Float On, DeJuan: What You Need to Know About Blair
DeJuan Blair is a Wizard. This isn’t news, no…
It is a bit of good news for Wizards fans, though, in particular those who feel that Ernest Grunfeld did them wrong in 2009 by selling the 32nd pick (Jermaine Taylor) to Houston for pesos instead of drafting Blair — a consensus first-team All-American, the Big East co-player of the year, and arguably, quietly, one of the best rebounding big men college basketball has ever seen.
In pegging the 6-foot-7 Pitt center as his 2009 National Player of the Year over Blake Griffin, Basketball Prospectus writer John Gasoway described Blair as “a team unto himself.”
“This is the first year we’ve seen a player dominate the offensive glass to such a ridiculous extreme that he alone can outperform entire teams,” Gasoway wrote, noting that Blair out-rebounded Colorado, Nebraska, Samford, Weber State, and Iowa State, and a few other schools.
“DeJuan Blair is both one of the most efficient offensive players in the nation and the second best defensive rebounder in major-conference hoops over the past five seasons. His unprecedented offensive rebounding has played a major role in making his team quite possibly the single most effective offense in the country.”
Passing on Blair didn’t make a lot of sense at the time. The Wizards, according to the Washington Post, wanted to move out of that spot “to acquire a veteran big man who would add depth to the frontcourt.” Grunfeld instead spent about $2 million to add “proven winner” and “rugged veteran” Fabricio Oberto, then 34, to the roster. He played 650 minutes, averaging 1.5 points and 1.8 rebounds per game.
Why not just draft Blair at an affordable first-year rate of $850,000? He averaged 7.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game as a rookie. (Also, why not keep the 5th overall pick in that same draft instead of exchanging it for Mike Miller and Randy Foye?)
What matters most now is that the ink has dried on Blair’s three-year, $6 million contract, set to keep him in D.C. till the summer of 2017 — the last year is unguaranteed, per ShamSports.
Wizards watchers are pumped (though not all has been forgiven).
“I love it, as a Pitt fan, and also a Wiz fan,” said a Hasheem Thabeet-hating friend of mine, a University of Pittsburgh alum, about the Blair pickup. “I think it was good for the price and you are bringing a high-energy guy and a good locker room guy. I also think he is versatile in that he can play the 4 and 5. Also, rebounding is always a huge attribute.”
Blair is ready for action in the nation’s capital, after stops in San Antonio, BC Krasnye Krylia of Russia’s VTB United League and, last season, Dallas. “I was very excited when I got the news. It was like a dream come true,” Blair said in a team-organized conference call in August. “Last year, I saw what type of team they had. The youth, the big men coming up, the ingredients around the team. And I think I’ll be a great addition.”
To the stats machine!
Blair appeared in 78 games for the Mavericks, starting 13, and played 1,213 minutes. He shot 53.4 percent from the field in 2013-14, which ranked 47th in the NBA. He averaged 6.4 points and 4.7 rebounds in 15.6 minutes per game and posted an above-replacement level 17.33 Player Efficiency Rating (PER).
“You often found yourself as the first big man off the bench, even with the return of Brandan Wright later in the season,” wrote Bryan Gutierrez of Mavs Outsider Report in a DeJuan Blair post-mortem. “Carlisle loved your tenacity on the glass, your ability to not back down against opposition and your willingness to bring a defensive disposition to the floor. On top of that, you brought some solid passing to the equation. That shouldn’t be a surprise as you were a Spur.”
“What surprised me was your game with a floater. It was … interesting. You ran neck-and-neck with Shawn Marion for the title of most unorthodox shots in the game. You generally threw up floaters with little to no momentum behind you. Hey, it worked, so you can’t mess with that is working.”
Ah, yes. The floater. It must have been born out of necessity. What’s a frontcourt player no taller than Trevor Booker but without the explosive athleticism — and without ACLs — to do?
Contrary to popular belief, Blair was, in fact, born with anterior cruciate ligaments. But he ruptured them as a high school sophomore and underwent two knee surgeries to repair the joint. So, what happened?
As Howard Beck, then of the New York Times, reported in 2009, the theory is that “the grafts did not take and were absorbed by the body,” and it wasn’t until the draft combine that Blair discovered he no longer had ACLs. “I was a little shocked,” Blair said. His neighboring ligaments have long since poured out a little liquor for dead homies and soldiered on.
Beck also spoke with Dr. James Gladstone, the chief of sports medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s department of orthopedic surgery, who described Blair as a “coper.” Copers are people who can function normally without an ACL and comprise just five percent of those who suffer serious ligament damage. “I certainly wouldn’t be in a rush to give him new ACLs,” Gladstone said, adding that the chances Blair’s knee buckles on a layup attempt, at this point, are “highly unlikely.”
Blair commented on his knees during the recent conference call with the media:
“You just got to keep your body in shape and just try to stay healthy and lift around them. Knowing that I don’t know have ACLs, I just try to work on my body around my knees just to make it better for a longer career. It’s just about maintaining your body and your weight.”
Back to the floater, Blair’s secret weapon…
He shot 14-for-26 on running jump shots (53.8%) and 9-for-19 (47.4%) on floating jump shots, his third- and fifth-most attempted shots types last season. Combined, he was 23-for-45 (51.1%) on floater-type shot attempts. To put that data into perspective, he made the same percentage of floater-type shots as Kyrie Irving and shot about 11 percentage points better than 2013 Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard (40.0%). Point God Chris Paul shot 67.2 percent and Team USA reject John Wall shot 73.5 percent.
Blair’s floater is money — it helped him not only make nearly 60 percent of his attempts inside eight feet, with high-arching shots over taller rim protectors, but also qualify in the top 100 for points per play in the pick-and-roll at 0.96 (198 plays).
He’s not, however, a jump shooter — he made just 34 percent of his 103 jump shot attempts (his favorite shot type). But he makes up for that shortcoming with outstanding spatial awareness (part of the all-important basketball IQ). Blair is always a threat on cuts. Last season, he was featured on 141 cut plays (second only to his 198 pick-and-roll plays) and scored 1.11 points per play. Cuts were a big part of Blair’s game because he was rarely the first offensive option in Dallas with Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, and Vince Carter featured.
As for Blair’s post play … it’s no better than average. He ran 33 post-up plays for the Mavs, scoring 0.85 points per play (48%). He does have a solid drop step, a decent up-and-under move, and is crafty with his layups, but he almost always goes right. And face-ups are only used to set up a back-to-the-basket play with his right hand. At 6-foot-7, he tends to struggle against defenders with size (most centers), but he does use the glass well.
On the defensive end, he’s OK. Last season, Blair allowed opponents to score 0.96 points per play and shoot 55 percent at the rim. But he does have a 7-foot-3 wingspan, which can alter shots and close would-be passing windows — only Shane Larkin had a better STL% than Blair (2.5%) for Dallas. And he can rebound, remember? He was second on the Mavs behind Samuel Dalembert in Offensive Rebound Percentage (13.3%), Defensive Rebounding Percentage (21.6%) and Total Rebounding Percentage (17.5%). His ORB% and TRB% were better than those posted by any Wizards player.
His plus/minus was 0.0, but he did have the fourth-best Win Share per 48 Minutes (.133) on the Mavericks. That’s 0.001 better than Trevor Booker’s WP/48 on the Wiz.
As a like-for-like replacement for Trevor Booker, who jet for Salt Lake City and a $10 million payday, Blair will probably be an upgrade, even if he won’t do much more to stretch the floor (that’s a job for Kris Humphries, who shot 46% from 15-19 feet and 60.7% from 20-24 feet last season with the Celtics). The Wizards needed another scoring option on the second unit, as TAI’s Adam Rubin explained here: “Don’t get me wrong. I would love to have Booker back. But not at the expense of bringing in a legitimate offensive front-court option.”
Booker, for all his hustle, has posted a season career PER of 15.0. Blair’s season career PER is 17.1. Even better: Over 42 career playoff games, Blair’s PER is 24.4 (All-Star caliber), while Booker’s career playoff PER is 12.6 (9 appearances). He didn’t just bump it last year with the Mavs (which probably got him his current contract) — he’s essentially upped his game each postseason.
Much of that improvement in PER could be a result of his TOV% dropping from 15 percent in the regular season to 6.5 percent over his playoff career. That’s a plus: In the postseason, where there tend to be fewer possessions, each possession is that much more important. But also, his DRB% also jumps from 21.6 percent in the regular season to 25.3 in the playoffs — it was a hearty 36 percent in last year’s first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs.
“DeJuan gives us a tough inside presence who can score and rebound at both frontcourt positions,” Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said in a statement released in July. “His addition makes our bench even deeper and will allow us to be flexible with our lineups.”
Yes, that’s still true, five years after the 2009 draft.
The question is: Will Blair make enough of a difference to help the Wizards reach the Eastern Conference Finals?