A basketball stat line is like a delicately balanced piece of machinery, usually equipped with eight or nine dials (depending on whether or not you’ve got the Turnover Dial installed).
Adjust one thing too quickly, and you’ve got calamity. Good news! D’Angelo Russell just drilled nine 3s and is feeling great. Bad news: He shot 5-for-16 and 6-for-18 in the two games surrounding that, and is hitting just 40.7 percent on the season.
But what happens when a single dial gets turned up on a player’s stat line, and chaos doesn’t ensue? Just one minor, simple adjustment that quietly pays huge dividends.
Today, we examine eight cases of a player taking the initiative to crank it up in a single category — and whether or not that increased output is sustainable:
Bradley Beal and the blocks: On Wednesday night, Beal didn’t get a block and it was actually notable. He had picked up a block in each of his last five games — nine of them in total, for an average of 1.8 bpg. In fact, on the season, he has blocked at least one shot in nine of 14 games, for an average of 1.1 bpg on the year.
So whence exactly did this come? Beal has certainly had cameos as a shot-blocker before — I’ll point to a seven-game stretch last November where he averaged 1.0 bpg as an example — but his career-high in that category is 0.5 bpg (and he got 0.4 last year). So if you’re looking at his stat line, this is an obvious outlier, and the safe bet is that he’ll revert back to not blocking a lot of shots as we go forward. Then again, it’s not unheard of for a guard to turn things up a bit in this department. One prominent case that comes to mind is James Harden, who averaged 0.3 bpg his first five seasons, and has gone for 0.7 twice in the last four years (including 0.7 again this year).
There’s also the fact with Beal that some of these are legitimately awesome blocks. As in, he’s pretty good at it. So do I think he’ll stay above 1.0 for the rest of the year? Probably not. But is a career-best 0.7 or 0.8 within reach, for an unexpected boost in a really competitive category if you drafted him? Absolutely.
Brook Lopez — rain maker: Quick bit of trivia: Of all the players averaging 1.0 bpg or better, who has the most combined blocks and 3s per game so far this season?
That would be Brook Lopez — 4.5 (1.6 bpg and 2.9 3s).
And since you already knew the answer was Brook Lopez, I’ll tell you the others who were in the running:
As for Lopez, I’m not even going to mock the fact that he’s averaging a career-low 3.1 rebounds this year. It’s just not what he does anymore. These days he is just a seven-foot-tall three-point bombing machine: 7.0 of his 9.3 attempts per game this year are from beyond the arc, and thanks to that unique combo of 3s and blocks, he’s been the No. 39 player in 9-category leagues.
Can he keep it up? I’m not quite convinced he’ll keep shooting 41.8 percent from downtown after hitting 34.6 and 34.5 percent the last two years, but I absolutely believe that he’ll be a blocks and 3s dynamo all season, and a truly unique contributor if you drafted him.
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DeAndre Jordan — you know the stat I’m about to talk about: I think the most telling way to look at this is as follows…
38.5 … 37.5 … 45.2 … 52.5 … 38.6 … 42.8 … 39.7 … 43.0 … 48.2 … 58.0 … 81.3
Those are of course DJ’s year-by-year free throw percentages. In 10 years as a Clipper, he missed 1,688 free throws. So naturally this year, in 14 games so far, he has missed exactly nine.
Here’s the $1,688 question: Is it safe to believe? For starters, with free throws, as Markelle Fultz reminded us the other day, there is no such thing as safe. The mind can be a fortress of balsa wood, and free throw shooting is dangerously mental.
I will say that I’m cautiously optimistic. And to me it is significant that Jordan has been on an upward trajectory for a few years now (43.0 —> 48.2 —> 58.0 —> 81.3). Even if he doesn’t keep hitting over 80 percent, anything even over 70 is just a monstrous leap.
3.2 … 3.6 … 3.6 … 4.5 … 6.7 … 6.6 … 6.4 … 7.4 … 6.8 … 6.4 … 7.0 … 7.0 … 6.9 … 10.7
Kyle Lowry has been in the NBA a long time. He crossed paths with Gary Payton, Clifford Robinson and Kevin Willis when he was a rookie. So normally, I’d be 100 percent inclined to trust 13 seasons worth of data that say Lowry is probably going to average somewhere around 6.5-7.5 assists per game.
But there are two words that make me think differently about this whole thing: Nick Nurse. I’m looking around Toronto, and I'm starting to think that this guy might be a genius. Just look at some of the evidence, living and breathing in other Raptors’ players stats:
*Serge Ibaka is averaging a career-high 17.4 ppg and 8.4 rpg — the second-best rebounding average of his career — despite playing less (26.6 minutes a game) than any season aside from his rookie year;
*Jonas Valanciunas is putting up more points (13.1) and blocks (1.1) than last season, despite playing only 19 minutes per game (down from 22 per game last year);
*Kawhi Leonard is averaging a career-high 7.8 boards per game — though that may just be a case of Kawhi being phenomenal;
*Oh, and Kyle Lowry is averaging 10.7 assists per game.
Which is why we’re here in the first place. So do I think he’ll keep this up? I would guess not quite at this rate. Lowry averaged 11.6 apg in his first 10 games, and has been at 9.0 in his last five. But given everything I’ve seen in Toronto so far, I’m starting to think that 9.0 might be closer to a realistic mid-range estimate rather than his actual assist ceiling.
Andrew Wiggins makes a multiple-dial adjustment: In his four years in the NBA, Wiggins has been somewhere between maddening and infuriating as a fantasy player. His 9-category rank year-by-year tells that story: No. 130, No. 115, No. 114 and No. 159.
This season, despite a career-low 40.9 percent from the field, he has more or less fixed the glitch: Wiggins is posting a career-best 1.8 spg and 2.3 treys per game, making and attempting more 3s than he ever has before.
This is one case where we don’t need to overthink it. Wiggins has always been absurdly talented, and in his fifth year — still just 23 years old — it appears he has finally figured out how to not drive us insane in fantasy leagues (though that’s probably not exactly what he’s focused on). Wiggins has been the No. 51 player in 9-category leagues so far, and I see no reason why he can’t hover in the top-50/top-60 range going forward.
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Devin Booker and the rise of the turnover (and assist): Now a brief trip to Phoenix, where we check in a true mixed bag situation. Here are Devin Booker’s turnovers, year-by-year: 2.1 —> 3.1 —> 3.6 —> 4.8. That’s not a good trajectory, especially when you combine it with consistent 42-43 percent shooting every year. The positive news for Booker’s fantasy value is that he’s had a huge spike in assists (4.7 —> 6.9), which has helped keep his value from cratering. But even with some really strong counting stats (23.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 6.9 apg, 1.1 spg and 2.5 3s), he’s only 71st overall in 9-category leagues. He’s definitely forcing you to punt turnovers, and possibly steering you toward losing FG percentage a lot of weeks as well. Ultimately, there are a lot of formats where Devin Booker is really useful (points leagues, 8-category etc.), but in a 9-category league he might be more of a problem than we realize.
TJ Warren — 3-point marksman: I went to the Suns-Pelicans game in New Orleans last weekend, and from my vantage point relatively close to the floor, I could’ve sworn that Warren’s shot looked like it had some sideways rotation on it. That’s never a good thing, but at this point, it’s just a footnote. Warren has suddenly developed into a legitimate asset in 3s this season, going from 0.3 per game last year to 1.8 so far in 2018-19. And while I don’t really think he can keep hitting 46.0 percent of his attempts from downtown, he’s shooting them with enough volume at this point (last three games: 8-for-20) that I don’t expect a major drop-off either. Add in a career-high 0.8 bpg with his typically strong scoring (17.2) and good percentages (50.6 / 92.1), and you have a ridiculously sneaky climb into the top-35 (Warren is No. 31 so far in 9-category leagues). It all seems maybe a little too good to be true when you consider the whole picture — for example, he has never shot better than 77 percent from the line in his career — but it also seems like a top-50 season is quite realistic.
Marc Gasol — steals machine: For his career, Gasol has averaged a solid-for-a-big-man 0.9 steals per game, never averaging less than 0.7 and never averaging more than 1.0 during his decade in the NBA. So naturally, at age 33 (and soon to be 34), Marc G. has cranked it all the way up to 1.8 spg out of nowhere this year.
Obviously on this one, I’m more skeptical. Half of his steals (12) came in three of his games during a six-day stretch, which over the course of a long season is something he’s probably not going to duplicate a bunch of times. On the flip side, it’s not like he has just stopped getting steals after that. In six games since that binge, he has averaged 1.3 spg.
Ultimately, there’s not a ton of action to take in this case. I do think we’re potentially close to a sell-high signpost with Gasol after a 29-point, six-trey game on Wednesday, especially if his percentages are quietly driving you crazy (43.3 FG / 74.5 FT). I also think if you’re trading him, make sure you’re getting top-25 value (Gasol is No. 24 overall in 9-category leagues on the year).
Other Random Thoughts: If you were thinking about adding Juancho Hernangomez after his 25-point explosion on Thursday, just keep this in mind: Juancho has averaged 24.0 ppg against the Hawks and Cavs this year, and 5.1 ppg against everyone else. … I mentioned Shelvin Mack in my weekly Rotoworld Season Pass column on Thursday, and I am honestly surprised that he’s only owned in 19 percent of Yahoo leagues. Mack is averaging 13.9 ppg, 3.8 apg, 1.4 spg and 1.9 3s on 54.7 percent shooting with just 1.3 turnovers his last eight games. He’s a major part of the Grizzlies rotation right now, and I see no signs that is going to change any time soon. … Of course, when it comes to bench players tearing it up, it’s almost impossible not to mention Montrezl Harrell, now averaging 17.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.0 spg and 2.0 bpg — on 71.9 percent from the floor — in his last six. … Speaking of the Clippers, if Thursday’s sub par line from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (nine points, five rebounds, nothing else) gives you a chance to get him slightly more easily in a trade, do it. He was almost invisible early while dealing with foul trouble, then came to life, scoring all nine of his points in the second half.