Player Capsules 2012, #49-51: Jon Leuer, Wesley Johnson, Linas Kleiza

Posted on Wed 25 July 2012 in 2012 Player Capsules by Aaron McGuire

As our summer mainstay, Aaron's writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. Intent is to get you talking, thinking, and appreciating the myriad of wonderful folks who play in our favorite sports league. The next three: Jon Leuer, Wesley Johnson, and Linas Kleiza.

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_Follow Jon Leuer on Twitter at @JLeu30._

Jon Leuer is really underrated for what he does. As a rookie, he was better at creatively getting himself open than many NBA superstars are. He started the season extremely hot on spot-up shots, leading to an excellent Pruiti post noting specifically Leuer's shot. In true jinxing form, though, Leuer tailed off spectacularly directly after that article was published, going 0-15 on spot-up shots in the two weeks after Pruiti's post. Before the season was out, Leuer had returned to a steady-state and normal, 50-60% average to end the season. Which is solid. He's a middling rebounder, rebounding reasonably effectively in his time on the court (8 boards per-36) but clearly needing some work on that front to bolster his argument for playing time. All things considered, Leuer generally acquitted himself very well. One huge thing with Leuer, atop that?

He's got a lot of quiet skills -- atop the off-ball movement he excelled in, his ability to set and use screens to help get guys open on the pick-and-pop was spectacular. So too was Leuer's general lack of huge, game-changing weaknesses -- his defense wasn't perfect, mind you, but it was a fair sight better than you normally see from a first-year big man. He suffered a bit from Matt Bonner syndrome, where he looks so goofy you immediately assume he's a minus defender. Thing is, in a lot of situations, he isn't. Take post-up plays, where he forced his man into 33% shooting on 27 shots, to go along with 6 shooting fouls and 6 turnovers. Like Matt Bonner, he's not a fundamentally incredible defender -- but also like Matt Bonner, he doesn't really do any specific thing wrong, which leads you to believe this might not be as fluky a number as it seems. Another Bonner-esque trait Leuer embodies is Bonner's lack of fouls -- Leuer's per-36 foul total was 4 per game, and while that may seem like a lot, it's really not. Especially not for a rookie big man.

He was picked up by Cleveland after Houston inexplicably waived him -- I thought Leuer was the best piece traded in the Dalembert deal. I realize there are a lot of reasons to be somewhat down on his performance, but the kid averaged per-36 numbers of 14-8-2 on 50%+ shooting. That's valuable enough to be a first-big-off-the-bench type on a good team, let alone your 4th rotation big. Quietly, the Cavaliers have put together a very good (and best of all, very high-upside) rotation of big men to play with Kyrie Irving -- Tristan Thompson has quite a bit of work to do to get to an NBA-caliber level, but even looking past him you have one of the five best defensive C/PFs in the league in Anderson Varejao, a promising "stretch five" in Tyler Zeller, and a proven-to-be-better-than-you-think Leuer. (And then there's Samardo, but we won't go there.) One rather amusing thing, too -- most people have no idea how large he is. Leuer is a legitimate 6'10", in shoes standing right where the tallest power forwards do. He needs to put on some muscle (he's only 228 lbs), but going forward, I really like Leuer's potential to make it as a first-off-the-bench big on a contender. You can do a lot worse than a player with no game-changing gaps in his skillset off the bench, on a small rookie-like deal.

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Follow Wesley Johnson on Twitter at @WesJohnson4.

Now this is a tougher question. Answering "what does Jon Leuer do well" is pretty easy, all things considered -- multifaceted skillset, a few big opportunities to get better, but overall a promising player going forward despite being taken at #40. Johnson, though? Lord, this gets harder. We'll start with underwhelming things about Johnson. First, his shooting. In college, Johnson was good for 40% from behind the college three -- this didn't really translate at all to the NBA, shooting a slightly-above-average 34% from three as a rookie. Last year, he went under even that low bar and shot 31% on threes, despite taking a three point attempt every 10 minutes he spent on the court. Despite that, Johnson has trended more and more towards becoming a jump shooting specialist in his short career. Tim Allen at Canius Hoopus wrote an excellent piece examining this trend early last season, and revisiting it now, it's clear that not much changed during the season. He ended the season having shot 87% of his shots on jumpers -- slightly less than he had through 10 games, but still an abysmally high percentage on a head-shakingly low TS% of 43%.

The athleticism of NBA players clearly altered Johnson's ability to shoot a reasonable percentage, with Johnson falling below 40% both seasons he's played so far. His rebounding has been pretty awful, relative to the position-average, and his assist totals have been worse. His assist to turnover ratio has been virtually 1:1 since day one in the league. His defense? Actually relatively decent, to these eyes. One of his few big positives. One of the better individual defenders on the Wolves behind Rubio's excellence, although that's a little like declaring myself the best writer on my team of statisticians at work. True? Sure. But that and 50 cents gets you a bag of Fritos -- the Wolves were an awful defensive team and being the best defender on an awful defensive team isn't always that notable. But in the same way that I highlighted it for Gerald Henderson, I probably should highlight it for Wesley Johnson. He's a decent defender, not a lock-down one, and after Rubio went down he tended to get the toughest assignment Adelman could reasonably put him on.

Overall, though, Johnson looks to me like something of a bust. The worst thing, to me? He went to Syracuse, which continues to make me wonder about their preparation systems. He's one of the many in a long line of Syracuse players that were reaches, taken over a few players conventionally thought of as "better." If you take a look at that list, note that there are (charitably) a grand total of three reasonably good NBA players on that list, for a hit rate of 8.3%. This isn't some undocumented statistical oddity -- Syracuse players have, as a whole, turned out really poorly in the NBA. Cavs fans and commentators alike are quick to viciously rip to shreds anyone who suggests that perhaps -- just maybe -- the Dion Waiters selection wasn't smart from an analytical or a common sense perspective. Wesley Johnson, for me, is the possible worst case scenario for Waiters that most people aren't giving proper credence. People said many of the same things about Johnson as he left school, despite the fact that Johnson had better numbers than Waiters and a stronger overall skillset. Waiters is a better driver, but his finishing is about as bad as Wesley Johnson's was in college, which makes me worry quite a lot. As any Cavs fan is, I'm hoping Waiters turns out to break the trend and make this look silly. But history has not been kind to startling reaches from Syracuse, and I have a sinking feeling the Cavs are going to regret that pick in the future.

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Follow Linas Kleiza on Twitter after gaining access to his security blanket.

Linas Kleiza exists in the same sphere as many of the league's tweener forwards -- he's a bit too lumbering and slow to play the wing, but too thin and short to play the large forward. His rebounding isn't good enough whatsoever to warrant playing him as a full-time big, but his lacking quickness on defense and inability to effectively cover anyone makes it hard to warrant playing him as a wing. Isn't really tenacious enough to match his man on defense, but isn't mobile enough to be a beast in a zone defense. Which leaves him stuck between two worlds. It's a tough place to be, size-wise, as an NBA player -- it puts an artificial ceiling on your defensive potential, and makes it extremely hard to fit you into a coherent NBA offense without a playbook master like George Karl. Guys Kleiza's size tend to just get slotted in as pure small forwards, but with a game more like a shooting guard and size more like a big man, it's hard to argue a good reason to make him a small forward other than the obvious (and flawed) "he's not a four, he's not a two" logic.

In a way, players like Kleiza and Tyrus Thomas and J.J. Hickson (all roughly the same height) embody the flaws of the so-called positional revolution -- theoretically, players with nebulous and hard-to-define positions should still be able to be productive and useful members of the NBA. In practice, though, the flaws in their size that make it hard to define their position usually translate to flaws in their skillset that largely end up making their versatility from a projected matchup advantage vanish. When they're young there's so much hope that they'll redefine the game of basketball, only to come back years later with scads of coaches trying (in vain, usually) to find a role for a player whose skills simply don't fit his body, and who can't adapt to the creative roles his body type makes available to him. The positional revolution isn't simply a two dimensional quadrant system of skillsets and roles, but a three dimensional prism -- a player's adaptability making up the third axis. Kleiza, Thomas, and Hickson have interesting skillsets and could, theoretically, fit quite a few roles. But as a player's ability to adapt to new roles lessens, the ease in which they can occupy these roles and make full use of their talents evaporates. As none of the three are very adaptable, they struggle to be the great players in the NBA their physical gifts would demand.

Still. Kleiza isn't bad, per se -- he's good for 10 points a night, a few boards, some minutes-sopping -- but he's nowhere near as good as he could be if he adapted properly. I think Linas Kleiza's now-relatively-long career can be primarily attributed to the 2009 Western Conference Finals, when he put up eight points and four boards a night on just fifteen (!) minutes per contest and 50-47-77 type shooting. In that Nuggets run, Kleiza was very important to the team, and he gave a lot of options to Coach Karl -- a brilliant coach who's excellent at molding offenses to effectively use the tweener-size players into a coherent, skill-maximizing operation. Another aspect of Kleiza's career that was perhaps even more important was Kleiza's scorching run at the FIBA world championships, where NBA decisionmakers got to see him take the shooting percentages he showed in the 2009 WCF and combine it with heavy minutes and ball domination. It certainly didn't hurt that the average size difference was far more amenable to Kleiza's size -- he can cover FIBA fours in a classical sense, which allowed him to play the large forward for Lithuania. His averages from that excellent run by Lithuania in the 2010 World Championships (putting up 20-7-2 on 52-38-77) is what I think Kleiza could potentially have done in the NBA if he'd been a bit better at adapting his athleticism and style to the NBA's archetypal athlete. Which is a shame, but at least Kleiza's shown what he can do overseas. Players like Thomas and Hickson aren't likely to ever get that opportunity. Sad.

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At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next batch. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. This time, almost everyone in the comments got two of our three players correct -- I clearly made the Leuer/Johnson riddles too easy, though I was amused at how many people everyone could reasonably use for the 3rd riddle. Walton? Ariza? Jones? All great answers, guys. Anyway. Our next three.

  • Way older than you think. But Player #52 was a hell of a solid rookie, and I'm looking forward to seeing him in his new duds. (Pending the Dwightmare.)
  • As Player #53 is Matt Moore's favorite player currently in the league, he'd probably kill me if I didn't make him a Hardwood Paroxysm crosspost. Careful what you wish for, tho.
  • One of my favorite predictions of all time was when Bill Simmons quietly picked Player #54 to be in contention for the 2010 Rookie of the Year award. I agreed. We were HILARIOUSLY wrong.

So, yes. Hardwood Paroxysm crosspost tomorrow. Get excited! Again!