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Just messing around, getting triple doubles
Category Archives: College Basketball
January 5, 2018Posted by on
I can’t say my first intentional experience with Oklahoma’s Trae Young was as uninterruptedly studious as I would have liked. My face was thawing after shoveling snow in the frigid Iowa afternoon. My nearly-10-month-old son was bouncing, cackling at unintelligible noises I made in attempts to distract him from the teething pain that’s turned our house upside down the past couple days. In the middle of the chaos was my Samsung TV, mounted to the wall above a gas fireplace that doesn’t work, presenting Trae Young to me in all his evolutionary glory.
Young is a 6’2” point guard from Norman, Oklahoma. He just turned 19 a few months ago and has a wispy moustache and hair that makes me think he could be Persian. Or maybe Native American or Indian or Filipino. I can almost picture him astride a horse, speeding across the Norman prairies and parking lots, thinnish hair whipping in the Norman wind, on his way to a game. He’s flirting with a unibrow and while he has a slight build, his shoulders are square and look prepared to carry more muscle and mass. Conventionally speaking, he doesn’t look the part though “the part,” as embodied by Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, or LeBron James, is being rewritten by two-time-MVP and two-time-NBA Champion, Stephen Curry who happens to be the stylistic predecessor to Young.
My timeline is far from definitive, but the first time I recall seeing the trickle down of Currynomics was when LaMelo Ball, late of Vyautas Prienal-Birstonas of the Lithuanian Basketball League, became a sensation as a 15-year-old sophomore for Chino Hills High School during the 2016-17 season. He scored 92 points in one game and audaciously made a half-court shot just seconds into another game. Aside from these attention-grabbing highlights, Ball frequently took and made shots from NBA three-point range and deeper. If you strip away the outspoken divisiveness of his father, Lavar, there’s a supremely talented and skinny young basketball player in LaMelo. My first thoughts when I saw his highlights were of young kids seeing the rise of Curry, with his 30-foot jumpers and “California Cool” (H/T George Karl) approach, and misinterpreting what they saw. Ball, who pointed to his spot before canning the half-courter I mentioned, became a poster boy target of sorts for the get off my lawn crowd most notably represented by Charles Barkley. Barkley, a league MVP as a 6’4” undersized power forward, once claimed Curry was “just a great shooter.”
However far off-base Barkley’s assessment of Curry was, it stands as a representation of a perspective held by many former players, and likely present players, that Curry doesn’t belong at the table with other NBA greats. For Curry, the suspicion isn’t limited to style as I wrote about during this year’s finals, but are inclusive of race via skin color and class with him coming from a well-off, fully intact NBA family. Barkley’s comments and sentiments are coded in the sense that boxing Curry into being “just a great shooter” discount his generational skill level, advanced ball handling, finishing at the rim, his passing, his selflessness and on. By labeling him, or anyone like him, as “just a great shooter,” any threat to Barkley (or those who share his view and comprehension) is neutralized because Curry and his ilk become the “other.”
LaMelo Ball isn’t alone in seeing something in Curry that could be applied to his own game. About a month ago, I attended a high school basketball game in Des Moines, Iowa. For someone who hasn’t attended a high school game in over a decade, the experience of merely walking into the building and being swallowed by giddy teenage energy is one of adjustment. I packed into the doors of North High School with the rest of the human cattle being corralled towards concessions and the gym. If you’ve been away for a while, it’s disorienting to see a mass of teens from a 37-year-old’s eyes and see your former self moving through those crowds in complete normalcy. North’s point guard and their main attraction is a smallish 5’10”, 170lbs junior named Tyreke Locure who looks to be taller than his listed height due to a dyed bushy faux hawk – similar to LaMelo’s. He’s a mid-to-low D1 prospect who posted 56 points on 33 shots just a couple weeks after I saw him. In the game I attended, Locure and his North teammates exhibited a trigger-happy penchant for chucking deep threes. In my most Chuck-ish, I found myself criticizing the game plan until those bombs started falling – which probably says something about my commitment to a strategy. Collectively, they were quick to pass up half-court opportunities in exchange for deep, often contested, threes. Locure’s game did not appear to be defined by hash mark threes. I saw him looking for the small spaces to let fly, but within that were probing drives, dump-offs, and floaters, but the Curry influence was evident.
With North, I find myself needing to justify their liberal bombs by pointing to their success. Under their current coach, Chad Ryan, and with Locure as starting point guard in 16-17, they made the state tournament for the first time since 1991. MaxPreps currently has them ranked 7th in the state. The approach is working. And where instinct pushes me to find justification, intellect tells me question instinct. This is probably where my conventional way of thinking, some inner-Barkley, is running into my embrace of revolution, my inner-Curry/Steve Kerr.
Locure and Ball represent different points on a spectrum of who and how Curry has influenced a culture of ballplayers. Ball is probably at the most polarizing end of the spectrum. A kid whose game built on the notoriety that comes with being something of a Curry-clone – though that’s unlikely how he views himself. Maybe some of that is unfairly worded by confusing the son for the father. Locure and his North teammates, by contrast, have had the game opened by a combination of their abilities, their coaching, and (I’m mildly confident in this assumption) by Steph Curry whose influence has become omnipresent – from the California coast and the Hills of Chino to the tornado alleys of Oklahoma to the cold December gyms of Des Moines and a billion Instagram clips in between.
In April of 2017, Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck wrote a piece making a compelling case as to why the quest for the Next Michael Jordan had been on the decline over the past few years. In the story, Beck refers to the present as “Generation Steph,” and writes of high school coach and former NBA player Penny Hardaway that, “he’s had to admonish his players more than once for launching from 30 feet, like a band of mini-Steph Currys.”
Curry would be difficult enough to guard if he was, as Barkley said, “just a great shooter.” He’d be Kyle Korver or J.J. Redick – which isn’t to discount their non-shooting skills. Instead, the range and his ability to attack off the dribble, to both find the open teammate or finish around the rim at an elite level, make him, at times, the most disruptive offensive player in the NBA. In Jack McCallum’s Golden Days, he writes about Curry being a revolutionary player in that he’s doing things with range and accuracy that we haven’t seen before. In his notes about the book on his site, McCallum quoted Curry and wrote:
“Nobody talked much about long shots until three years ago,” Curry says. “When my father [Dell, a sharp-shooter who retired in 2002 after 16 seasons] was playing, heck, there wasn’t even much talk about three-pointers at all.”
Well, you pretty much started that conversation, Curry is reminded. He shrugs. “It’s not something I consciously set out to do,” Curry says. “Most of the long ones come when the defense is back-pedaling and I’m in rhythm. I don’t really think about what the exact distance is. It’s basically where I feel comfortable from.”
That is the key word—comfort. When something is new, it feels uncomfortable. Despite the fact that the three-point shot has been in the NBA since 1979, it never became a real weapon until the last decade, and even that is stretching it. Why? Coaches were never comfortable with it. We can always work it closer to the basket, went the thinking. But once Curry demonstrated that he could make the looooong ones, Steve Kerr did grow comfortable with it, and “four-pointers”–those long-range bombs that demoralize opponents to the point that they seem to be worth an extra point–became a big part of the Warriors’ offense … not to mention a big part of the NBA’s entertainment package.
McCallum makes the argument that Kevin Durant or even LeBron James are doing things we’ve seen – scoring, passing, rebounding – but doing it with evolutionary physicality. KD is seven-feet tall handling the ball like a point guard. Bron is built like Karl Malone with the athleticism of MJ and the court vision of Magic. He writes, “I doubt that 30 years ago, even 15 years ago, we could’ve envisioned such a complete player at that (KD’s) size.”
I accept McCallum’s argument that Curry is a revolutionary player. He’s been able to push out the boundaries of what’s possible on an NBA court and do it in a way that’s about as effective as we can fathom. It doesn’t mean that players can’t expand their range further as we’ve seen with Ball shooting from half court, but that, at some point, there are diminishing returns or that the long distance becomes a means in and of itself, not, as Curry says, “something I consciously set out to do.”
It’s unfair to seek out the Next Curry in every long-distance shooting teenager just like was unfair to label every dunking shooting guard as the “Next MJ.” Instead of seeking out the Next Anyone, it’s more accurate to identify the traits of iconic players in the next generation and establish a stylistic family tree of sorts. In terms of a basketball lineage, Ball and Locure are inheriting some of the stylistic genes of Curry. As kids who aren’t yet of voting age, how their futures map out are wildly variable, but in each, the fingerprints of Curry are visible.
The future of Trae Young, at just 19-years-old, is much more clearly defined. In the midst of the madness swirling around me during the Oklahoma-TCU game, what I saw was a point guard bending an entire half of the court to his own will. Young scored 39 points and had 14 assists yet, for me, he didn’t even play a great game. While there wasn’t a single TCU defender who could keep Young out of the lane, on more than one occasion, he left his feet and without a passing outlet, was forced to hopelessly fling a shot at the rim. He shot 9-23 for the game, but six of those makes were from three. Inside the paint, he was 3-7. While he struggled with interior accuracy, all those forays into the paint helped push his free throw attempts up to 18. (For the season, he’s impressively averaging more than one free throw attempt for every two field attempts.) He was able to beat his defenders into the paint with a combination of speed, quickness, the threat of the deep ball (see his shot chart below), and a purposeful handle developed well-beyond his age. (Here he is functionally pulling off the Shammgod earlier this season.)
14 assists is nice and all, but Young easily could’ve had more. He frequently found open teammates both under the hoop and along the perimeter. They made plenty, but missed some gimmes too. That they were so open is testament to Young’s playmaking and vision, his teammates shot making (and occasional shot missing), and coach Lon Kruger’s pro style deployment of personnel around the perimeter. Young frequently had release valves in the corners that he didn’t have to look for; he knew they were there. He had full court assists, no-look wrap around passes, jump passes off slaloms to the rim. More often than not, he made the right decisions. And while the 3-7 in the paint and seven turnovers look ugly, the indefatigable pressure he put on the TCU defense was more than worth the trade off to a teammate or alternative pace of attack. The game was ultra-high pressure, decided by a single point, and yet Young played the entirety of the second half and only sat two minutes all game.
The passing and driving are great, even titillating, but his range and shot release time are where the Curry comparisons become inescapable. I have no idea exactly how accurate the shot chart below is in terms of distance, but it’s accurate in the sense that the distances match up with what I witnessed. There are tracking systems that can tell us how close defenders were, but from my distracted viewing, a couple of those bombs were with defenders in his space, but unexpectant. By the time the defender realized what was happening, Young was already too deep into his motion with a release they couldn’t catch up to. Like Curry, or any deep shooter, this ability opens up mega avenues for penetration.
I don’t know if people look for the “Next” because we’re lazy or have bad habits or because we see points of reference in players. Maybe it’s the never-ending quest for immortality through progeny. Penny was the Next Magic. Eddy Curry was the Next Shaq. Harold Miner was literally Baby Jordan. The excitement I felt watching Trae Young wasn’t in seeing the Next Steph Curry, but seeing the possible evolution of what Curry has brought to basketball. I caught just a glimpse, the kind of glimpse that people turn into Loch Ness Monsters and UFOs and Yetis. Maybe it was just a tease and Young is more Jimmer than Steph. Or maybe it’s the next evolutionary step in audacious offense. I wouldn’t say I’ve seen the future, but I’ve seen Steph Curry and I’ve seen Trae Young and I’m good with that.
January 6, 2016Posted by on
I spent ten days over the holidays with friends and family in my homeland in Iowa. Somewhere in these annual nostalgic returns, I always find myself coordinating schedules with my dad, trying to find a bar where we can meet up for some sporting event, preferably one where our loyalties lie on the same side. The rising stability of my alma mater’s (the University of Iowa) basketball program has offered that which we seek and so it was on a Tuesday night we descended on a truly gluttonous BBQ joint near the Drake University campus called Jethro’s. Jethro’s specializes in a five-pound artery-clogging burger sandwich named after one of Drake’s recent basketball heroes: Adam Emmenecker. (I will forever be amazed at the glory that accompanies a sandwich-eating event, but that’s what happens at Jethro’s.)
Without audio and strangely surrounded by LSU fans in the heart of Des Moines, Iowa, we settled in with our beers to watch Iowa host then-top ranked Michigan State who was without their All-American, All-Everything forward Denzel Valentine. Iowa led all game despite its best player and the subject of this piece putting together an underwhelming offensive performance. Jarrod Uthoff, a sunken-cheeked 23-year-old from Cedar Rapids, IA came into the game averaging around 18 points/game, but was held to just ten while struggling with foul trouble and committing eight turnovers. In a nod to the two-way nature of his ever-developing game, Uthoff, the Big 10’s leading shot blocker, swatted six Spartan shots. Iowa led the entire game and my dad and I, along with my buddy Hamilton, walked away with feelings of satisfaction and a desire to carry the momentum to another watering hole.
This recent bonding in the motherland coupled with Iowa’s strong play this season (ranked 19th in the country with back-to-back wins over ranked Big 10 teams) has compelled me to explore Iowa through Uthoff. He’s the best player on the team, an Iowa native that went from skinny, gaunt-faced kid who persevered through some ugly transfer nonsense at Wisconsin to Iowa where he bided time behind eventual NBA player Devyn Marble and Wizards draftee Aaron White to a dynamic two-way threat who can apparently carry some sinewy muscle on an otherwise lithe frame.
But it’s not enough to develop physically and it’s not enough to just be 23. At 6’9”, 221lbs, Uthoff plays the four for Iowa where he’s equally at ease attacking bigger defenders off the dribble, spotting up behind the arc, or punishing even narrower opponents in the post. 15 games into the season, he’s averaging over 18 points/game on 50% shooting from the field and 45% from three. And what’s more, at 6’9”, he’s become somewhat of a volume shooter from deep where he’s taking nearly five threes/game and making two. While he slots in at the four, he’s a wing on the Hawkeyes which makes his shot blocking ability so compelling.
His wingspan was measured at just 6’10.5” at the Nike Basketball Academy, but he looks kind of raptorish out there with dangling arms that harass the hell out of opponents. He’s fourth in the country averaging 3.3 blocks/game, second in total blocks with 49 and fourth in block percentage at 11.7%. All these blocks and he’s not in any way a rim protector. He moves well laterally and expertly times when to commit to the block attempt. His blocks appear to come in man-to-man situations where opponents continue to underestimate his ability to close space and on help situations where he swoops around with unbiased menace knocking shots off target. A few days ago, Adam Jacobi of Black Heart Gold Pants of SB Nation went a step further with his analysis:
Uthoff has more than doubled his blocks, and now ranks third nationally in blocks at 3.2* per game, but he’s “only” 17th in block percentage** at 11.68%, per Ken Pomeroy ($). That’s still elite, but we see that part of his ability to accumulate so many blocks is his ability to stay on the court for more minutes than most shot blockers, and he does that with an amazing ability to stay out of foul trouble. In fact, Uthoff commits only 2.6 fouls per 40 minutes, and that is one hell of an accomplishment. Not only is it the lowest of anybody in Pomeroy’s top 100 in block percentage, nobody else is even below 3.0 (and only a handful are even below 3.5).
Part of that ability to stay on the court and avoid fouls is because Uthoff’s not patrolling the lane like so many traditional rim protectors. He’s quicker and lighter on his feet so he’s able to avoid fouls where many college bigs struggle. And that’s what makes his 3.3bpg so damn impressive.
Anyone who’s read this blog with any regularity knows I get particularly giddy when I can marry stat combinations into unique historical context. And this is what sucked me into Uthoff’s strange Iowa City gravity: since 1995-96 (the first season Sports-Reference.com/cbb has these stats), no other player in college basketball has average 3+ blocks and 2+ threes/game. And it’s not even close. (As an aside, Jacobi explores this same topic in his piece and my heart sank when I saw it, but we’re still going to plumb the historical context of the Uthoffian achievement.)
To find statistical comps for Uthoff, we can open up the filter on either criteria – 3s made or blocks. Jacobi already opened up it by dropping the blocks to 2/game which pulls in former Naismith and Wooden award winning Shane Battier. Not bad company for a kid that didn’t even break the top-100 preseason player ranks of CBS or ESPN.
I decided to take a different angle and keep the blocks static (3+) while lowering the threes/game to find someone who at least disrupted defense in a similar fashion. The filter has to be reduced all the way down to one 3/game before we get some company.
Criteria: at least 3bpg and 1 3PM/game:
- Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa, 2015-16: 3.3bpg, 2 3pm/g
- Chris Boucher, Oregon, 2015-16: 3.1bpg, 1 3pm/g
- Alec Brown, Green Bay, 2013-14: 3.1bpg, 1.4 3pm/g
- Greg Mangano, Yale, 2010-11: 3bpg, 1.1 3pm/g
- Eddie Griffin, Seton Hall, 2000-01: 4.4bpg, 1.4 3pm/g
I’ve never heard of Alec Brown, Greg Mangano, and had to look up Chris Boucher to see if I knew who he was (I didn’t). Eddie Griffin’s another story as his freshman season was one of the few things I remember from 2000-01 when I was a sophomore in college. And as a reminder, none of these other guys was hitting 2+ threes/game.
To beat this dead horse a little more: what Uthoff’s doing is unprecedented in the college game. He’s not a specialist player who can hit a couple spot up threes and get help-side blocks. He’s averaging nearly 19 points/game as the focal point for a potent Iowa offense that averages over 80ppg and ranks 24th in the country in offensive rating (per sports-reference). In three recent games against ranked teams, he’s scored 32 (30 in the first half with four total blocks) against then 4th-ranked Iowa State, the aforementioned 10 points (with six blocks) in the MSU victory, and 25 (with five blocks) on the road against 14th-ranked Purdue. For the season, Iowa’s played five ranked teams, has a 3-2 record in those games and Uthoff has stepped up seeing his season averages go up as the quality of opponent increases: 21.8ppg (+3), 4.4bpg (+1), 34.4mpg (+~6) while his shooting stays flatly solid at 45% from three.
I have this compulsive need to ask out loud and inquire about Uthoff’s NBA prospects. NBADraft.net and DraftExpress have left him off of their mock drafts, but ESPN’s Chad Ford has him 39th overall on his big board. DraftExpress though, has a thorough, fair, and mostly positive scouting report that offers a firm handshake-type reassurance. It’s like, “we’ve got a chance here.” But Uthoff, like all basketball players, doesn’t deserve to have his identity as a player defined by pro prospects. He deserves to have his immense collegiate achievements speak for themselves. And regardless of what the future fates have in store for Uthoff, he’s already finding ways to bring fathers and sons closer and that immeasurable quality is as beautiful, if intangible as any once-in-a-generation stat-lines he might conjure up.