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Playing Fast And Loose

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The NBA is unequivocally in a golden age of guards. The level of the talent pool has risen and now threatens to spill over onto the deck. Almost every team has at least one point guard or wing to which their future aspirations are partially pinned. Over the past five years we’ve been treated to the rookie adventures of Kyrie Irving, Ricky Rubio, John Wall, Stephen Curry, Brandon Jennings, Derrick Rose, Mike Conley, Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, James Harden, Rodrigue Beaubois, Ty Lawson, Tyreke Evans, Evan Turner, Jeff Teague, Darren Collison, Kemba Walker, Brandon Knight, Eric Bledsoe and Jeremy Lin.  All are aggressive backcourt players who spend a significant amount of time with the ball in their hands and all have, at various times, struggled mightily with turnovers.

An idea has been subtly circulating for some time that a problem with turnovers as a rookie is not necessarily a bad thing. I was first introduced to this line of thinking in a 2009 piece by John Hollinger -

All of which suggests he’s only scratching the surface of his potential — as does the fact that he has a higher turnover ratio than the other two, which, in a paradoxical twist of logic, is actually a good thing for a rookie. Historically, those with high turnover rates have had much higher rates of improvement in subsequent seasons.

Although surprising, the sentence is surprisingly comforting in the rationale it brings. Good decision making is a skill that can be taught, unlike height, speed and quickness. Even if bad decision-making patterns can’t be undone they can be minimized by a coach learning their players and setting them up for success. High turnover rates would also be indicative of an aggressive mindset, a pre-requisite for success top-tier which can be refined and focused. A player who lacks that aggressiveness as a rookie is unlikely to develop it. Finally, a young player who struggles with turnover has an obvious area of weakness, which in turn makes growth in that area more obvious.

I’ve heard this idea repeated in many different settings, but never with numbers or data as foundation. Being a man of science, I wanted to see if I could fill that evidence gap. However a problem impeded that plan – the parameters of the idea are undefined. Hollinger referenced higher rates of improvement but didn’t specify if that was in a specific area, across the board, or just with regards to turnovers. I’ve also heard the context given as ‘players with high turnover percentages are more likely to hit their ceilings.’ If there is a more vague, amorphous idea than that of a player’s ceiling, I haven’t come across it.

Because of these undefined parameters, I’ve engaged in analysis that is not really objective. What I’ve done is use some numbers to create an objective sample, upon which my clumsy subjective analysis will be applied.

I looked at rookies over a ten year span, who played at least 750 minutes in their rookie season, with a TO% of at least 18.0%. Since this idea seems mostly focused on players who handle the ball, anyone who had played minutes as a center was eliminated. Wanting to be able to look at growth after that rookie season, I used 1999-2008 as my sample.

Within that time span, 35 players met my criteria. 6 of those 35 (Orien Greene, Sergio Rodriguez, Raul Lopez, Junior Harrington, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Jay Williams) were out of the league before they finished their fourth season. Another 3 (Michael Ruffin, Shelden Williams, Reggie Evans) were big men who rarely touched the ball except to grab it off the glass or to stuff it through the hoop. The table below shows the other 26 players. I’ve included their PER, TO% and Usg% for the rookie seasons and their career as a whole.

[table id=40 /]

Only one of those players, Steve Francis had a rookie PER that was above average. At this point, just 38%  have a career PER above average. Every player except Chris Duhon and Earl Watson had a career TO% that was lower than what they posted their rookie year, but just 38% of were able to bring their career TO% below 14.5%, roughly the league average over the past few seasons. The curtain has been pulled to the side, but no overt patterns have revealed themselves.

Moving into the realm of subjectivity, only a handful of players on that list seem to have become drastically more productive players than they were as rookies. Jose Calderon, Leandro Barbosa, Kirk Hinrich, Jamal Crawford and Corey Maggette have harnessed their talents, finding slightly more efficient ways to produce. Rajon Rondo has harnessed his talents to become a top-tier player without ever solving his turnover problem. Baron Davis is easily the most talented player on the list, but slowed down by injuries, conditioning and apathy. Jason Terry is the only one the list who made the jump to high-level productivity by remaking himself into a different sort of player. He came into the league as a slasher, beating people with quickness and athleticism. As a veteran he’s become a swashbuckler of a different sort, dueling with jumpshooting and steely nerves instead of wild forays to the basket.

A discussion of this turnover/development paradigm is especially relevant given the early season play of Kyrie Irving and Jeremy Lin. Both players have posted incredible statistical lines, with TO% as the only substantial blemish on each. This season Irving is turning the ball over on 16.0% of his possessions, Lin on 21.6%. The idea that problems with turnovers is an indicator of future growth has to be an incredibly comforting thought to fans in Cleveland and New York.

However, the numbers above show a pattern that’s not quite so clear cut. Both Lin and Irving, have demonstrated a game, well-rounded enough, that turnovers won’t prevent them from a lengthy NBA career. But turnovers could be a limiting factor in the equation of team success.  While future growth is not assured, these turnover problems present a clear signpost, pointing the way. The types of turnovers each struggle with also provides more information.

Lin’s turnovers tilt towards the ball-handling variety, Irving’s are fairly balanced but he has a problem with offensive fouls. Lin’s path to development leads towards a tighter handle and purpose-focused movement on the court. I still see more differences than similarities, but Steve Nash moves with some of the same freneticism that Lin has displayed in making his way around the court. However, ball-handling turnovers make up just 19.3% of Nash’s total. Therein is the ball-handling ideal for Lin.

Irving’s path leads to body-control and patience, the ability to set a defense up before knocking them down. It seems that too often, he has an outcome chosen before making his way to the basket, instead of fluidly reacting to the present circumstances.

Perhaps a pattern does not exist, a connection between early turnovers and growth. Perhaps it does, and the way I clumsily wield statistics is simply incapable of pointing it out. However, an opportunity exists for both Lin and Irving to cement this pattern for themselves. The template for growth to top-tier production is laid out for them by their struggles this season. Finding a way to be aggressive, to attack using all the weapons in their arsenal, without the collateral damage is the next step. It’s no easy task, but having the direction laid out for them so clearly is a huge advantage over a player with less-defined weaknesses.

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