Kyle Korver: Not Just Another Pretty Face
USA Today Sports
We are proud to feature this guest post from Seth Partnow. Seth is the creative mind behind the blog, Where Offense Happens, and can be found on Twitter, @WhrOffnsHppns.
When USA Basketball released its list of 28 invitees to try out for the Team USA roster for the upcoming 2014 FIBA World Cup, most of the names were the ones we expected to see. There are the old-guard stars (LeBron, Melo and Kevin Durant), some exciting up-and-comers (Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Kyrie Irving) alongside some versatile defenders (Kawhi Leonard and Andre Iguodala.) But a few names stuck out as surprising from the list, particularly the Jazz’s Gordon Hayward and Atlanta’s Kyle Korver. Hayward at least fits the mold of the versatile wing who can excel in international-style play by combining the skills to put the ball on the floor to create for teammates with the ability to catch and shoot from deep himself. Thus, despite a season-long shooting slump he looks to be one of the prizes of the upcoming class of free agents and his invitation is perhaps a nod to his brighter future.
What, though, to make of Korver? Despite his record setting run of games with three-point makes, surely there is no possible spot for a one dimensional specialist like Korver when more talented players like Hayward, Bradley Beal and Klay Thompson can fill that role, and do more besides.
Except for this fact: Kyle Korver is the most underrated offensive player in the entire NBA. Ok, that’s hyperbole, but its attention grabbing. And it’s true enough that I feel perfectly comfortable making a case for him as one of the most if not the most underrated.
Plenty has been made of Korver’s long range prowess, but between his three-point shooting, his ability to hit from midrange when run off the three-point line or on the move and his over 90% free throw shooting, he’s one of the most efficient offensive weapons in the game – he’s currently 10th among all players in points per possession at 1.14 per mySynergySports. By comparison, the most efficient team offense in the league, the Portland Trail Blazers, scores 0.97 points per possession in Synergy’s accounting.
That number, while impressive, tells only a small part of the story. Doubters can point to Korver’s role and usage (he is using a career low 13.8% of Atlanta’s possessions this season) and say he’s reliant on teammates to get him the looks he needs to score so efficiently. The response is two-fold; first, on Team USA he would have nothing but talent around him to create space and opportunity for him to feast on spot-up looks. Second, the focus on his relative lack of ability to create with the ball ignores the flip side of the coin, which his unusual-bordering-on-unique ability to create for himself and especially others without the ball.
Much is made of the capacity to bend or breakdown a defense while handling the ball on the perimeter or posting up. The majority of the offense-first players on the team USA preliminary roster are players well known for possessing one or both of those particular skillsets. But Korver represents something much different. Through the danger posed by his shooting as well as his tireless movement off the ball, Korver has the ability to dislocate defenders without ever touching the ball. While it is a rare for a team to completely sacrifice its defensive concept in service of stopping a single shooter, this has happened at times this season. In one early contest, Orlando was so determined to prevent Korver from beating them that they did, well, this:
That’s Jameer Nelson standing almost out of bounds to prevent Korver from catching and shooting in the corner. Needless to say, Nelson is in no position to provide any sort of help to the rest of the Magic. Orlando played this, shall we say, unorthodox scheme for much of the first half of this game.
While that is an extreme example, more often, it is Korver’s movement without the ball that creates opportunities for teammates. Here he is the prime reason Paul Millsap gets a layup, yet he never touches the ball and does not receive any sort of box score credit.
Tristan Thompson is so worried about Korver catching and shooting from three…
…that he simply loses track of Millsap who gratefully accepts the dunk:
And while Korver’s contribution to that play (and many others like it over the season) won’t show up in the stat sheet, his measurable contributions far exceed those of the average “three-point specialist.” He averages almost three assists per game himself, and his overall passing contribution to Atlanta’s offense dwarfs that of other similar players. According to “True Usage” ( a metric of my own design intended to measure the total involvement of a player in his team’s offense In terms of both shooting AND creating shots for others through use of SportVU data on assist chance, much more detail here), Korver has much a greater role in setting up others in Atlanta’s offense than his catch-and-shoot peers such as Thompson, Wesley Matthews, J.J Redick, Terrence Ross or Kevin Martin, and slightly lower than that of Beal, a player who takes on a much greater ball-handling and initiation role for Washington than does Korver for Atlanta.
His unexpectedly good passing is just one of a number of subtle ways in which Korver is just a little bit better than you expect. He’s a better than average rebounder from the wing. He comes up with his share of steals. He blocks the occasional shot, and in fact contests more opponent shots at the rim than any other full time wing in the league per NBA.com’s SportVU tracking data, almost twice as many per game as LeBron James (These contests are not simply the result of challenging his own man at the rim, rather these are times he contests ANY opponent shooting within five feet of the hoop, much more on rim protection value here).
The last stat is a window into the area in which Korver is far better than commonly assumed: defense. I hesitate to call this a “little thing,” but the fact remains that Kyle Korver has turned himself into a good defender. He will never be a threat to make an all-defense squad, but the reason he is able to stay on the court for big minutes is that he’s cleared the hurdle that has befouled so many similarly skilled players — he can guard his position. He’s both a solid on-ball defender but also an extremely diligent worker in a team defensive concept. Incidentally, this ability to be solid within a scheme will be even more important in the international game with its greater emphasis on player movement and drive-and-kick than in the NBA’s iso and pick-and-roll heavy style. In fact, of the wing shooter type selected to the provisional roster, only Thompson is a clearly superior defender.
Of course speaking about the incremental ways in which Korver is better than players in his role ignores the largest – he’s at the top of any list of best catch-and-shoot players. Though we knew that already, we just need to be reminded of how that one singular skill combined with the extras make him a more than worthy inclusion in this list. Given his age (32) he is clearly being invited with the intention of making the roster for this particular competition rather than being developed for the future, and deservedly so.