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 leaves turn frosty, this quixotic quest of a series has happily reached the last full week. Not quite done yet, but close. Today we continue with Tiago Splitter, Gerald Wallace, and MarShon Brooks.
Tiago Splitter isn't what he was supposed to be.
I know, I know. Not really fair to burden a player with expectations they neither asked for or sought out. This isn't some LeBron-level "Decision" scenario, here. Splitter barely even hyped himself up at all -- he was (and to some extent remains) a young, wide-eyed kid who's been utterly elated to learn the NBA ropes from Tim Duncan and elated to help his team. But on some level, what really is fandom beyond unreasonable expectations for people you don't really know to accomplish things they never really could? The Bobcats fan who's disappointed that the Bobcats aren't making the playoffs. The Mavericks fan who's disappointed the Mavs couldn't repeat as champions. The Lakers fan who's annoyed that Kobe hasn't passed Jordan yet. It's the connections you build, sure. But it's also the unreasonable expectations you levy on those you profess to root for. The slow-drip dissatisfaction as you seethe over players who've never quite panned out the way you hoped. That's an important and often understated part of being a fan. He was to be the next-generation Duncan, the next star big man in the San Antonio legend. He hasn't been. Why?
Main problem is this -- while he's not soft, he simply isn't a great defender on an NBA level. His first season showed flashes of defensive promise, but he hasn't totally lived up to that. Yet. Splitter has decent instincts, but he's never been able to put on the strength to body-up big men in the post to any real success. His height should make him decent at guarding shooters (in theory) but his lack of speed makes him slow to recover onto the long shots he tries to guard, which makes centers like Pau Gasol quite deadly whenever Tiago has to cover them. His mobility on the pick and roll is atrocious -- he simply doesn't have the lateral mobility to make the decision fast enough, and usually just ends up half-lunging for the roll man without really putting up any resistance to the shot attempt, but putting himself just close enough for the player to jump into him and draw a ticky-tack foul. It's excruciating to watch, and by far one of the most annoying tics that this current Spurs team has to rely on. Tiago Splitter isn't an awful defender -- as I said, he has decent instincts and he can make some good plays on switches, if you give him the chance. He also doesn't go for superfluous blocks, which will help him later in his career if he ever gets any actual respect from the NBA officials, as he'll avoid the sorts of dumb fouls that take most players out of the game. And if he could move just a tiny bit quicker on defense, you get the sense he'd be beastly -- he was an excellent defender in the Euroleague, where you didn't need to have that extra half-step to close space against the faster, more athletic beasts that call the NBA home. Unfortunately, you need that half-step in the NBA. And Splitter doesn't really have it.
As for his offense, that's not really the problem. Although there are a few issues. On a personal level, exogenous to his fit on the team, he's a phenomenal offensive player. He has an excellent nose for the rim, sneaking within holes in the defense I can barely comprehend to get easy at-rim layups most players wouldn't realize they had. His two-man roll game with Manu Ginobili has always been phenomenal, and out of all the offensive talents of any Spurs players on the bench, none are quite as dependable as Splitter's ability to create relatively open shots on-the-move at the rim. One wonders if Memphis will defend it quite as well as they did in 2011 if they meet up again in the playoffs -- Splitter is older, and the majority of his NBA driving game seems to have emerged in the last year or so. He has a decent-if-not-spectacular hook shot, as well, which he uses to post-up guys underneath the basket when he gets a favorable matchup. It's not a wonderful shot, but to his credit, it's one of the more effective hook shots in the league. He compounds all of that with both a talent at drawing free throws and a substantially above-average knack for making them -- teams fouled Splitter intentionally in last year's playoffs, which has led to the common misconception that he's bad at them. News flash -- Splitter broke his off-hand in the 2nd game of the playoffs, which messed up his genuinely solid form (he's been around a 70% free throw shooter these last few years). His percentage absolutely tanked for the duration of the playoffs, leading teams to intentionally foul him. It wasn't yips. It wasn't jitters. It was an ill-timed broken hand that betrayed his general free throw form, to these eyes. And barring another broken hand, it probably won't happen again.
The only real issue with Splitter's offensive game is simply a lack of versatility. He finishes at the rim, posts-up with his hook shot, and draws fouls. That's really it. He's a good passer, which helps, but he has absolutely no outside shot. The Spurs understand that and don't force him to chuck from distance, which is good, but one really wishes he could -- the primary reason Duncan/Splitter is such a difficult lineup to play is Splitter's inability to do anything outside 6 or 7 feet. He can't make a jump shot to save his life, no matter how good he is at his flat-footed free throws. In any Duncan/Splitter lineup, Splitter is necessarily forcing Duncan to play the role of outside-shooting-specialist and generally taking Duncan out of the at-rim area, where he's best at corralling offensive boards and defending the point of attack. Duncan/Splitter lineups -- in theory -- should be amazing. But Splitter's game detracts from Duncan's and makes those lineups a struggling proposition on offense, requiring the 3-man guard unit to take up the bulk of the team's offensive responsibilities while Splitter and Duncan try to cram two generally ill-fitting skillsets together into a working mesh. It makes the Spurs a bit easier to defend, and a bit less dynamic -- even if it improves the Spurs' defense a touch and makes Spurs fans long for the day it'll actually work as it's supposed to.
So, I repeat -- Tiago Splitter isn't quite what he was supposed to be. Is it because he's a bad player? Hardly! Players who have roll games like Splitter don't grow on trees, and while his rebounding is a bit lacking and his defense a tad slow, he's a solid starting center in the NBA. John Hollinger noted in his profiles that once his Spurs contract runs its course this offseason, Splitter is likely to garner some high contract numbers on the open market. San Antonio fans may be shocked, but the man was absolutely right. Splitter's put up monstrous efficiency numbers for the past 88 games now, and on a team with a better spread-option besides him, he could get even better! He just isn't quite what Spurs fans hoped for when they saw the Spanish League MVP coming over off being a a 3x champion of his own league, with visions of a Duncan successor dancing through everyone's head. It's not fair, it's not entirely reasonable, and it's not an accurate reflection of how Splitter was ever likely to turn out. But it's sports fandom. Which makes it patently reasonable, whether or not it's strictly fair.
Follow Gerald Wallace and go fishing. No, not figuratively. In his backyard.
Full disclosure -- I love Gerald Wallace. Not in a romantic sense, obviously. But I adore his game. Wallace embodies just about everything I love to see in an NBA wing player. Gritty devotion to the game, emphatic rebounding, intensely physical defensive dominance. Some people like to see sweet-shooting Jordanesque guards or dominant Shaq/Howard style centers. I've never been one of those people. Give me a defensively dominant big a la Duncan or Bogut any day, but if you can't give me one of those, I'll take the "gritty star wing with a chip on his shoulder and a knack for the boards" any day. Love watching the energy, the hustle, the vicious challenge they pose to the man tasked with scoring on them. Simply can't get enough of it. Wallace -- to me -- is the best reason to watch the Nets.
How does he play the game, on the offensive end? Not amazingly well, but not horrifyingly poorly either. He posted one of the lowest at-rim percentages among all wings in the NBA last year, which was partly a problem of volume -- very few players took more than 100 shots at the rim last year, but Wallace took an outright astonishing 312. His layup conversion skills were solid, if not phenomenal -- his problem was simply that he doesn't have the ability to get up and dunk 2 or 3 times a game anymore, and his finishing (while, again, solid) balks a bit when called on 5-6 times a game. Anything does. It's the same principle with decent long-range shooters -- very few players take 5-6 threes a game, because eventually they stop leaving you open. Teams know Wallace is going to the rim and they do their best to cut him off at the pass or bother his rise. He's done his best over his whole career with dunks and strong finishes -- in his all-star 2010 season, he had 71 dunk attempts! Last season he had 16. Which sort of gets to the unfortunate heart of the matter. As he gets older and loses his legs, his offensive game will continue its gradual falloff. Which is a shame.
What's really impressive about Wallace -- and what makes him a semi-star, even despite his flagging offensive skillset -- is his defense and rebounding. The man's defense is simply wonderful -- contained drops of aggression in what generally amounts to a constant onslaught to the opposing team's offensive system. He's at his best against teams with a scout-able system and a great deal of tape to sift through. He watches the tape, finds the point of least protection, and anchors his defense to the sole purpose of eviscerating the opposing offense whenever they reach that point of attack. This does lead to a few unfortunate downsides -- he's never been a phenomenal man-to-man defender, focusing his talents on defending a full team or a full possession rather than focusing on a single player. It's not that he can't do man-to-man defense -- he can, it just isn't his strongest suit. This leads to the second, perhaps more important downside: he gets injured a lot. The man lunges with abandon over the court, disrupting set plays and blowing up the other team's comfort zone -- this leads to a lot of short-cuts around possible ankles to trip on, and occasional moments where he's completely off balance. Which generally ends in either an injury that takes him out a few games or a lingering malady that detracts from his game while he plays through it. He puts it all on the floor for his guys, and while this is utterly respectable, it does lead to some occasionally ill-timed periods where he's simply something of a nonentity, whether literally due to injury absence or figuratively due to lingering injuries sapping his play.
Net and net, the guy is a wonder. His rebounding is viciously effective, and he's been one of the best pound-for-pound rebounders in the NBA for the last 7 years running. He's the best player in the Bobcats' franchise history, and while some would scoff and use that as a put-down for a dismal franchise, I'd tell them to kindly stuff it and appreciate a player who's been way better than most think over his career. He's one of 30 "best players in franchise history" in the history of the league. Appreciate that. He's getting older, now, and his game is falling a bit. Some effort-lapses on the defensive end, some lost mobility, his somewhat shiftless at-rim game. Et cetera. Off the court, Wallace is a soft-spoken family man with the best voice in the NBA. Well, that's what Holly MacKenzie says. I think it's a toss-up between Wallace and Patty Mills, but he's definitely up there. Fun fact: his favorite show is Popeye the Sailor Man. He's a country guy at heart, one who had a 2.5 acre lake built in his Alabama backyard so he could relax and fish during the offseason. Wonderful stuff. I wish I had more to say about a player I've adored for so long, but I consistently miss the mark on how exactly to approach presenting Wallace to others. He's not a superstar, which may be the unfortunate depiction that my enthusiasm has given you -- he's certainly not a top-50 player at this point in his career, and he's falling off quickly as his athleticism wanes. But he's still a joy to watch, and he's still a wonderful player. Next time you turn on a Nets game, focus in on the little things Wallace does.
It's so fun. So much joy. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.
What's happened to poor MarShon? The kid started off his rookie year scoring in gangbusters, averaging 15 points a contest over his first 16 along with a nice string of 11-straight double-digit scoring outbursts. He combined that with about 5 rebounds a night, an excellent total that underlined a player with a heck of a lot of potential. He played almost 30 minutes per game as a rookie, averaging 12 points per contest -- he's one of only 196 rookies in the history of the league to reach 12 points a night and 29 minutes a contest, which translates to about 3 or 4 rookies a season. Impressive stuff from a 25th pick out of Providence that nobody really expected anything out of. Entering 2013, this was as close to a no-trade player as Brooklyn had on its supporting cast -- he was the only real promising young player Brooklyn had to offer, and Brooks was one of the main pieces in any theoretical Howard trade.
So much for that. He's averaged just 11 minutes per game this season, and while it's partly due to the tendinitis he suffered in preseason and an ankle sprain he suffered in mid-November, his playing time has vanished even considering that. In his rookie year, he had zero games of <8 minutes played -- this year, he has seven, and that's not even counting games missed to injury or DNP-CDs. The reason is simple. With the new Nets roster, Brooks is a man without a position. He can't really play the three, despite having ample length to -- he doesn't have the strength yet and he doesn't really have the ability to comfortably stick with the stronger players he faces when he's tasked with guarding large wings. But he's not what the Nets really need at the two, either -- the Nets offense relies on spot-up shooters and catch-and-shoot players to augment the passing brilliance of Deron Williams and the passing decent-ness of Joe Johnson -- for now, Jerry Stackhouse has utterly obliterated Brooks in the realm of spot-up shooting, which has made him the far more reasonable play for a team that's trying to win now. While nobody disagrees that Brooks will be better than Stackhouse in a year or two, Stackhouse fits better now.
That really isn't a good omen for Brooks' future. It belies a big problem with his game that he needs to figure out -- namely, his personal inability to score efficiently off the catch-and-shoot. He's a positively dismal catch-and-shoot scorer, and if he needs to have the ball in his hands and time to operate to get a decent shot off, he's not going to be very long for the league. There aren't going to be many teams in his career where Brooks will get to be the primary scorer, or a superstar-tier possession-eating gunner. Essentially, he's at a crossroads. As a player, Brooks does nothing particularly well other than score -- his rebounding floats around position average, but otherwise he's a decidedly poor passer, an awful defender, and a turnover-prone fiend. If he combines that heretofore lacking tertiary skillset with a scoring game that simply doesn't fit on good teams, it's hard to really see a way forward. He was a promising scorer as a rookie, at least to begin the season (he had a relatively underheralded swan dive after he broke his toe in late January, and played 3 months of terrible, sub-replacement-level ball after the hypetrain left the station). But if Brooks can't either develop some off-the-ball skills or restructure his scoring game to be a better fit to a less self-centered offense, he's not going to last very long as a scoring talent. Just about everyone in the NBA can score if you give them carte blanche and tell them they can make as many mistakes as they want -- it's the guys who can fit into varied systems and don't make common mistakes that write their own check in this league. Brooks is a promising guy, but he isn't that kind of a player yet. It's incumbent on him to become one, if he'd like to stick around.
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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. Nobody did better than 1/3, indicating I did a rather poor job of composing the prior riddles. Alas. Props to our several 1/3 guessers -- Sir Thursday and Chilai, namely.
- Player #352 is a lazy pizza fiend who inspired the only drunk capsule of last year's series. Screw this guy.
- Player #353 is a locker-room leader in the most dysfunctional locker room in the league. Damning with faint praise, perhaps, but he's a good guy.
- Player #354 IS SO AWFUL THIS YEAR HOW CAN A POINT GUARD BE SO BAD HOW CAN THIS EVEN HAPPEN BLEAUUUGHHH
Welcome to the last full week of capsules. I hope you've enjoyed your stay.
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