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. Today's three include JaJuan Johnson, Semih Erden, and J.R. Smith.
One of the occupational hazards of doing a series like this is running into a player you simply don't remember watching. I know I saw him at least once -- I watched more than enough of the Celtics not to. But pretending that I'm some font of all knowledge about JaJuan Johnson's game would be quite foolish. I did watch a bunch of Synergy Sports footage on him last night, yes, and I've read back on career histories, what he did in college, et cetera. I know enough now to inform. But I'd be lying if I attested some giant wealth of knowledge about JaJuan Johnson's game. Don't know if that really matters, but figured I'd state it outright. Nevertheless. A few scouting observations on Johnson's game:
- Fundamentally, he's a really poor rebounder. Which is curious, as he was a solid one in college. He just doesn't seem to have a really good sense of space or where he needs to be to snag the chippies, and his box-outs are incredibly weak. In a general sense, Johnson seems to get more rebounds by simply happening across them than he does rebounds he actively contests for. It's sort of like the rebounding strategy of a guard in a big man's body.
- He's quicker than he looks. This isn't to say he's super fast or incredibly athletic, but he has that stealthy sort of quickness, where he's fast on his feet cutting and is quick to move side-to-side on defense. This actually could make a passable defender someday -- he had his rookie yips on that end, but Johnson's clearly got a decent defensive skillset (and actually was the NCAA DPoY at Purdue), and if he can bulk up a bit and maintain that quickness, he'd have a good shot at carving out a rotation player role.
- Extremely high release to his jump shot, which is sort of trippy, but it isn't awful. He doesn't shoot as quickly as he could, so the high release helps him get his shot off before defensive pressure rotates. Although the strength of his competition in his scant minutes was incredibly awful, he did convert 44% of his shots from the true midrange last year, which puts him in the 90th percentile of players for his position if he was to do that in the regular season. Granted, due to the fact that he's bad at getting to the rim and ATROCIOUS at converting from the long midrange (under 30% on the year), it's questionable how much a single high season-to-season variance midrange jumper is going to really make him an incredibly valuable offensive player, especially since he can't convert much at the rim unless he's set up with a horrendously easy chip shot. But alas.
In terms of prospects, I'm not totally sure where he goes from here. He clearly had a ton of trouble his rookie year learning the Celtics' playbook, both on offense and defense. Just look at what happened when Doc Rivers screamed at him. Because of that, he's stuck in a Catch-22 that has doomed an incredible number of players in the NBA -- he's not good unless he can learn the playbook, but he can't really learn the playbook unless he gets the chance to play out the string and actually experience it. When all his minutes come in meaningless garbage time, it's pretty difficult to motivate yourself to really invest in learning the exact playbook. I mean, heck, you don't even know that you'll be on the team in a year, you know? Same thing happened to James Anderson, and happens to most young guns on extremely good teams. They don't get in outside of garbage time, which ruins their work ethic and makes them prone to mental lapses that end up keeping them on the bench and irrevocably stunting their development.
Perhaps luckily for him, then, he was recently traded in the Courtney Lee deal as one of the assets Houston picked up for their ever-increasing haul of forwards. While that position is now deeper than the Octomom family pick-up team roster in Houston, the Houston playbook is nowhere near as complicated as the Celtics playbook, and he stands far more of a shot of getting better quality minutes on a team that's relatively lacking than he does on a team contending for home court advantage. Still -- if Houston is better than expected (as they could potentially be -- Asik's defensive chops are legendary, and if Martin has a bounceback season and Lin improves they could very well be in the fringes of the western playoff race) I'd expect his minutes to once again shrink into the abyss as Kevin McHale rolls with the polished vets and younger prospects in Johnson's wake. Sort of a pity, as I think he could be a half-decent roleplayer someday, but it'll be alright. Someday he'll make his way to a team that can leverage his skills and develop him into a useful piece. Perhaps that's Houston, perhaps that's not, but it'll probably happen someday regardless.
Follow Semih Erden's example by scruffing up your hair and falling over all the friggin' time.
If it wasn't for the fact that Erden spent his last season on the Cavs, I probably would've had to do the same thing I did with Johnson's capsule -- that is, watch a ton of Synergy scouting and hope I notice some interesting tidbits. Luckily, I watched enough Cavs games to avoid that lonely despairing fate. Why lucky? Because, dear readers, watching Semih Erden play for your professional basketball team is about as enjoyable a fate as being coated with honey and eaten by bees. No, seriously. I try to be positive in this series. I wish I could give you a bunch of positive words, but I can't. He's simply one of the least engaging, least entertaining, and outright least useful players I've ever seen in my life. At an NBA level, Erden is a poor rebounder (rebounding rates have been incredibly low his whole career), an awful scorer (he had an above average TS% due only to an incredibly limited shot distribution -- respectable that he never tried to do anything he couldn't, I suppose, but not reflective of a good NBA offensive player), and a sleepy defender. A very sleepy defender. A defender whose defensive coverage quite frankly was akin to what a normal everyday dude would look like if they were dragged out of bed on 2 hours of sleep, put in platform shoes, and ordered to cover an NBA-level athlete.
The only distinguishing factor about his game -- and yes, I realize how hilarious this is -- is that he's one of the clumsiest NBA players I've ever seen. People say JaVale McGee's airheaded wonder is akin to clumsiness, but they're wrong. They've clearly never had to watch Semih Erden try and take the ball in the post. He trips, lumbers, and slips his way into all of our hearts. He trips setting screens. He trips while trying to cut to the rim. He trips while getting rebounds. He doesn't always fall, but you always notice the "whoops" slip. That moment where he looks like he's about to fall, catches himself, and watches as his man goes up strong for a dunk. Problems, man. Watching Semih Erden play at an NBA level, where the other players are of NBA athleticism rather than Turkish league athleticism, is like betting a friend that you can make a dreidel spin longer than they can. You know it'll fall over at some point, and you can anticipate with dread the moment right before it happens. You can tell. The spin starts to break, the lean starts to emerge, and you let out a whispered cuss. The dreidel falls while your friend's top spins happily onward, the bet lost. Disappointed, you hand the friend the agreed-upon neo-shekels. It's sad and disappointing. And it's also exactly what watching Semih Erden play in the NBA was like.
I say "was" because he's moved on from the NBA and returned to the Turkish league, which is probably best for both parties. In Semih Erden's case, he's actually a relatively useful center in the international game, and yes, he does seem less clumsy when you aren't pitting him against hyperathletic freaks of nature every other night. The goaltending rules (somehow) help him out as well, and in general, watching him play internationally has just always seemed a better fit for his subdued game. So here's to you, Semih. May you bring fans in Turkey the same vigor that produced the numerous "Semih Erden Falling Over" drinking games in the NBA. (That is, er, no vigor whatsoever.)
A lot of people find many of the league's brightest lights frustrating. Rondo, Melo, Kobe, Dwight -- there's a somewhat odd inverse relationship, where once you become one of the 20-30 best players in the league, analysts happen to overanalyze your game and isolate every minuscule flaw that makes you the tiniest bit worse. There's a glaring tendency (one that, I must emphasize, I do all the time -- I'm not blameless in any way, here, and these criticisms reflect on me as well) to minimize the things that make those players so incredible to the benefit of extensively explicating their few flaws. The thing that gets a bit tricky about taking this sort of an approach is that when you take a step back, when you examine how differently we assess players among the best and players among the worst, there's a necessary endorsement of a flawed corollary -- the idea that we need to analyze the least prominent part of a player's game. In the case of the lesser players, we need to find the few ways they produce value. In the case of the greater players, we need to find reasons they aren't so wonderful. In some ways it's noble, and even slightly egalitarian -- it evens the playing field in the mental landscape of NBA thought. And I certainly don't think it's entirely wrong. In some ways, I actually do think that's an apt way to look at it. In others, though, it's certainly worth taking a step back and realizing that sometimes we go overboard. There are some players that are simply absurd, impossible, and disappointing -- and honestly, very rarely are these players among the best at their position.
One such player? J.R. Smith.
Last season, J.R. posted an effective field goal percentage below his position average. Which may not surprise you. But what makes it surprising is that he accomplished that despite posting percentages above position average from every single range on the floor beyond the 3-9 foot range. Despite his at-rim percentage being in the 70th percentile of all NBA guards, he took fewer shots at the rim per minute played than 70% of the guards in the NBA. He was barely at the position average from three, which to J.R. Smith, was apparently carte blanche to pretend he's James Jones -- despite being barely above average, he took almost 50% of his shots from beyond the three point line. There are very few players in the league with such an incomprehensible shot chart relative to how well they shoot from each range. He actually can run the pick and roll pretty well, to the extent that you wonder why the hell he doesn't do it more often -- instead, he often found his partner rolling with an effective shot at an open rim-finish and Smith just decided to hoist up and shoot a random three, or a random jumper. Absolutely kills chemistry, and makes it hard for his teammates to trust he'll get them the ball. Ever. It can gum up the offense, despite his numerous offensive skills.
Then there's the mental lapses. There are players that have moderately flawed court vision. There are players who make bad decisions with the ball. There are players who make ridiculous decisions with the ball. Then there's J.R. Smith, who somehow manages to do all of that -- weird passes that would only work in some reality nobody but Smith's partial to, crazy steal attempts that had no chance, and complete misapplication of one of the most athletically talented frames in the game. He's strong, quick, and slippery -- if he put his mind to it, you have to imagine he'd make a downright excellent defensive player. If he could just get his shot distribution in check and be more consistent, he'd be a beastly NBA player at a position that's honestly pretty slim at the moment -- after the Kobe/Wade/Manu trio, there's only really Gordon/Harden/Johnson to contend with. Smith has the talent and skill to be right there in that second group if he'd just get a few of his impulses in check, and if you're honest, with a handle like his and the inherent shooting talent he has, it's really not too big of a leap to imagine a defensively-retooled J.R. Smith being one of the 10 best players in the NBA. Seriously. He never has put it all together, though, and it remains one of the things that disappoints me most in the NBA. Taking an eye to the vintage J.R. games is one of the most enjoyable things you can watch. So, in some ways, I feel Smith has let me down -- he's made it so rare, so fleeting, so pie-in-the-sky to imagine him as an all-star player. But he should be so much better. It's incomprehensible.
So. Let's push pause for a second. That was vicious, extreme, and honestly really unfair. This might be where I'd close the capsule and stop talking about J.R. Smith, if I hadn't gone super-negative to emphasize a totally different point. I entreat you to take some time and read what might be the article of the year: Jonathan Abrams' profile of Smith's career over at Grantland. There's a reason I noted in the first paragraph that I'm actually quite sympathetic to the idea that we're doing the sport more justice by approaching the best players with a critical eye and lesser players with a sympathetic eye. Sometimes the point lies deeper than a stark assessment of relative value. The reasons aren't simple, but Abrams' profile highlights one of the many ways it's a flawed dichotomy. It's a pretty big mistake to attribute 100% of the fault for Smith's currently disappointing career. Just because a player has disappointed doesn't mean we should pillory the player. It means many different things. Perhaps, in some cases, it means we need to take a step back and examine the coaching tree he went through. Perhaps it's a bunch of poor rookie fits. Perhaps the player's history, the nature, the manner of upbringing conspired to make their ceiling lower than it should be. Perhaps injuries sapped their game.
But through it all, there's one theme -- it's not necessarily their fault. There are a myriad of talents and triumphs that highlight the NBA's stratosphere, but one thing tends to ring true. The players that make it to that level have been (for the most part) blessed with coaches and organizations that matched the way they approach the game, at least at some point in their development. They've escaped career-destroying injuries, a la Antonio McDyess. They've got work ethic, yes, but they haven't necessarily been 100% responsible for their grand success. When we assess a minor player as a disappointment we're in some extent placing the weight of the world on their shoulders -- we're placing the fault at their feet, assuming that if only they'd put in more effort, they'd have made it to our lofty expectations. But work ethic isn't 100% of the story, and it never will be. Who's to say that J.R. Smith couldn't have become a brilliant, generational, top-5 shooting guard if he hadn't been under Byron Scott's quasi-tyrannical thumb? Who's to say that, conversely, Kobe wouldn't have seen his share of struggles if he'd never found Phil Jackson and actually spent his first 5-10 years as a Hornet? Is Smith's puzzling work ethic a matter of nature or nurture?
It's actively impossible to answer these questions, and impossible to actively consider on a regular basis in your analysis. That's true. But in my view, by evening the playing field and assessing the players on their relative strengths and weaknesses, you do a better job looking at the league's full picture rather than simplifying the analysis down to tropes and disappointment. By focusing on the ways the NBA's brightest lights regress to the mean while focusing the small ways lesser players triumph, you start to come to broader realizations about the game, the sport, and life in general. Perhaps one's disappointing. Perhaps one's far better. Their on-court performance may be vastly different, but in the final estimation, they're both two of the 100-something best players in the world. Maybe, just maybe, that's enough.
• • •
At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. 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. I'm clearly gaining my edge back with these riddles. Nobody got ANY of today's players right. I'd say I'll make them easier, but I'm kind of enjoying stumping everyone, so perhaps not.
- The greatest lie Stu Lantz ever told was convincing anyone that Player #184 had even a modicum of NBA passing ability.
- Oh, man, let me tell you all about Player #185. He dunks. He... uh, dunks some more. And also, he dunks!
- Extremely good defender in extremely limited minutes, Player #186 has the outside potential of being an Asik-type if he'd work his conditioning a bit more. Though I'd say that's an extremely fringe possibility.
Keep on keepin' on.