 and 23 feet and just 24.5 percent from the longest mid-range zones.
Even more problematic—in terms of skill set, not on-court value—is the fact that Faried's declining percentages came with corresponding declines in volume.
Vorped.com shows that during the 2013-14 season, Faried took 13.6 percent of his shots from outside the painted area. However, during the final 30 days of the regular season, that number dropped to 10.5 percent, which is a pretty significant change.
We can break it down even further, looking at nine two-point zones, once more via Vorped.com. First, we have the percentage of his field-goal attempts coming from each area throughout the zone:
Now, the same thing, just over the last 30 days of the season:
The red areas nearest to the hoop jumped from 74.5 percent of Faried's field-goal attempts to 78.1 percent, while the rest of the painted area went from 11.4 percent to 10.8 percent.
Meanwhile, the baseline jumpers dipped 1.8 percent, the elbow jumpers went down 2.2 percent and the straight-away jumpers rose 0.2 percent, hardly canceling out the other upticks.
Combining his effectiveness at the rim with a greater percentage of his shots from that most efficient zone was a nice recipe for success. As CBSSports.com's Matt Moore explained, everything clicked:
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.
Even Shaw himself was praising the long-haired Morehead State product during the stretch run:
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.
That last part is the key.
Instead of playing the uptempo, run-and-gun style that he was bound and determined to enjoy during the early portion of Shaw's initial season in the Mile High City, Faried made a conscious effort to set himself up for half-court sets. Then he went to work in the post and had more success than ever before.
Perhaps most key has been his aggressiveness, which has shown up in his free-throw shooting—not the work at the line, but the ability to get to it in the first place.
Before the All-Star break, Faried took 2.8 shots per game from the charity stripe. Over the rest of the season, that number literally doubled. Did his minutes do the same? Not even remotely, as they jumped from 24.7 to 31.2 over the same span.
All of this is an extremely positive sign.
Shaw will be back on the sidelines, giving Faried a chance to develop further in that system. The second year often goes more smoothly than the first when undergoing a drastic change in style, and Faried's dominant second half bodes well for a consistently excellent 2014-15.
Especially with his summer activities.
Team USA Involvement
Given the stars present at Team USA's training camp ahead of the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, Faried isn't getting much attention. However, let's not overlook the impact this experience can have on his development.
There are three ways in which it aids the cause.
Faried has already survived through the first few stages of cuts. He's one of fewer than 20 players remaining in contention for one of the 12 roster spots that will earn invitations to the World Cup in Spain, and that's a signifiant accomplishment in and of itself.
And he's still present, even after Paul Millsap—who made the All-Star team in 2013-14, mind you—was cut despite the dearth of true power forwards on the roster.
Doesn't that have to boost a player's confidence?
"Faried has had a good camp" head coach Mike Krzyzewski told Pro Basketball Talk's Kurt Helin in Las Vegas. "He's a rebounding specialist. He's an energy specialist. So how does that fit in with the core group?"
Helin also relayed the following quote from Faried himself, taken from the Nuggets' official site: "I'm very high on my chances. I believe I left a lasting impression for the coaches to like me and make me part of the team, so I can help the U.S. bring home gold this year."
Just being a part of the proceedings matters.
"I've just had fun every day and played hard—and just played the game I love," the dreadlocked power forward told Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post. "You want to practice against those types of guys every day, but when you do get the opportunity you try to thrive in it, and that's what I'm trying to do."
Why do you think great players try to practice against other standouts?
It's why Kevin Durant and Paul George have looked to train with LeBron James. It's why Roy Hibbert has spent summers working with Tim Duncan. The list goes on and on, and Faried now has a built-in way to go up against great players day in and day out.
That will absolutely help him out when he returns to Denver for the 2014-15 season. All of a sudden, he'll have picked up tips and tricks, spending an entire offseason training with the best in the world to stay in shape for an important competition.
Plus, he's being coached by a new set of basketball minds, ones who can help him add pieces to his game. Speaking of which...
3. Growing Skills
Faried may have enjoyed a dominant second half during this past go-round in Denver, but he's still a limited picture.
Even Coach K admitted that in the quote relayed up above, calling him a rebounding and energy specialist. Those are indeed Faried's primary skills, and playing to them allowed him to take that proverbial step forward.
But for him to continue progressing during his NBA career, he'll have to build new ones. Team USA offers him a chance to do exactly that. According to Dempsey, he's already aware of that:
When Faried returns to the Nuggets he's got a checklist of things he will have added or wants to enhance when he gets back. He's spent a lot of time working out in Los Angeles.
On the court, it's the development of a 15-foot jump shot.
"So I'm able to step out and pick-and-pop more," Faried said. "And if I need to, pick-and-roll."
As mentioned earlier, developing a mid-range jumper would help out the big man immensely, even if that isn't currently a strength.
Adding another element to his game would be highly beneficial in any system, but particularly in one that features a ball-dominant point guard who's quite adept at getting the rock to his players in good positions.
It's pretty tough to imagine Faried making it this far without putting work in on this specific facet of the game.
Team USA prioritizes shooting and overall stretchiness from every position, and even the depleted group of 4s is not going to be an exception to the rule. Everything works best when every player on the floor can hit jumpers, so it's a safe bet that Faried has been lofting up quite a few attempts during the hottest months of the year.
Another priority? Defense, which also tended to give Faried trouble during the 2013-14 campaign, as he hasn't been able to translate his athleticism and physical tools into solid play on that end of the court. He doesn't lack the gifts—just the desire and discipline.
"He is a really good defensive player, but he's capable of being a great defensive player," Coach K told The Denver Post's Nicki Jhabvala. "He can guard a center, too, for short periods of time. Kenneth is a very, very good player, especially when he goes to his strengths. And defense should be one of his strengths."
It should be. And by the time he's done playing his fanny off for Team USA, it might be.
One does not simply emerge from that type of training camp without a defensive mentality. The distribution of minutes—one that allows everyone to play and no one to consistently spend more than 30 minutes on the court—allows for constant exertion of effort on both ends of the court, and there's a good chance that mentality will carry over to the regular season.
Not every player is greatly aided by playing for his country, but Faried stands to benefit from it rather significantly. The philosophy of the team virtually guarantees that, as the necessary strengths fall in line with the areas in which he needs the most improvement.
Coming off a dominant second half, Faried was already looking like a strong candidate for a true breakout season. The experience with Team USA only aids that cause, giving Denver good reason to get excited for the season of the Manimal.