A leopard never changes its spots. It’s an adage almost everyone has heard at least once in their lifetime. And while true in some instances and individuals, success for an NBA player however, sometimes is tied directly with making a change. Or growing another spot.
Although there is always the exception to the rule, like Brook Lopez attempting 31 threes in his first eight seasons and then exploding for 1,200 in his last three, most changes that catapult NBA players into another tier happen early.
Last season, the league saw the rise of Pascal “Spicy P” Siakam and De’Aaron “Swipa” Fox after both players made massive leaps into stardom. The NBA needs more nicknames. This year, there are other potential players who also may be bound for similar breakouts if they can improve in specific areas.
With the new season and its flanking cavalcade of superstar duos finally here, let’s take a look at three possible candidates and the areas in which they need to clean up if they want to be next.
Kyle Kuzma’s 3-Point Stroke
Kyle Kuzma is like pineapple on pizza. Some people love the yellow and sweet topping (those people are immediately suspect) while others gag at its mention.
In reality, Kuzma is a fine player whose persona/hype blur what are actually strong and useful abilities. Especially on a team with two superstars. And despite what the narrative may say, he also actually improved on what was a successful rookie campaign.
The 24-year-old made a significant improvement in his O-PIPM as a sophomore as well as making strides in what many consider his biggest weakness: defense.
His offensive surge came squarely on the back of increasing his FG% at the rim by six percent while also seeing an uptick in his midrange efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass. However, while both those areas saw improvements, his 3-point stroke wildly vanished. Even after receiving a ton of quality looks.
According to NBA tracking data, Kuzma attempted the 11th most “wide-open” threes (263) in the league last season. Amongst the 42 players who took at least 200 of these attempts, the sophomore’s conversion rate (31.9 percent) was second only behind Joel Embiid for worst. Which is suboptimal.
Beside the simple necessity of needing to make open shots, the importance of Kuzma’s jumper seeing a resurgence could be a major swing skill considering his offensive role. Next to LeBron James, Kuzma’s play-type data classified him as a “Glue Guy.” Essentially meaning his scoring avenues came from a variety of actions.
However, amongst Bball Index’s 11 talent areas, Perimeter Shooting carries the most relative weight value for players classified as Glue Guys. Kuzma ranked in the mere 21st percentile (D- Talent Grade among wings) in this area a season ago. The primary facet of the game in which these players and Kuzma alike, need to excel.
Why It Could Happen
Fortunately for Lakers’ fans, there are reasons to be optimistic that his jumper gets ironed out. Kuzma is only a year removed from converting his 3-point chances at a 37 percent clip (when removing heaves) and possesses other encouraging shooting indicators. Such as seeing an uptick in FT percent and still flashing impressive touch.
He will also likely continue to benefit from playing with James, and now Anthony Davis. According to Andrew Patton’s Gravity Tool, the Lakers project to have the best per-game rim gravity percent of the league. An immensely valuable ability to lure in defenders and generate open shots. Kuzma could be primed to finally take advantage.
Kevin Huerter’s Finishes
Kevin Huerter is unfathomably cool.
A simple adjective and statement, but a suiting one. He has a silky game with a matching killer nickname to boot (Red Velvet — chef’s kiss). He is also an immensely good shooter and arguably one of the best in the NBA already.
As a rookie, Huerter ranked in the 78th percentile amongst wings in 3-point accuracy, was in the 87th percentile in jump-shots in the half-court and in the 90th percentile in terms of all jumpers off the dribble according to Synergy. A scorching shooting output for the Maryland alum.
However, like Kuzma, Huerter struggled in the most weighted area of his offensive role (Secondary Creator) as a rookie — finishing.
Compared to other Secondary Creator’s and their talent grades, Huerter posted a “B” grade in two of the most prominent areas: Perimeter Shooting and Playmaking.
But when it came to Finishing (again the most important skill within his offensive role) Huerter was in the mere 22nd percentile (D-). Highlighting the biggest area on the offensive end he stands to improve this year.
Huerter mostly struggled in all his chances around the rim with the baby Hawks. He shot only 25.1 percent on his runners. He was in the 19th percentile in shots (non post-ups) around the basket. And he was in the 20th percentile on his basket cuts. A far cry from his superb outside shooting numbers.
Why It Could Happen
Under head coach Lloyd Pierce, Atlanta essentially tried their best Moreyball impression as 76.9 perceent of their shot profile came from either directly at the rim or from behind the arc last season. An emphasis that suggests Pierce’s deployment of his team should carry over again this year.
Meaning, Huerter will have his fare share of chances to get to the rim and up his finishing numbers after a season of acclimating himself with the physicality, pace and nuances that come at the professional rank.
Huerter may also benefit from the additions of rookies De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish to squad, as they can potentially soak up some of the creation duties. Better allowing the 21-year-old to move without the ball and get easier looks at the rim. Also worth mentioning that playing beside Trae Young and his 98th percentile Playmaking grade should only continue to free up opportunities.
Wendell Carter Jr’s Individual Scoring
For most rookies, defense is often the area of the game that takes the longest to grasp when entering the NBA.
The intricacies of positioning, the nuances of knowing what’s a foul and simply combatting the change in physicality are all aspects that are learned from experience. That is, except for those blessed with the innate talent in stonewalling their opponents. Wendell Carter Jr falls in the latter category.
Carter immediately made his impact felt on defense for the lowly Bulls as he posted the 18th best DRPM amongst all eligible centers last season (out of 58 qualifiers). At only 20 he was the youngest of the bunch. His impressive defense as a rookie can also be seen within his talent grades. Specifically, his bonkers interior defense.
Unfortunately, for as good as he was on that end of the floor, his offense left much to be desired.
Carter was classified as a “Versatile Big” in Chicago’s offense as over 60 percent of his offense derived from being the roll man, off of cuts and out of the post. The former Blue Devil however, struggled mightily in two of the most important areas in this offensive role: One on One and Post Play.
Amongst Versatile Bigs who played in at least 1000 minutes last season, Carter was in the 15th percentile in both categories. When looking at his rookie numbers, it is evident why.
Carter registered only 15 drives last season per NBA tracking data, which was the lowest amount for any Bulls’ player who appeared in at least five games. He also had little to no chances in isolation (just six attempts, made one). Both of which are important factors in calculating a player’s One on One grade.
Although Carter did not display a lot in terms of the most weighted skill for Versatile Bigs, his post numbers were arguably more concerning.
Carter scored just 0.62 points per possession out of the post last season (7th percentile in the league). He converted these individual looks at an only 28.6 percent clip according to Synergy. His teammates also did not benefit much in these possessions as the Bulls shot just 30.8 percent on his passes out of the block. An overall rough overall offensive season for the rookie.
Why It Could Happen
Context is always important to keep in mind when analyzing a rookie or any player. Carter experienced a coaching change mid-season, was not surrounded by world-beaters and saw his season be cut short due to injury. But these alone can not entirely dismiss the sample he provided.
With that said, there are reasons to be optimistic. A glance at his shot profile reveals a whopping 92 percent of his offense came with 14 feet last season. Meaning, the big operated mostly near the restricted area which is often congested with bodies.
Thankfully, he may benefit from playing a full season beside one the better stretch options in the league in Lauri Markkanen (90th percentile in Perimeter Shooting among Bigs).
Markkanen also missed a big chunk of the year, and possibly diluted some of Carter’s sample given their inability to stay on the floor. This season, Markkanen potentially could help lure opposing rim protectors out of the paint leaving Carter better room to operate. A four (eventual five!) out offense in which Carter can serve as the post hub would result in improved efficiency overall.
Not every young player will experience a breakout season this year. As great as that would be, it is the cruel nature of reality.
For every Siakam and Fox there are dozens and dozens of others who never clasp that next rung on the NBA ladder of stardom.
For these three aforementioned individuals however, the talent is there in several areas already. Maybe they never reach the precipice of stardom and simply continue to excel in what they are individually good at. Which is ultimately cool too.
But sometimes, all it takes to jettison a rotation player into that next NBA stratosphere is a change. A skill getting refined, a weakness seeing improvement or the birth of a new spot forming in its place.
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Data provided by Bball Index and NBA.com unless otherwise noted. Featured graphic courtesy of Akshay Ram.