As our summer mainstay, Aaron was writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. As the summer dies down and the leaves turn, this quixotic quest of a series has happily reached the last third. But it's certainly not done yet! Today we continue with Tyreke Evans, Tony Allen, and Nicolas Batum.
It's really hard to figure out what happened to -- and what SHOULD happen to -- Tyreke Evans going forward. Do you remember his rookie year? There were so many things he did well. So many things! Most notable, to me, was his rookie defense. Yes, his defense. While he wasn't the most effective by the numbers, he was a pretty fun defender to watch back in the day. He looked to me like a potentially great defender his rookie year -- he had a certain amount of swagger to his isolation defensive game, and it portended (to me) flashes of a possible stopper-quality defensive talent down the line. Didn't turn out that way, at least not yet, and that's primarily because his defense has become extremely easy to scout. That intensity, that tenacity, that strong isolation coverage? All of that's pretty darn useless if you don't fight over screens, and chief among all of Tyreke's defensive flaws is his dogged insistence on going under screens and letting his man loose instead of fighting over it and sticking to the man. If Tyreke is dogging a player, all a team really needs to do at this point is set a series of screens. Tyreke will get hopelessly lost, his man will score, and he'll slump his shoulders and try again next time. Only to fare badly on the screen and let his man score again. It's kind of a vicious cycle, when your skills are so easy to thwart on the defensive end.
Offensively, things are more confusing. Evans has never been a particularly impressive presence on the offensive end, even going back to his red hot rookie year. There was never any real outside shot to speak of -- even as a rookie, the man shot only 31% on jump shots, including a dismal 25% from three. That decreased to 30% as a sophomore and 26% as a junior. For Evans to really shine as an offensive player, that has to improve -- if not by improving his actual jump shot (something I'm 90% sure would happen if he had a legitimate shooting coach -- Chip Engelland, anyone?) then by working hard on a floater or a jump hook and really incorporating that into his game. As it stands, the Tyreke Evans scouting report is about as simplistic as you can get. "Pack the paint, let him shoot from 10-25 feet. He'll miss. Badly." And why not let him shoot it? As a rookie, Evans dove into the teeth of defenses and racked up fouls by the bushel. By dissuading him from doing that, not only have teams effectively neutralized his greatest offensive threat, they've also kept themselves out of foul trouble and kept Tyreke from getting to the line. Which was actually the main place Tyreke's superstar scoring came from, his rookie year -- he had an insanely high FTA/FGA split that year, and that more than anything else was what propped up his shaky shooting into a well-rounded and dangerous offensive whole.
Other than his easy-to-scout defense and easy-to-scout offense? He has a good command of the tertiary stats -- a good assist rate (for a large wing), solid rebounding for his position, and a relatively low turnover rate despite a lot of ballhandling. But he's not great on the intangibles. He's had a lot of problems moving without the ball, though, and as aforementioned his formerly solid-looking defense has been something of a detriment recently, it's hard to really see what he's bringing you on the floor. He scores "efficiently" only insofar as he's an awesome offensive option when he gets to the rim. Anywhere outside the rim and Tyreke Evans is a jumpshooter -- and a bad one, too. Which is what led the Kings to decide against signing Evans to an extension -- he'll be a free agent after his 4th year. I can't think of it off the top of my head, but has a rookie of the year winner ever NOT been picked up to an extension by the team with his rights when the extension period comes? Some ROTY winners have been traded -- Mike Miller and Jason Kidd come to mind immediately -- but it's extremely rare that they're traded without being a key piece of the trade, and they generally get a nice extension. For Evans to not only NOT get the extension but to be going into restricted free agency is smart on the part of the Kings but crazy given his pedigree and the way things looked little more than three years ago.
All that said, I have trouble giving up on him. In fact, I really haven't. I'm of the evermore lonely belief that Evans still has quite a ways to go until he reaches his peak. Two reasons for this. One, I want to see him with an actual chance to work on his shot with a good shooting coach. He called in Keith Veney -- a famous shooting coach with an immaculate college stroke -- to help him rediscover his shooting. He responded to Veney's work by cutting off his three point shot entirely, a move that was probably for the best given his disgustingly low conversion rates from that end. It now falls on Tyreke to figure out some kind of off-ball offensive game and rework a close shot to be more accurate. How will it happen? Not really sure. Maybe Veney needs to mix things up and try different form adjustments to improve Tyreke's flagging jumper. Maybe he needs to work on his floater. Maybe Evans just needs a change of scenery. I'm really not sure. Something needs to happen, in any event. I see Tyreke's final form being something of a poor man's next Iguodala -- lower usage than he has now, a better picking-of-his-spots outside the rim, and a lot of dunks and cuts to maximize the number of times he can get to the rim and finish. More of a focus on rebounding, being a pivot in a working offense, and (of course) defense. Evans needs to take the time to learn how to handle a screen and fully internalize it. He needs to do a lot of things, but in the main, all he really needs to do is "play better." I can scream to the high heavens about the potential I continue to see in his game all I want -- if he doesn't really do much with that, it's hardly the fault of Kings fans or NBA fans to ignore him and refuse to give him notice.
Tony Allen is the greatest free agent signing the Memphis Grizzlies have ever made as a franchise.
Alright, now that you're laughing, I'll dial back from that a tad. No, he's not their best player. He never will be. I specifically gave myself the weasel-worded "free agent signing" bit to exclude the Conley/Gasol/Randolph extensions, all of which have been arguably as important or moreso to their current success than the Allen signing. But don't sleep on the Allen signing. Really. Don't. Do you remember how much they signed Allen for? Don't look it up. Just guess. How much money does it take to lock up one of the 2 or 3 best perimeter defenders in the NBA for 3 years in the absolute prime of his career, coming off three years in a key defensive role in a defensive juggernaut? How much money does it take if you're one of the smallest markets in the NBA, with none of the built-in discounting factors of an LA, Florida, or Texas team? Have a number in your head?
If that number is more than $9.5 million for three years, you were wrong. And yes. It boggles my mind too. I realize that there were numerous reasons Allen wasn't seen as a premier free agent during the summer of 2010. There were more enticing options at the top of the ticket -- LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Dirk, et cetera. So much so that teams like Memphis found it relatively straightforward to snag bargain bin deals on pieces like Allen, whose offensive woes made him a persona non grata for the majority of the league's front offices. But that's the problem with overlooking elite skills because of singular flaws. Tony Allen's problem is the same one that will eventually depress Sefalosha's value and can lead to highly deflated contracts for defensively talented players. He's simply awful on offense. He turns the ball over all the time with his atrocious handle, and would make it a habit of missing some of the easiest bunny shots he could possibly take. You never know what you're going to get with Tony, and that's often a problem. Sometimes, it meant playing Tony Allen amounted to playing 4-on-5 on offense. But Memphis has been good to Allen -- although he'll always be a far cry from a positive contributor on offense, he's had significantly more chemistry with the Memphis big three than the Boston big three and he's worked hard to modulate his more irritating tendencies -- the turnovers have gotten marginally better, and he doesn't foul nearly as much as he used to.
What makes Tony Allen so unique on the defensive end is that he's not only an incredible one-on-one stopper, he's also a beast in the passing lanes and a bulldozer through screens. Elite scorers who are used to shedding defenders with a screen or two have no real recourse to get past Allen -- his lateral movement is too crisp, too quick, and too bruising. He's also got a modicum of shot-blocking talent, as well -- he's good at the Ginobili-type "touch from behind, apply backspin" block that ruins a shot and usually allows a teammate to take the ball out of midair, control it, and start a transition break. Celtics fans who watched Allen for years know how good he is. Laker fans who watched Kobe and Allen duke it out in the finals twice know how good he is. And anyone who's ever paid close attention to Allen's ridiculous defensive game knows how good he is. He's simply an amazing defender. For the sake of sharing, here's a video you may not have chanced to see -- this is a compilation by The Two Man Game of a sampling of Allen's defensive play on Kevin Durant during the 2011 playoffs. It's absolutely something to behold. Watch how he frustrates Durant -- Durant finds himself unable to make enough space to comfortably shoot, despite being far taller than Allen, but Allen maintains enough distance that Durant can't safely draw the foul. He rotates on a swivel foot while off-ball, able to change directions quick enough to remove the need to exactly anticipate what Durant and Westbrook were going to do next. When they finally get him out of a possession, he comes from behind and erases the shot with a brilliant backspin block. The depth of Allen's defensive skillset is absolutely obscene. Nobody in the league has a deeper well of tricks to draw from.
There's a question that often gets asked by fans of elite closers -- Kobe, Dirk, Manu, Melo, et cetera. Who do you want taking the last shot? Me, of course, I'd take Manu, while accepting the fact that Dirk is probably the best answer in the NBA (and that the best answer of all isn't any one player, just "whoever the hell is open"). But I genuinely prefer to ask a different question. Who do you want defending the last shot? And that answer is a lot more straightforward. You want Tony Allen. Think back to the final shot of the third game of Memphis/Spurs in 2011. Can't remember it? Watch it again. People pounced on Manu and the Spurs for not getting a shot off, claiming that it was a massive mistake by a franchise that never made them. The thing is, it really wasn't a massive failure of the offense so much as an incredible triumph of the defense to quash a fast-break transition three opportunity -- there was no way that Tony Allen could've defended that shot attempt better. He bothered Manu all the way down the court, and by the time Manu had made it far enough to shoot it, Allen used every possible trick to keep Manu's shot from going off and Manu himself from calling a timeout. The Spurs offense was broken on the possession, it's true, but nowhere near enough credit goes to the man who broke it -- Tony Allen, in the flesh. He's a pitbull. He's a beast. And now that his offense is passable enough to keep on the court at all (it's still bad, mind you, but good enough to keep him on-point for 20-30 minutes a night), he's essentially a star player. He's an incredible defender whose contract is -- I maintain -- the greatest free agent signing the Grizzlies ever made. He's Trick or Treat Tony, the baddest $3 million dollar a year veteran in the NBA. And he's gonna getcha.
Also, I say it on top, but I'll emphasize once more.
Follow him on Twitter. Really. He's the best NBA follow and nobody else is close.
While I'm not Nic Batum's biggest fan, I will say this -- the man is smart. We often pile on players who tend towards inefficient shot locations and chuck up poor percentage shots. We tell them to take fewer long twos, tend towards the efficient ranges, and run far away from the areas they aren't excellent at. Batum does that. He does that very well, in fact. Last season, Batum shot above average percentages at the rim and from three point territory. Fitting with that, almost 3/4 of Batum's shots came from those two regions, and it was enough to offset the fact that Batum shot an utterly abysmal 29% from 10-23 feet last year. He did this despite setting a career high in usage percentage and a career low in the percentage of his shots he had assisted by someone else -- primarily, to these eyes, due to the dismal state of the Portland point guard hierarchy last year. The main knock with Batum -- to me, at least -- is his defense. I have a lot of friends who are Portland fans that swear by Batum as a stopper of the future. I just don't see it, yet.
Don't get me wrong -- the man's useful, and his defensive fundamentals are extremely solid. He draws charges by the bundle, has some shot blocking talent, long arms, solid quickness, et cetera. All the things you want. But he has yet to put them together in a statistically evident way, and watching footage, you start to see small syndromes of laziness. Those possessions where he goes for a steal then gives up on the play as soon as the player gets daylight. Those possessions where he's floating, looking in the lanes, and paying little heed to his man. Those are the possessions that stick in my craw, and make me wonder about Batum as a true stopper. Tony Allen, for all his faults, never takes possessions off. Iguodala doesn't take possessions off. Batum acts like a superstar on defense, pulling the little LeBron/Kobe punch where he takes some time off as though to modulate for the long haul. That's the thing, though. They can do that because their offense is so vital to the team, they kind of need to. Batum isn't that offensively important to warrant off possessions defensively. And frankly? He's not good enough -- yet -- to be defending so well that his defense can withstand possessions where he's a total nonfactor. LeBron is there. Kobe -- for a few years -- was there. Batum isn't, yet.
Regardless. Batum is a good player already, and if he makes a few leaps, he'll probably deserve his fat contract. One thing I found amusing about the aftermath of Batum's contract signing was Batum's insistence that he could average 15-5-5 in an interview with Joe Freeman of the Oregonian. That's a pretty reasonable goal, in some respects. He's actually averaged 14 points per game before (last season), and from 2009-2012 he averaged exactly 15 points per 36 minutes. So if he can get to 36 minutes, he stands a good shot at 15 points per game. In that period, he also averaged 5.3 rebounds per 36 minutes, which means he just needs more time on that one too. But the assists? Batum has had -- in his entire career -- a total of 9 games at five or more assists. Three of those came this season. So, at the time Batum stated that as a goal, he'd managed to reach the number he wanted to average in exactly 6 of his then 202 career games played. That's... that's phenomenal. That's essentially equivalent to what would happen if I looked at my life, examined my data, then came to my friends saying that because I once drank fifteen beers in one sitting, I plan on raising my per-week beer average to fifteen beers each Friday. It doesn't make sense. It's the hilarious assuredness of it that gets me. I think what gets me is how he essentially just took his per-36 averages and then randomly decided "oh, yeah, I should pass too" and more than doubled his career high in assists just to make it even. It is pretty even, come to think of it. 15-5-5? Maybe Batum watches too much Adrian Monk? Or maybe not. I'm not sure there's such a thing as too much Adrian Monk. ... on a related note, is it obvious that I've written too many of these this week? No? THEN PREPARE FOR MORE TOMORROW, FOLLOWERS!
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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. Shout-out to Matt L and Zewo for properly isolating the correct players based on tangential evidence! (Words!)
- Player #316 was stealthily one of the most cost-effective acquisitions of the offseason. Probably won't be there when the rebuilding project finishes, but he can't hurt until that happens. Not on that salary.
- Player #317 was a remarkably good shooter as a rookie. Not sure if it'll hold up forever, and he needs to get a bit better defensively, but he's a solid young guy with strong upside next to a rising star PG. Sounds good to me.
- Player #318 looked GREAT as a rookie. And as great as he looked as a rookie, he looked atrocious last year. And now he has that huge contract. Mistakes, everywhere!
Because I'm getting on a plane at 1:00 tomorrow, the string of two-set days ends tomorrow. With my vacation from work drawing to a close, I'm back on track to finish the series on Christmas or Christmas Eve. Fun times. See you tomorrow morning for the Friday capsules.
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