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Don’t Pass On Josh McRoberts

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Whether it occurs in the next few weeks, or ten months from now, a free-agent signing period will take place before any NBA team sees the court again. The ongoing labor negotiations have been 99% of the NBA story for months, but occasionally a story about actual basketball players, rosters and teams, trickles through. One story that hasn’t yet made it through the dam of dystopian financial discussion is the free-agency of Josh McRoberts. (I’m willing to concede this probably wouldn’t be much of a story anyway, but please indulge me.)

McRoberts began last season as the starting power forward for the Indiana Pacers. Plenty of people predicted he would reveal himself to be the worst starting power forward in the league. One can hardly be blamed for holding that opinion, as he’d had precious few chances to prove himself in his previous three seasons. Expectations were low, but the combination of McRoberts and Tyler Hansbrough outperformed those expectations by a wide margin.

His statistical profile from last season was not remarkable for any particular number, but for the versatility it represented. Per 36 minutes, McRoberts averaged 12.0 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.3 blocks. He also shot 54.7% from the floor, 73.9% from the free throw line, and 38.3% on three-pointers. Just six other players surpassed 12 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal and 1 block per 36 minutes last season. To find McRoberts on a list with Pau Gasol, Al Horford, Josh Smith, Tim Duncan, Kenyon Martin and DeMarcus Cousins is impressive on its own. Even more impressive is that McRoberts had the highest TS% of those seven players.

Those numbers demonstrate his ability to help in a number of areas. Offensively, he can be extremely efficient in a low-usage role. He has range out to the three-point line, crashes the offensive glass, can face-up and take advantage of a mismatch, beat his man off the dribble, and most notably, fill a lane in transition. Defensively, he’s active and athletic, capable of defending a variety of players.

One of McRoberts’ most unique and least publicized offensive skills, is his ability to pass the ball. Of power forwards who played at least 1,000 minutes last season, only 7, Hedo Turkoglu, Boris Diaw, Blake Griffin, Josh Smith, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, had a higher Ast% than McRoberts.

The strength that I find most personally endearing is his well-developed sense of what shots are within his repertoire. McRoberts focused his energy on high percentage shot attempts, a skill that was very valuable in close games. Using the clutch statistics database from 82games.com, I was able to calculate a clutch TS% of 91.6 for McRoberts.

Of all the numbers I’ve mentioned, I think the most important in assessing his value is 24. McRoberts is still just 24 years old. To put that in context, he’s younger than Omer Asik, Mario Chalmers, Jeff Green and Timofey Mozgov. Despite having been in the NBA for four seasons he’s played just 2,428 total minutes, fewer than Blake Griffin, John Wall or Landry Fields played as rookies last season. Some may see the lack of playing time as sign of his quality, I believe it’s representation of ample room for growth.

There’s undoubtedly a reverse side of this shiny coin. McRoberts can still fall prey to bouts of trying to do too much, usually with the dribble or forcing passes. This manifested in a TO% of 17.5% last season. He can also get his head turned on defense, needing a better sense of his defensive responsibilities off the ball. However, these shortcomings are things that are fixable with experience. ESPN’s David Thorpe likes to point to a high TO% in a young player as an indicator of potential. The idea is that a player with a high TO% is aggressive and is falling prey to a problem than can be reigned in, turning it into a positive. McRoberts had his first chance to play big minutes last season and while he made mistakes he also demonstrated versatility, efficiency, and the room to grow.

He’s now an unrestricted free agent. Although Indiana was clearly pleased with his performance last season they also may be eyeing free agents like David West and Carl Landry. McRoberts was nearly traded straight-up for O.J. Mayo last season, before some last minute confusion caused the deal to fall apart at the trade deadline. The bottom line is that he can probably be had by an interested party, and likely for a reasonable price.  McRoberts is not a brick to build a foundation on, but he has many qualities you’d look for in a solid mortar. Memphis was clearly interested last season, but teams like Milwaukee, New Orleans and Phoenix also seem like they could be a good fit.

As a Pacers’ fan I’m hoping he’ll be back. As a fan of well-played basketball games, I’ll enjoy watching McRoberts contribute wherever he ends up.

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