Of Pace and Peaks and the Limits of Porter’s Potential
In sports, you’re either keeping up with the competition, or you’re falling behind. That’s the reality of team-building in the 21st century. Shoot, that’s the reality of team-building in any century.
The NBA of today’s Washington Wizards is a copy-cat league, and in that sense, it’s not much different than the NFL (see: zone blitzing, situation substitutions, the spread), the MLB (where “stability” is now hailed as king), or top-class soccer leagues. Super-analyst Michael Cox recently wrote a piece for ESPN.com about how team-builders in the world of soccer have developed a serious need for speed. In the post, Cox links to former England national team striker Michael Owen’s celebrated goal against Argentina in the ’98 World Cup.
While England would ultimately lose to Argentina in penalty kicks (3-4), Owen’s run and score is still considered by many as one of the greatest goals in World Cup history. He was 18 years old. By 21, Owen had won FIFA’s Ballon d’Or, an honor awarded each year to Europe’s top player. Watch the goal again. There isn’t much to it, besides a really fast teenager sprinting past older defenders before using some class to finish the play in the box.
Here’s Cox with more:
Owen was a tremendously fast striker, of course, and arguably the main development in football over the last 15 years has been the growing obsession with pace. Even contests from the turn of the century now appear alarmingly slow compared to the frenetic speed of games to which we’ve become accustomed. Where pace once seemed a distinctive feature of some attackers’ skill sets, and a handy bonus for players in deeper positions, now it appears mandatory.
It’s unthinkable that, for example, [Liverpool F.C. manager] Brendan Rodgers would sign a promising young versatile attacker who had great all-round technical ability, but was on the sluggish side. The case of Arsenal’s Theo Walcott, meanwhile, is interesting—he’s grown into a reliable attacking weapon, but for many years was about pure speed.
Arsenal took a raw sprinter and spent years developing his footballing ability—once upon a time, coaches seemed to look for technical talents before waiting for their physical ability to develop.
The same mentality—”let’s do it faster”—seems to be driving front-office decisions across the NBA landscape. Over the last 15 years, pace has trended upward in the NBA. The average NBA team in 1997-98 used 89 possessions per 48 minutes. Last season, in 2012-13, the average team used 92 possessions per 48 minutes. Now, while pace of play doesn’t exactly inform the type of athletes teams throw onto the hardwood every night, like pace, athleticism is also on the uptick.
“I think today’s players, to a great degree because of the innovative training techniques that are available that didn’t exist or weren’t believed in 30 years ago, if you’re looking at film may make it easy to say that today’s players are much more gifted than players of the past,” Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak said in 2011.
“In my opinion,” Gary Vitti, L.A.’s head athletic trainer, added, “we have much better athletes today, but maybe not as good of basketball players. There are plenty of exceptions, but many players of today are not as skilled because they didn’t need to be growing up; they were competitive by running by you or jumping over you, and didn’t need to be skilled because of their athletic ability.
“A case in point are the European players who are generally less athletic but have better skills.”
… This brings me to Washington’s prized rookie, Otto Porter.
Did team brass make the right decision in drafting him third overall?
I ask because Porter’s game looks like a throwback to the age of long hair, headbands, afros, and short shorts: the ’80s, Mitch Kupchak’s NBA.
Kupchak, a former Tar Heel, was ACC Player of the Year and a consensus NCAA All-American second teamer in 1975. He won an Olympic gold medal in ’76. He was then drafted in the first round by the Washington Bullets, making the All-Rookie First Team in 1977 and winning the NBA championship in 1978. As a Laker, he was part of the ’82 and ’85 title teams.
Over his 10-year NBA career, Kupchak averaged 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. That’s a pretty nice résumé, but Kupchak couldn’t make an NBA roster today. That’s what Maxwell Kupchak tells his dad once a week after they battle on the driveway, anyway.
Circumstances are a bit different with Porter, of course. Porter was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft and has already signed his rookie-scale contract with the Wizards. He’s on the team for the foreseeable future and is expected to be a contributor in the rotation from Day 1. … Well, he was before the Las Vegas Summer League. Expectations have surely been tempered since. The reason? He was invisible for large stretches of the two and a half games he appeared in, before a tight hamstring had him shelved by Sam Cassell and the rest of the coaching staff.
Wasn’t Porter, a consensus All-American, supposed to be the most “NBA-ready” prospect in the Class of 2013-14? He sure didn’t look like it in the desert. What happened?
While Porter has the brains and the heart to compete (otherwise “basketball IQ” and “versatility” wouldn’t trail his every mention), Porter may not have the hops or hustle to truly take advantage of his attributes. DraftExpress.com put together their Athletic Testing Composite Rankings. While imperfect, the rankings aim to grade the best and worst athletes in the draft class.
Data from the Chicago combine may be overrated in predicting production at an NBA level, but it isn’t without value. Porter’s ATCR score ranked 38th of 52. Like Kelly Olynyk, who measured as one of the worst athletes in attendance, “Otto Porter didn’t stand out either, finishing at or below average in each test,” DraftExpress Director of Operations Matt Kamalsky wrote. “Porter has never been lauded for his athleticism, but for a player who could hear his name called in the top-3, he lacks a degree of explosiveness relative to many players picked that high historically.”
Compare Porter to last year’s No. 2 overall pick, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. MKG not only has all the intangibles people cheer in Porter, along with all the weaknesses like ball-handling and perimeter shooting, but he also has the athleticism that Porter can’t ever hope to compete with:
So, while MKG shot 27.2 percent from the field on jumpers as a rookie and took just nine 3s (making two), I still think he has an edge over Porter when it comes to developing a complete NBA game, even if the Wizards rookie is already more comfortable scoring outside the paint. MKG was above average in points per play on cuts, offensive rebounds, hand-offs and in transition—he shot 62.7 percent at the rim on 314 attempts. Throw in a reconstructed jumper ready for the 2013-14 campaign and you’re looking a prospect who is actually younger than Otto Porter with much higher upside. I’d rather have a player like that on the roster for the next five seasons instead of Otto Porter. DraftExpress video analyst Mike Schmitz would agree with me.
Porter’s lack of elite athleticism is one reason why I disagreed with Georgetown boss John Thompson III when he called Porter “by far the best player” in the draft, and why I’ll disagree with him again that “the Paul George comparisons are much more accurate than Tayshaun [Prince].” Paul George is a first-class athlete. Have we already forgotten that the Pacers swingman competed in an NBA Dunk Contest? (The Dunk Contest isn’t what it used to be, so … yes, maybe so.) Can we ever expect Otto Porter to be able to cross-up LeBron James, beat him to the hoop and dunk over Birdman? <Charles Barkley voice/> I may be wrong, but I doubt it.
Back to the big question: Did the Wizards make the wrong decision?
It’s way too early to say—Porter, 20, hasn’t even played in a regular season game yet. Porter has the mind of an NBA pro and a strong work ethic, so it’s reasonable to expect him to improve his handles, his strength and his jump shot as he matures. However, I’m not convinced that being able to cut away from the ball or leak out after anticipating defensive rebounds makes a player worthy of a top-3 selection, especially when Porter has the lateral quickness of a hulking 7-footer but with none of the pop.
Some say better point guard play and floor spacing will help Porter offensively, and I won’t disagree, but a more open floor will surely make it tougher on Porter to keep up with attack-minded wings, despite his length. During Summer League, never-have-beens were dribbling past Porter as if he were a chair in a pre-draft workout. He couldn’t buy a bucket. He had the rock ripped out of his hands on the perimeter and in the paint. He finished with a grand total of zero blocks. He did rebound OK (though Glen Rice, Jr. was better). Talk about a wake up call.
Some have looked at Porter’s struggles in Las Vegas and brought up Bradley Beal’s uneven Summer League play as a comparison. It doesn’t exactly compute. While Beal started slow (his shot wasn’t falling), he averaged 17.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists, and 7.2 free throw attempts per game, and often looked like the best player on the team (if not on the floor). His performance earned him a spot on the 2012 All-Summer League Team.
Here’s the roster:
Josh Selby – Memphis Grizzlies
Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers
Malcolm Thomas – Chicago Bulls
Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards
Tobias Harris – Milwaukee Bucks
John Henson – Milwaukee Bucks
Jeremy Lamb – Houston Rockets
Dominique Jones – Dallas Mavericks
Cory Joseph – San Antonio Spurs
Jimmy Butler – Chicago Bulls
Kemba Walker – Charlotte Bobcats
Donatas Motiejunas – Houston Rockets
Jae Crowder – Dallas Mavericks
Every player on that list, with the obvious exceptions of Josh Selby and Dominique Jones, has shown they have the skills to be a serviceable NBA player, if not much better. (In 2010, a rookie John Wall was named Most Outstanding Player in Vegas and joined the All-Tournament Team with the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Larry Sanders, DeMar DeRozan, Ty Lawson and more.)
Jones is actually an interesting case study. As a first-round pick, 25th overall in 2010, Jones (like Porter) was regarded as a solid defender, although an unremarkable athlete, with a better-than-average basketball IQ. Josh Bowe of Mavs Moneyball recapped the former first-round pick’s stint with in Dallas after he was waived in March:
The Mavs tried to convert him into a point guard and Jones showed off some promising vision in the half court, a welcome surprise. An unwelcome disappointment, however, was that all the ability Jones showed in college in converting at the rim and making free throws completely vanished. The Mavs knew his jumper would need work, but he’d always be able to get to the basket.
Jones got to the basket. A lot. Except he also missed once he got there. A lot. According to NBA.com, Jones shot 46 percent from the restricted area this season, a rather putrid number, especially after the promising 59 percent he posted from that area last season. His rookie year he shot 30.8 percent from the restricted area.
The NBA game clearly frustrated and hampered Jones one true above average skill. He just couldn’t adjust to the increased athleticism and length that the NBA game brought and Jones was normally denied in his many trips into the paint as a Maverick. His improved court vision couldn’t save his awful career 36.6 percent field goal percentage.
Does Jones’ experience and (lack of development) raise another red flag when it comes to Porter? Remember, at Georgetown, just 21 percent of Porter’s field goal attempts came at the basket. Half of his makes at the rim were assisted. Porter wasn’t much of a shot creator in college, and doesn’t project to be much better in the NBA.
Perhaps the Dominique Jones comparison is unfair to Porter. Passing skills and court vision are supposed to be part of the package. At G-Town, Porter had a positive Pure Point Rating (0.87) and his 3.2 assists per-40 minutes, pace adjusted, ranked sixth best among small forwards entering the draft (tied with Glen Rice, Jr.).
Regardless, he’ll either have to become a master of the mid-range jumper, or he’ll have to extend his range beyond the NBA 3-point line. Neither development is impossible, but the 18-footer is the least efficient shot in the game and becoming a reliable long-range requires thousands upon thousands of reps. Porter shot 42.2 percent from the college 3-point line last season, but it wasn’t a huge part of his game (0.29 3-point attempts per field goal attempt).
If he can pull that off, he may become the complementary piece the Wizards were so desperate to add to the roster… The super glue holding together a house of cards a la Tayshaun Prince. (Note: Prince, regarded as a stifling defensive presence, is a career 37 percent shooter from 3, and was once a capable one-on-one scorer off the dribble and in the post. Oh, and he played in 496 consecutive games, which puts him second all-time behind Andre Miller.)
The team-building strategy of molding tactical and technical stars out of heaps of athleticism seems to be the trend in sports, which means there must be exceptions. Michael Cox made note of a few young, brilliant, deep-lying playmakers in soccer who succeed not because of their pace but in spite of it: Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti, Inter Milan’s Mateo Kovacic, and Real Madrid’s Asier Illarramendi.
Porter will have to do the same: He’ll have to find a way to have an impact on a game without relying on the charity of his max-contract teammates, he’ll have to find a way to compete with the best athletes in the world without being one himself, he’ll have to be the exception. He’ll also have to learn how to create offense in the pick-and-roll, in isolation and on post-ups, which accounted for just 20 percent of his offense at Georgetown. Fortunately, Porter has time. Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza are way ahead of Porter on the depth chart, but the clock is ticking…
The Wizards ranked 20th in the league in applied athleticism (ATH) last season, per ESPN Insider Bradford Doolittle. ATH “compares each player’s percentage in rebounding, foul-drawing, blocked shots and steals to the league norms for a player of his height.” The ratios are regressed for playing time and averaged. Team ratings are determined by the ATH scores of every player on the roster, weighted by minutes played.
The advanced stats suggest that, even in the playoffs, sky-high athleticism gives teams an edge. Three of the four teams that made the conference finals ranked in the top half in ATH: Miami (3rd), Indiana (9th) and Memphis (14th). San Antonio was the exception at 21st.
The Wizards now expect to play into May as one of the lower-seeded teams in the Eastern Conference. They think they can win in the postseason. But Washington’s top athletes, according to ATH, were John Wall (29th), Emeka Okafor (70th) and Nene (80th). Wall’s impact is clear and he’s preparing to sign a five-year, $80 million extension; Okafor, 30, is in the final year of his contract; and Nene is on his last legs—in fact, he even thought about retiring at the end of 2012-13 season. So while “the organization is confident Nene will finally be ready for a normal minutes load this season,” I’m not so sure.
The front office in Washington had the opportunity to add another athlete like Cody Zeller or Nerlens Noel to the roster. Instead, they went with savvy and smarts in the first round of the draft. After air-balling on four first-round draft picks since 2010, it’s easy to see why Washington’s front office went with the “safe pick” in local kid Otto Porter.
I’m left wondering whether they played it too safe. And whether Porter can keep up.