By Chris Horton @HortonBBallSite
The first volume of Rook Looks examines two guards in timeshares: Nik Stauskas and Shabazz Napier.
Nik Stauskas, SG Sacramento Kings
When the Kings drafted Nik Stauskas in April, they were putting Ben McLemore, the former seventh pick of the 2013 NBA Draft, on notice. Sure the Kings needed shooting guards, but after McLemore underwhelmed in year one, the Stauskas pick certainly was not a vote of confidence. The good news for McLemore, he’s having a bounce back year. Through the end of November (17 games), McLemore is shooting 47% from the field, 41% from three, 84% from the line, with a true shooting percentage of 60%. The bad news for McLemore despite the excellent shooting splits, he still hasn’t established himself as a consistent top flight shooting guard and the Kings are going to keep giving Stauskas opportunities to showcase his potential.
Before Stauskas played an NBA minute he earned a 77.3 rating in my KPIs & Team-Fit Analysis, second among all draft eligible shooting guards. After dissecting Stauskas' every move in November, he has definitely shown flashes of the skill set that helped him earn that rating. As often seen with rooks, though, Stauskas’ play has been uneven and inconsistent. The shooting stroke that helped Stauskas rise up draft boards is still there, but Stauskas rarely gets to fire it up. When given the opportunity Stauskas has an effortless stroke with great range. If you watched Stauskas for any period at Michigan you already knew that. The most impressive part of this Rook's game has been his ability to hit jumpers off the dribble. Stauskas did this at Michigan but few projected him to be as comfortable doing it at the next level.
When it comes to Stauskas’ shooting ability, for the most part, the skill set is what had been expected. When it comes to how he’d fit on the Kings team, however, that has been much harder to forecast. In my KPIs & Team-Fit Analysis I graded Stauskas’ team fit a nine out of 10. I thought Stauskas would fit in seamlessly with DeMarcus Cousins and this team that is thirsty for shooting, but that has not been the case. The biggest frustration watching Stauskas is that he rarely looks comfortable. This lack of comfort has led to uneven play for quarters, halves, and sometimes games at a time.
From game one, Stauskas has looked uncertain of his role on the offensive end. Stauskas is often relegated to a corner or a wing as Cousins works the post, Rudy Gay searches for a pro-hop and elbow jumper, or Ramon Sessions does God-knows-what. Stauskas does not have to be nor should he be the focal point of the offense, but there needs to be movement offensively. This is about the most urgent off-the-ball movement shown by any member of the Kings this season.
Stauskas was drafted because he potentially has an elite NBA skill, so it is incumbent upon the Kings to give him the opportunity to showcase that skill. Let him run the baseline and come off some screens. These don’t even have to be plays designed to get a Stauskas shot, just as long as movement is creating opportunities for the offense and making the defense work. One of my favorite plays is something Coach Billy Donovan led teams master and employ again and again: the elevator screen. Donovan used it all the time to get open three point looks for Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton, and now Michael Frazier II’s NBA ready stroke. The only time the Kings use an elevator screen is when they are running it half-heartedly to get one of their guards open for an inbounds pass near midcourt.
Understandably, Coach Mike Malone’s priority is running his offense through one of the best bigs in the game, Cousins; but movement could be the key to unlocking a new dimension to the Kings offense and getting Stauskas on track on a consistent basis. Currently, when Stauskas isn’t standing around waiting for the ball to find him, Coach Malone employs him in a few high ball screens. When defenders foolishly go under the screens or don’t hard hedge, Stauskas is able to dribble into a comfortable jumper. Because Stauskas is used so sparingly like this, sometimes defenses don’t have their antennas raised and Stauskas is able to get in-rhythm jumpers. When defenses are locked in, however, they often jump out to hard hedge this on-the-ball screen action and Stauskas is the one that becomes defenseless. Stauskas struggles to create any meaningful offense against this aggressive defense. And more troubling, Stauskas is rarely aggressive, himself. Again, some of the lack of aggressiveness can be attributed to Stauskas’ role in the offense, but some of the blame has to fall on Stauskas’ shoulders. I can count on one hand the amount of times Stauskas has looked to attack the rim of the dribble this season. In fact, Stauskas only has five free throw attempts through 17 games played.
One of the question marks regarding Stauskas during his entrance into the league was his ability on the defensive end. During the preseason Stauskas gave a memorable quote when he said guys would try to attack him because “I’m a rookie and I’m white”. Race withstanding, players have gone at Stauskas. Most noticeably Stauskas has been attacked (and bullied) in the post. This could be a strength issue or opponents might just taking advantage of Stauskas’ lack of familiarity as a post defender, but that has been the biggest hole in Stauskas’ game defensively. Otherwise, Stauskas shows the ability to be a good team defender. His defensive IQ is evident and his athleticism helps make him a respectable individual defender on the perimeter.
After only a month it is impossible to forecast the rest of Stauskas’ career, or even the rest of this season. At this point Stauskas has underperformed based on his KPI assessment. It is important to point out, however, that Stauskas still remains strong in the most critical shooting guard KPIs (as highlighted below). Stauskas has the ability to be a long time pro for two reasons: shooting and height. A lot of guys can shoot the ball, but equally important is the ability to get your shot off. Stauskas is a legit 6’6’’ and his ability to get his shot off over defenders with little air space is Kyle Korver-esque. Korver is an inch taller than Stauskas, but they are both able to use their height exceptionally well. As Stauskas learns this league, his ability to get his shot off against a multiplicity of defensive schemes and defenders will only improve. As soon as Stauskas perfects this, he will make himself a valuable asset for years to come. Remember, being well rounded is not a prerequisite for NBA longevity. Stauskas has to look no further than teammate and unrefined rebounding menace, Reggie Evans, for evidence of that. Stauskas can make a career entirely out of stretching defenses and putting up long range shots because once those shots go up, they’re probably going in.
Shabazz Napier, PG Miami HEAT
As a writer you are supposed to remain free from bias. I, however, had been holding a grudge against Shabazz Napier for leading his UConn Huskies to a win over my Gators during last season’s Final Four. I always knew Napier was good, and always had respect for his game, but the loss he served up left me salty. All was forgiven, though, when this happened. Now KG and Deron Williams can sit on that bitter, salty, dizzy feeling because Shabazz is back in my good graces…for whatever that’s worth.
When Napier was drafted (after Lebron’s quasi request) it was painfully obvious that the backcourt was going to be crowded in South Beach. No one knew for sure how Pat Riley would handle the personnel decisions or Coach Erik Spoelstra would handle the rotation with Napier, Mario “I Got This” Chalmers, and Norris Cole, but many assumed at least one of these guards would be iced out with the addition of Napier. Now, when you watch these three play side by side you see why Pat Riley might be perfectly fine with shipping either Chalmers or Cole to greener pastures.
After watching Napier for the month of November the word that I’m left with is pure. Napier is a pure point guard on a team that previously had none. Chalmers and Cole are both respectable NBA guards and champions but neither one of them is a pure point guard in the way that Napier is. You can’t see this in the box score or with assist numbers but it’s something you can feel when a true point guard is at work. It’s like comparing the greatness of Chris Paul to that of Russell Westbrook. Both run the point but you feel differently when Paul is at the helm. I’m not saying Napier is Paul nor am I saying ‘Rio is Westbrook (he’s clearly more Fabolous), but Napier is a point guard to his core and everything he does on the court makes you feel that way. From pass placement, to shot selection, to pick and roll execution, the nuances are different and Napier gets it.
That’s not to say that Napier is consistently doing everything well, because he isn’t. In his first month, Napier has looked uncomfortable, out of sync, and stagnant at times. But Napier has shown the ability to run the complete floor game, play great on the ball defense, get in passing lanes, and hit shots. In fact, Napier is shooting a higher percentage than any rookie in the first month of the season and that's while he is playing outside of his comfort zone. At UConn, most of Napier’s long range attempts came off the dribble. That’s when he is most comfortable. Napier is now adjusting to any offense in which he has the ball in his hands less and finds most of his deep looks coming in the catch and shoot variety.
The ability to adjust is another thing that stands out about Napier. Already he is adjusting to the new ways he is getting his shots, he is also adjusting to his role and his usage. By the end of November, Napier strung together five consecutive games of double digit scoring while seemingly gaining more of Coach Spoelstra’s trust in each game. If you think about it, though, this should be no surprise. Napier’s entire college career was a story of adjustment and development. Napier spent four years at the University of Connecticut. As a freshman Napier played sparingly as Kemba Walker took the Huskies to a title. Each subsequent year, Napier’s role and his skills grew; ultimately culminating in being named Most Outstanding Player in last year’s Final Four.
Earlier this year when I was grading Napier’s KPIs, his soft skills (Leadership, Unselfishness, Heart, IQ, and Clutch) were undeniable. Shabazz has heart; he’s a Hungry Husky. Other players grade out better because they are bigger, stronger, faster, and have more upside. But I still don’t know if that means anything when compared to Napier’s heart and desire. Having talent doesn’t mean you will always fight to maximize it. Everything that I have seen from Napier tells me he will fight to maximize every ounce of talent he has, and that has to be worth something.
If you’re Coach Spo, Napier’s heart had to have made you excited about his addition and now, even in just his first full month of the NBA calendar, Spo has to love the way Napier is always growing and improving. Questions still remain for Heat brass, however. How do you incorporate three small guards into your offense? Can we make a phone call to the Phoenix Suns? Do we take the Tyler Ennis route? Do we value pure point guard play or do we need combo guards to augment our scoring? Are we playing for this season or the future? Which one of our guards, if any, is expendable? How do we balance Napier’s development with our team’s goals?
Hopefully, one question has a clear answer really soon for the HEAT. Who is our point guard of the future?
Stay tuned for Rook Looks Vol. II featuring Nerlens Noel and Elfrid Payton coming January 2015...