The free agency frenzy has tuckered out, with heavy hitters like LaMarcus Aldridge, Jimmy Butler, and LeBron James providing star qualities to new and familiar teams geared for deep playoff runs, and auxiliary weapons like DeMarre Carroll, Corey Brewer, and Jared Dudley hoping their specific skill sets can push fringe contenders into that elite stratosphere.
For the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks, the most significant moves took place before last season’s trade deadline with the addition of two young, unproven point guards. Much has been invested in Michael Carter-Williams and Reggie Jackson, though both may as well have flashing question marks emblazoned on their jerseys. Away from the teams that drafted them, given their first real opportunity to shine, the basketball world will keep them under a microscope as they try to stamp their impressions on the NBA landscape.
Will they step forward and prove capable of leading their team, or will the weight of expectations drag them down into mediocrity? These are the types of questions that will follow these two young point guards this upcoming season:
Reggie Jackson, Detroit Pistons, PG, 25 years old
Last season’s impending free agency cast a dark cloud over Reggie Jackson, whose individual goals felt counterproductive to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s own at time last season.
Plucked by the Thunder with the 24th pick in the 2012 draft, the prospect of joining a championship contender with a strong locker room culture would seem like a dream scenario for most late first round picks. Instead, Jackson chafed at the prospect of interning behind perennial All-Star Russell Westbrook.
With several game-changing playoff performances on his resume during the Thunder’s thrilling 2014 playoff run–most notably his 32 points and 9 boards in a must-win Game 4 versus Memphis, and a gritty 15-4-5 in a Western Conference Finals game 3 victory over the Spurs–Jackson felt he was destined to be more than a career backup and his vocal desire to start quickly became the elephant in the room.
Amid Oklahoma City’s injury ravaged wreck of a season, Jackson’s game suffered, and as his minutes fluctuated his discontent grew, leading to the Thunder finally shipping the erratic point guard to a struggling Detroit Pistons team, where he could pursue his dreams of running an NBA team.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”Detroit Pistons” title=”More Detroit Pistons articles” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
On the strength of Jackson’s post-trade numbers (17.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, and 9.2 apg in 27 games with Detroit), Pistons head coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy inked the 25-year old point guard to a massive five-year, $80 million contract; the same amount as John Wall, as the Washington Wizards point guard famously pointed out this summer.
Jackson now has the wallet and starting position he coveted in Detroit, but has to prove he’s worth more than the role the Thunder envisioned for him. Is he the dynamic point guard who put up a tidy 14-4-5 stat line in 36 starts while riding shotgun during Kevin Durant’s MVP season, or is he the overemotional talent who often disappeared and lost favor with coach Scott Brooks and eventually pouted his way out of Oklahoma City?
Upon his arrival to the Motor City, the Pistons fell into a 1-10 tailspin while an upchucking Jackson averaged 14.7 points and 6.6 dimes on just 37 percent shooting. But the Pistons, like Jackson, were nothing if not prone to wild swings last year.
Despite some uneven play and foreboding advanced statistical data, there’s plenty of reason to believe in Jackson. He’s long, athletic, and a nightmare to keep out of the lane; where he finishes with a nice array of floaters, flip shots, and the occasional surprising dunk over unsuspecting big men.
Some of his funky play can be attributed to the wonky fit alongside two classic NBA behemoths in Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, whose poor spacing encouraged some of Jackson’s least productive tendencies, spelling disaster for a slashing pick and roll guard:
A streaky-at-best shooter, Jackson works best exploding past screens into open lanes, and the Pistons had their finest run with their new point guard (7-4 with Jackson dropping almost 21-11-6 on 49 percent shooting) in the 11 games Monroe sat and the lineups and offense more closely resembled the Van Gundy system that terrorized the Eastern Conference with Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson.
The chemistry alongside Drummond particularly offered a glimmer of hope, especially in contrast to Brandon Jennings, as our own Bryan Toporek pointed out earlier in the year:
“With the Jackson-Drummond duo on the floor, Detroit scored 109.5 points per 100 possessions, the sixth-highest mark of any Pistons two-man combo that played at least 250 minutes this season. Conversely, with the Jennings-Drummond pair on the floor, the Pistons scored just 102.8 points per 100 possessions, the 27th-ranked mark among 54 eligible combos.”
Time will tell if Van Gundy’s faith in the enigmatic Jackson is well placed. His previous inconsistencies and lackadaisical defense (his Defensive Box Plus-Minus has been in the negative his entire career per Basketball Reference) will wear thin quickly in Detroit if not corrected, but the early returns on the pick and roll chemistry between he and Drummond are a promising start. And a start is all the mercurial Jackson has ever asked for.
Michael Carter-Williams, Milwaukee Bucks, 23 years old
66 gms, 32.6 mpg, 14.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 6.7 apg, 1.7 stls, 39.6%, 23.5% 3pt, 14.1 PER
Reggie Jackson wasn’t the only young point guard traded mid-season last year.
Only two years into his career, it’s surprisingly difficult to remember the early promise Michael Carter-Williams showed, lighting the basketball world ablaze with a near quadruple-double in his NBA debut.
In the midst of the Philadelphia 76ers ugly 2013-2014 season–a year filled with blowouts and teeth-gnashing over blatant tanking–Carter-Williams’ Rookie of the Year campaign served as the lone bright spot in an otherwise forgettable season; seemingly providing the first step in general manager Sam Hinkie’s long process.
Some were heartened by the rookie’s pace-inflated 16.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg, and 6.3 apg, ignoring the “looter in a riot” context of a young player let loose to snatch up all the numbers he wanted, win or lose (and lose, and lose, and lose…). So it was only a shock to the casual fan when analytically-inclined Philadelphia traded the reigning Rookie of the Year to the Milwaukee Bucks halfway through his second year.
But advanced statistics are merely another means of information, quantifying what has already occurred on the basketball court. The quality of any conclusions or projections are highly dependent on context and sample size; something the amorphous 76ers cannot possibly claim to provide in such short time, without an NBA framework around Carter-Williams.
Are there redemptive qualities to take from Carter-Williams’ raw averages, or did the 76ers manage to fleece the Bucks, nabbing a potentially valuable Lakers’ draft pick for the cost of another empty calorie player like Evan Turner?
In 66 games last year, Carter-Williams averaged 14.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 1.7 steals per game, putting him some pretty good company. Only nine other players (James Harden, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Grant Hill, and Rod Strickland) have impacted such a wide spectrum of the box score at those levels in the past 20 years, and almost all of them are, or will be, Hall of Famers.
Of course, not many players were allowed so many minutes (33.5 per game) while turning the ball over so frequently (3.8) and shooting so poorly (46.1 True Shooting Percentage). Only Jim Jackson’s rookie season on the 11-win 1992-1993 Dallas Mavericks matched that level of inefficiency.
The most frequent name on the positive ledger of those lists is Jason Kidd, who turned in six such seasons, which is relevant in that it will be Kidd trying to mold this flawed young talent into a do-it-all weapon in his own image.
Carter-Williams all the physical tools to be an effective NBA guard. A wonderful young talent with the ability to act as the tip of a stifling, long-armed defensive spear, he fits the profile of athletic defenders the Bucks are trying to establish, as evident from the highlight reel of his rookie season:
Of course, in the modern NBA if your point guard can’t knock down jumpers, he damn well better be able to get to the rim or draw fouls. Unlike Reggie Jackson, who can build his game around his ability to get to the rim in pick and rolls, Carter-Williams has no offensive identity yet.
While operating in a formless 76ers offense that asked Carter-Williams to aimlessly do everything, he failed to develop any one specific thing, perhaps explaining why the expansion of his game can be measured at a rate with less range than his wayward jumper.
Carter-Williams was a 12 ppg, 5 rpg, 7 apg guy who shot 39 percent (29 percent from 3) as a sophomore at Syracuse, and after over 4,500 minutes and 136 game of NBA experience he’s inched forward to roughly 16-6-7 on 40.1 percent shooting (25.2 percent from 3) while making many of the same mistakes.
Milwaukee was 14-7 in the last 21 games of the Brandon Knight era and promptly went into a 10-15 funk with Carter-Williams on the floor, with whatever semblance of an offense they had cratering in his stewardship.
But with the Bucks adding big man Greg Monroe and Jabari Parker back on the court, joining the swiftly improving Giannis Antetokuonmpo and sharpshooting Kris Middleton, Carter-Williams should finally find some structure in which to develop an offensive role.
In evaluating Carter-Williams numbers, the 76ers were plugging numbers into an empty model. The Bucks are banking that external factors and fit might fill some of the missing variables to his game.