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 Sundiata Gaines, Marcus Thornton, and Martell Webster.
Follow Sundiata Gaines, because he looks like a stock car.
I readily admit that I've personally taken a mildly selfish interest in Gaines' career-to-date. I've been interested in how he's faring ever since he broke the hearts of Cavs fans everywhere during that one incredible moment from the 2010 NBA season. Not entirely out of regard for Gaines as a player or person, no -- he's a compelling story, no doubt, but I wasn't all that intensely interested in that. I simply wanted him to turn out well so it would validate that Utah/Cleveland game winning shot going forward. You know, make future NBA fans think "oh, yeah, Sundiata Gaines! The second best player of his era, of course he'd upset LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Of course." ... Alright, that was probably an unreasonable expectation. But you know what I mean, right? I feel like this is a relatively ubiquitous feeling among sports fan. This odd desire to see a bad team that beat you -- or a subpar player that beat you -- succeed solely to justify the loss you've suffered. When your guys lose to the worst team in the NBA, you want that team to go on a 2-3 game winning streak so you can say you lost to an "upstart" team thatreally is playing their best ball of the season, come ON guys, it's NOT A BAD LOSS! Et cetera, et cetera. Natural result of being a fan and all.
Anyway. Point is, I've followed Gaines more than I follow the normal NBA player, primarily by dint of that curious need for validation as a sports fan. It's sort of absurd that I of all people still experience this itch, because I'm a professional statistician. I understand intuitively the randomness of the NBA, and on a mental level, I don't usually get caught up in the vagaries of complete randomness in any other sphere of life. But a player's one good game out of 100 or the one time an impossible shot goes in? I'm ruined. Just brutal stuff. As for Gaines in the time since that shot, he's been a mixed bag. He spent the 2011 season bouncing from franchise to franchise, with few realizing that he ended up playing time for three teams during the season, getting waived by two -- the Wolves, the Raptors, and the Nets. He finally stuck in New Jersey, whether because he fit with Avery Johnson's coaching style or a fit with Deron Williams or who-really-knows. Last season he put up relatively decent numbers in New Jersey for a backup guard, and earned enough trust that he played his way into over 80% of the Nets' games and put up a cool 14 minutes a contest besides. His scoring efficiency was about as dismal as one could possibly expect -- about average from three point range, for a point guard, and grotesquely low percentages from every other range of the floor. His free throw shooting in particular boggles the mind -- a stocky 6'1" guard should be able to do better than low-60% from the line. He just should. It's actually funny, because he drew quite a few trips to the line and rated as one of the best guards in the league from a "FTA/FGA" perspective. If he was a good free throw shooter, that skill could've added 2-3 points to his total a night. But alas.
The Pacers made a decently large deal about signing Sundiata Gaines during the offseason, hoping that Gaines and Augustin would put together a good enough season that they'd fill in everything Darren Collison brought the Pacers on a lower contract and a lesser investment. Things didn't quite shake out that way -- Augustin has been an abject horror with the Pacers, and Gaines was rather inexplicably waived before the season. Instead of waiting around for another NBA contract that might not come, Gaines decided to throw up a middle finger and sign in China. Out of all the places a player could sign overseas, China has always been one of the more restrictive ones -- it's a nice guarantee of a salary marginally higher than you could get in Europe, but if you want to get back to the NBA, you need to wait for the CBA playoffs to finish, and if you can get into an NBA team you've only got a few weeks until the season's over anyway. Still, I like the move for Gaines. He's clearly at that crossroads where he's not quite good enough for an NBA rotation but not nearly bad enough to retire from the game. If he puts up a solid season for his current team (the currently 3-1 Fujian SBC Sturgeons, which is a hilarious team name), he could garner a bit of NBA interest next season and play a potentially larger role. And if not? He's got a good setup with a profitable overseas game. Seems like a win-win, although I'm sad we don't get to see him for a while. I don't have much more to say about Gaines. In the LeBron capsule, I wrote of the moment Gaines sunk the shot to help frame the whole story. Here's the link, if the reminder makes you itch for it.
There are exactly two things that Marcus Thornton does well. He scores well and he doesn't turn the ball over much. That's basically it. Thornton is a bit of a machine when it comes to scoring -- his percentages as a shooter won't wow you, necessarily (34.5% from three is decent if-not-great and his midrange numbers are quite pedestrian), but you can't really mention his offense without noting with relish the fact that Thornton takes a seriously hilarious number of shots off the dribble or in relatively contested territory. The man has a Bryant-esque adherence to taking the tougher shot when a simple shot would do the job. Much like the Kings team itself, it has to be a bit frustrating for Kings fans. It's nice to see that Thornton has the confidence to take the shots, but there's got to be a serious case of "NO NO NO okay fine"-type rumblings at Sacramento bars every single time he gets the ball. The knock on Thornton is as I mentioned earlier -- the man can score and he doesn't cough the ball up much, and that's just about it.
He ranked as one of the highest points-per-minutes guards of any kind last season, which is nice -- he also ranked in the bottom 25% of all guards in both assist rate and assist-to-turnover ratio, which is even more impressive given how rarely he turned the ball over (per-possession, at least). He was a poor shot blocker (obviously, he's 6'4"), he drew fewer fouls than his adherents would've hoped, and he's a surprisingly poor rebounder. Which surprises many. But one thing you need to understand about his numbers -- the Kings played a DRAMATICALLY faster pace with Thornton on the floor, posting 6-7 more possessions (pro-rated over a full game's time) with Thornton on the court than with Thornton off. His numbers all rate out relatively high among his peers because of it (his rebounding in particular is top-5 among guards), but if you adjust out the pace difference and examine his per-possession statistics, he's a relatively poor rebounder who's decent on the offensive glass but absolutely dismal on the defensive glass. He also is, as I noted, a very low turnover player -- the 1.6 turnover per game average is another ill product of the pace the Kings played with him on the court more than a true reflection of his ball control. Defensively he's a nonentity, but the man's scoring skill and general control over what he's doing would stand to reason that
One last observation. I could be totally off the mark here, but I noticed something while doing my Thornton scouting last night. Is it just me, or do the Kings have a really permissive statkeeper? I was watching some of Thornton's assisted shots, as I was somewhat surprised at his being assisted on 60% of his shots last season -- that didn't seem intuitive to me and I felt that was a really high number, as that's around the average for NBA shooting guards and he always seemed like a very focused off-the-dribble player. He creates a LOT of his own offense, you know? So I started looking at buckets he'd been theoretically "assisted" on. And you know what? More often than most, he'd take 2 or 3 dribbles and create a completely different shot, only to have it still count as an "assist" for another player by the Sacramento scorekeeper. This is hardly some crazy sin or anything -- statkeepers everywhere do it all the time. But I found this a somewhat exceptional case, because it seemed significantly more obvious here than it does for most teams (other than perhaps Boston and New Orleans, both of whom are notorious for it). The Kings are traditionally a poor passing team, and last year, they went 26th overall in the league with 1271 assists. Is it possible that the Kings have been so bad at setting up legitimate shots in recent years that their statkeeper decided to lower the bar on assists, for at least a year? Seriously -- go watch some of Thornton's assisted shots on Synergy. I may be seeing things. I probably am. But I feel like this is sort of darkly humorous caption to the 2012 Kings season, if it's really a thing.
Last season wasn't a great one for poor Martell Webster, who had another injury-riddled season in a career replete with them. His three point stroke comes and goes with more randomness than you tend to see in a player (he's a career 37% shooter, with single season numbers wobbling between 42% and 33% depending on god-knows-what), and while he's a decent defender by the eye test he's nothing spectacular. He turns the ball over quite a lot relative to most guards, and didn't fix that with a lot of tertiary accomplishments. Poor rebounder for his size, poor passer, low-usage player who gives no guarantees of efficiency despite the low usage, et cetera. He's been very solid this season for the Wizards, and one of the one or two bright spots on a team that's been relatively absent them. The positive aspects of the current Wizards season can essentially be summed down to "beating the Heat", Martell Webster's minor renaissance, and Jordan Crawford's development. That's about it so far.
Off the court, Webster seems like a pretty great guy, enough so that it's not really fair to assess him solely on his injury-riddled and occasionally lacking game. Blazers fans who watched him tend to root pretty hard for him, and in a general sense, the most adamant fans of the teams that Webster plays with love him. The more you see Webster in interviews and learn about him, the more you realize why this is and like/root for him yourself. I recommend checking out this great interview between Webster and Kyle Weidie at Truth About It. He's mainly just talking about his role on the team and some exactitudes of a close loss against a good team, but he also drops some nice quotes, like a bomb late in the video where Weidie asks if Webster would be a good coach only to elicit a stunned, chuckling response of “No! ... I have three kids, man, I’m already a coach. Coaching a whole bunch of knuckleheads… can’t do it. I can’t do it.” Valid point. And well-stated. He generally spends the interview being respectful, talking about the importance of working for his role, and spilling some good points about strategy and general approach to changing the pace of an offense. It's a great watch.
Really, I don't know how best to describe Webster. You could call him a "bust", strictly going on his production (which has been lacking for a lottery pick, it should be said), but that doesn't really sit well with me. Mostly because he's an inspiring enough human being that distilling him down to his game being less-than-exceptional is necessarily reductive and depressing. The guy has been through things most people never even imagine -- his father abandoned his family before he was born, and his mother went missing when he was only 4 years old. Many theorize she was murdered by one of Washington's most historically prolific serial killers, and her body has never been found. Being able to overcome something like that shows strength enough -- his ability to overcome ADD as a youth and find the strength to reject a medication that changed him as a person in favor of a harder road to find his true self is inspiring. His love for his coaches, the game, and his teammates is unparalleled, and it's hard to find a guy who works harder. Does that mean he's a great NBA player? No. But it DOES mean he's one of the better people in a league with a lot of great ones, and it does make him worthy of your respect.
Also, there's this story, which honestly never fails to crack me up.
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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. Everyone got 2/3 yesterday, probably owing to just how obtuse the Sundiata Gaines riddle was. But props to wul.f, Matt L, Alex, and Booze__Cruise.
- Player #325 was one of my favorite players the second I saw him suit up for my college. That's right, folks -- I'm a Player #325 hipster. I liked him before it was popular, damnit! Will be a Capsule Plus... if I get off work on time today, that is.
- Player #326 is one of the only real NBA-caliber players on a team with few. He's acquitted himself relatively well -- great three point shooter, very low turnover player, decently efficient. Doesn't really do anything else, but I mean, he IS a shooting guard.
- Player #327 looked, at first, like he'd be a sweet-shooting three point gunner with no other discernible skills when he entered the game. He's put a lot of work on his game, though, and his passing and defense are both high quality now.
Just realized I'm down to the last 40-something. The homiest of home stretches, here. Until next time.
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