Does a Change of Scenery Actually Ever Help NBA Youngsters?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 3, 2015

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Anytime a struggling young NBA player is moved, the scenery change always creates a feeling of optimism. The concept of a fresh start is undeniably appealing, but is the reality as beneficial as it's billed?

We know trades are about so much more than jersey swaps and relocations. What we don't know is how transactions are going to impact players.

Trades mean the loss of familiarity and a shock to one's comfort levels. But for players who failed to make a favorable first impression, these deals carry hope of a better-fitting style of play, a more prominent role and a chance for players to prove their worth.

Take Nik Stauskas, for instance. The eighth overall selection from the 2014 draft struggled mightily during his first go-round with the Sacramento Kings. Playing time was hard to find (15.4 minutes per game), and consistent production proved to be even more elusive (4.4 points on 36.5 percent shooting).

Nothing can erase those stains from his resume, but an offseason trade to the Philadelphia 76ers gives him hope of turning things around.

"It's going to be a great opportunity to have a new start," Stauskas said, via CSN Philly's Adam Soboleski. "It's a great opportunity to prove myself in this league."

Players in Stauskas' position have given similar quotes ad nauseam. But do the numbers validate players' hopes for their new beginnings?

The answer, like most things in life, is complicated.

Standard Statistical Growth

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Because most big league ballers have such an ephemeral shelf life, assessments about their abilities must be made at warp speed. Draft picks can transform from critical pieces to expendable ones almost overnight. On-court struggles only accelerate that process.

But there's an understanding that those difficulties aren't always the reflection of one's talent, which is why so many clubs are willing to buy low on guys who struggled out of the gate. Those secondary investments are the ones I monitored to capture the impact of these environment swaps.

The study group included 99 first-round picks who made at least 20 appearances for two different clubs during their first three NBA seasons. Those 20 outings had to come within a single campaign—on either team, not necessarily both—because it's hard to call any action less than that a true opportunity.

The graph below shows the scoring average for each of those players during their final qualifying season with their old club and first with their new one. The blue line shows the pre-change scoring rate (sorted from lowest to highest for clarity), while the red one displays the post-change average for that same player.

Hovering over any point on the graph highlights both scoring outputs for that specific player.

To simplify the data, 67 increased their scoring marks, six saw no changes and only 26 posted lower numbers after the change. In other words, 68 percent of the study group improved their volume output.

Switching to an analytical measure, such as player efficiency rating, yields roughly the same results.

This time, 65 players boosted their stats, two stayed the same and 32 finished below their previous marks. That's an improvement for 66 percent of this sample.

So, if roughly two-thirds of these players are showing growth with their new clubs, then the debate is settled, right? Well, no.

Remember, these aren't static players. When they join their new employers, they are bringing along experience, a better feel for basketball's biggest stage and more of an understanding about how they fit at this level.

Prospects should have a rising career trajectory. And the ones in this group actually lag behind the growth rate seen in players from their rookie to sophomore seasons over the past five years (minimum 20 games played).

Growth Comparison With All NBA Players
Players From Last 5 SeasonsPoints Per GameMinutes Per Game
Percentage Increase34.421.1
Scenery ChangersPoints Per GameMinutes Per Game
Before Change5.916.3
After Change7.519.4
Percentage Increase27.119.0
Source: Basketball-Reference.com

That doesn't mean a scenery change is powerless to help a young player find his footing; rather, it shows the impact of a move is most often negligible. In certain cases, though, they have made a major effect.

The Breakout Performers

Boris Diaw was a struggling perimeter player in Atlanta, but he became an award-winning big man under Mike D'Antoni in Phoenix.
Boris Diaw was a struggling perimeter player in Atlanta, but he became an award-winning big man under Mike D'Antoni in Phoenix.Barry Gossage/Getty Images

Boris Diaw spent his first two seasons trying to carve out his niche on the Atlanta Hawks' perimeter. He logged 95 percent of his rookie-year playing time at either shooting guard or small forward, then found 95 percent of his sophomore minutes at either the 1, the 2 or the 3.

Prior to his third season, he was shipped off to the Phoenix Suns. Once he landed in the desert, he linked up with offensive mastermind Mike D'Antoni, who deployed the 6'8" Frenchman almost exclusively at power forward (86 percent of his minutes) and center (10 percent).

Diaw's stat sheet erupted. After averaging 4.8 points (42.2 percent shooting), 2.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists as a sophomore, he ballooned those numbers to 13.3 (52.6 percent), 6.9 and 6.2, respectively, during his third year.

That surge netted him the 2005-06 Most Improved Player award. As Draft Express' Jonathan Givony wrote in August 2006, it was almost as if D'Antoni had created a new player:

Boris Diaw has gone from being an underachieving prospect with the Atlanta Hawks to one of the most highly unique and sought-after forwards in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns. … Diaw is essentially a player without a position, featuring the passing and ball-handling skills of a guard, the length and size of a forward, and the toughness and basketball IQ to even defend centers.

Scoring forward Tobias Harris had a similarly eye-opening alteration after being traded from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Orlando Magic midway through his sophomore campaign.

Morry Gash/Associated Press

During his one-plus-season stay in Milwaukee, Harris averaged just 4.9 points in 11.5 minutes per game. The Magic gave him 36.1 minutes a night over the final 27 games of 2012-13, and he responded with 17.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.

Like Diaw, Harris' breakout was also tied to a position change. After seeing the bulk of his Bucks floor time on the perimeter, he received 82 percent of his minutes with the Magic at power forward. But Beno Udrih, who was included in the six-player exchange that sent Harris to Orlando, credited his teammate's emergence to his lengthened leash.

"In Milwaukee, I think they were just holding him back," Udrih said, via Orlando Pinstriped Post's Evan Dunlap. "They didn't give him a real chance to show what he can do. Here, he got a chance and he's definitely proving himself and taking advantage of the chance."

These are two of the biggest success stories, but they're far from being the only ones.

Between his rookie run with the Sixers and sophomore season in Orlando, Nikola Vucevic more than doubled his points (13.1, up from 5.5), rebounds (11.9, 4.8) and minutes (33.2, 15.9) averages. The leaps weren't quite as dramatic for Brandon Knight, Tyler Zeller, J.R. Smith and Caron Butler, but all of them used early trades to expedite their development.

However, those are the exceptionsnot the rules. Gradual maturation is most commonly seen, and some career arcs fall in the wrong direction.

When Scenery Changes Aren't Enough

There were better players in the 2011 draft than Jimmer Fredette, but perhaps no bigger stars.

The 6'2" scoring guard became a national sensation during his four-year stay at BYU. After he averaged an absurd 28.9 points per game as a senior, the Sacramento Kings grabbed him with the 10th overall selection.

His stock has slid rapidly ever since.

During his rookie campaign, he produced just 7.6 points and 1.8 assists in 18.6 minutes. As forgettable as those numbers sound, he's failed to match any of them over the past three seasons.

He has played for three different NBA teams and four head coaches, but the 26-year-old has yet to find the right big league role.

"People want Jimmer to catch and shoot because Jimmer makes a bunch of shots," Fredette’s college teammate Jonathan Tavernari told KSL.com's Patrick Kinahan. "Jimmer is not a catch-and-shoot guy."

An electric scorer in college, Jimmer Fredette has failed to find a permanent NBA home.
An electric scorer in college, Jimmer Fredette has failed to find a permanent NBA home.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Plenty of others haven't been saved by a wardrobe change.

Lazar Hayward, who sandwiched two stints with the Minnesota Timberwolves around a one-year run with the Oklahoma City Thunder, never played as often nor as well as he did his first season. Rafael Araujo followed two disappointing seasons for the Toronto Raptors with an even less productive one on the Utah Jazz and was out of the NBA three years after being the 2004 draft's eighth overall pick.

Some players never get themselves on track. To make these assessments even more difficult, some show signs of an emergence but fail to build off that momentum.

Courtney Alexander's career was ultimately derailed by a ruptured Achilles, but he followed up his post-trade explosion with the Washington Wizards in 2000-01 (17.0 points per game) with two quiet campaigns (8.8 points) prior to his injury. Jiri Welsch traded mop-up duty for a significant role after joining the Boston Celtics as a sophomore in 2003-04, but he played his final NBA game only two seasons later.

It's virtually impossible to predict when these breakouts will happen and, if they do, how long they'll persist. But there is some pertinent information that can be applied to this coming season's scenery-changers.

Projected Impact

Scoring guard Tim Hardaway Jr. was traded by the Knicks two years after they took him 24th overall.
Scoring guard Tim Hardaway Jr. was traded by the Knicks two years after they took him 24th overall.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

The best thing a player can find after a location change is playing time. Of the 35 players who increased their PER by at least three in our study, 27 found more minutes with their new clubs.

The biggest risers boosted both their quantity and quality of production. They were granted opportunities they'd been denied before and, more importantly, seized them.

For next season's batch of fresh-starters, some might struggle to get that chance.

Tim Hardaway Jr. has to show better effort, intensity and execution at the defensive end to find major minutes on Atlanta's wings. Thomas Robinson must fully embrace a grinder's mentality to see significant floor time on Brooklyn's frontcourt. Shabazz Napier will likely open the campaign third on Orlando's point guard hierarchy behind fellow sophomore Elfrid Payton and veteran C.J. Watson.

Fredette has to turn his partially guaranteed pact with the San Antonio Spurs into a roster spot and then force his way into an already-crowded backcourt. His ability to navigate those roadblocks could determine whether he has staying power in this league.

"I would frame this as a miss-or-make shot for him in his fifth NBA season," Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune wrote of Fredette. "The reality is that if he can't succeed within the framework of a team that will showcase his strengths, he'll probably have to give up his NBA pursuits and finish his career in Europe."

These are high-stakes opportunities, and it's hard to overstate the importance of getting a favorable shot. There are a few players who appear fortunate to have found exactly that.

The prominent role Nik Stauskas couldn't find in Sacramento might be awaiting him in Philadelphia.
The prominent role Nik Stauskas couldn't find in Sacramento might be awaiting him in Philadelphia.Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Stauskas' big break could be coming in Philly.

The Sixers had the league's second-worst three-point percentage last season, and their current roster is woefully short on proven playmakers. There's an abundance of backcourt minutes potentially up for grabs, and Stauskas' offensive skills could scratch a couple of Philly's biggest itches.

A pair of young bigs also look ready to rise in Portland.

Mason Plumlee, who impressed in a reserve role on the Nets, should have the inside track on the Blazers' starting center job. His mobility and athleticism make him an intriguing pick-and-roll partner for All-Star point guard Damian Lillard.

Noah Vonleh, the ninth overall pick last summer, brings obviously high hopes to the Pacific Northwest. Portland parted with longtime starter Nicolas Batum to get Vonleh, and the 6'10" forward is eager for a second chance after failing to crack Charlotte's rotation as a rookie.

"I didn't get much playing time in Charlotte," Vonleh said, via Mike Richman of the Oregonian. "I'm looking at this as a new beginning. There's a lot of great players on this team and I'm looking forward to playing for a winning organization."

Vonleh has good reason to hope. He's only 19 years old and on a team clearly committed to his development. If the Blazers can't tap into his tantalizing potential, it won't be for a lack of trying.

That doesn't guarantee him future success, but it is a critical ingredient of any advantageous transition. Players can neither pass nor fail tests without first receiving the exam.

These trades can help players find clubs more in need of their strengths, more willing to live with their mistakes and/or more bullish about their development. One's trash can become another's treasure when the circumstances are right.

Scenery changes can be door-openers, but it's up to the individual to reach the other side.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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