If you’re not an apiarist or natural health fanatic, chances are you haven’t crossed paths with royal jelly, a truly incredible substance. Wikipedia explains:
The honey bee queens and workers represent one of the most striking examples of environmentally controlled phenotypic polymorphism. In spite of their identical clonal nature at the DNA level, they are strongly differentiated across a wide range of characteristics including anatomical and physiological differences, longevity of the queen, and reproductive capacity.Queens constitute the sexual caste and have large active ovaries, whereas workers have only rudimental inactive ovaries and are functionally sterile. The queen/worker developmental divide is controlled epigenetically by differential feeding with royal jelly; this appears to be due specifically to the protein royalactin.
The middle school biology explanation is that bees are identical at the DNA level. The differences between the worker bee and the queen, including the enormous size differential and the ability to lay hundreds of eggs, come entirely from eating the substance known as royal jelly. Player development expert and ESPN analyst, David Thorpe, uses this as a metaphor for the his system of positive reinforcment.
“Playing time is the first part,” says Thorpe. “A coach’s support is another thing — it helps you grow as a player if you know you’re not going to get yanked the first time you miss a shot. That gives you the confidence to be creative and expand your game. And then the final aspect of the ideal set-up is coaching you up on the new things you’re adding to your game. A great recent example of this was Trevor Ariza with the Lakers last season. In the spring, everyone was wondering why they’d let him shoot all those 3s. It wasn’t productive. But they needed him to be able to do that, they let him do that, they didn’t yank him for doing that, and they coached him how to do that better. And in the playoffs he was amazing at that and helped them win a championship.” – Courtesy of Henry Abbot and TrueHoop
Usually this term comes into play when we are talking about a young player who is still developing an identity and carving out their niche in professional basketball. The royal jelly is minutes, opportunities and teachable moments, all of which are lavished on said player. But this idea of positive scaffolding doesn’t have to be reserved for fresh-faced youngsters. The journeymen, those who’ve moved from team to team never quite finding the right sequence of steps with which to unlock their full potential — can they not benefit from repeated doses of the same treatment?
The addition of Delonte West was among last and least heralded of the Mavericks’ off-season acquisitions. His second tour in Boston did not go the way he, or the Celtics, hoped it would. Since his first season in Cleveland, basketball success has seemed to be creeping inexorably away from him. At one point, his issues off the court made his grip on an NBA career seem tenuous at best.
It’s been just 11 games, but we’ve already seen a player comfortable in his game and his own skin. Despite shooting just 3-of-13 on three-pointers for the season, West has been incredibly efficient offensively and has had as big a hand as anyone in Dallas bouncing back from their 0-3 start as anyone. His play has been a reminder of forgotten performance and buried potential, and the Mavericks organization deserves plenty of credit for helping him be the Delonte West he’s been these past few weeks.
Holding to the royal jelly formulation set forth by Thorpe, the Mavericks have been puffing him up from every direction. There’s been plenty of verbal reinforcement -
“He’s incredible,” guard Jason Terry said. “His energy, we’ve been feeding off of it; obviously without Jason Kidd. I think that people forget about Delonte’s ability to run the team and play point guard. That’s what he was drafted as and he’s a good one.”
“It’s not often you have a guy on the floor that goes 9-for-10, but there’s a guy on the floor that’s actually the best player on the court,” Carlisle said, first noting Dirk Nowitzki‘s impressive shooting night. “Delonte was the best player on the court because of his competitiveness. That’s what we need right now. We need consistency as a team competitively and he set a great tone for us the last two games.”
There’s also been opportunity, not just in quantity, but in quality as well. He’s been handed the ball and asked to create in a way unlike anything he’s seen since his early days in Boston. Throughout the majority of his seven-year career, West been a sidekick to players like Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker, Al Jefferson, LeBron James, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. The beautiful thing about the system Rick Carlisle has put together in Dallas is that there are no sidekicks; there are just basketball players expected to fill their roles. Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry score the vast majority of Dallas’ points, not because they are more important. Scoring is merely what they can bring to the table.
What West has been asked to bring is offensive creation. His Usage Rate of 18.5% is the second highest of his career and the highest he’s posted since 2007. His Ast’d% (the percentage of his baskets which are assisted on) is down to 22.2% the lowest of his career. His Ast% (the percentage of his teammates’ baskets which he assists on) is up to 31.1%. His identity is not being sculpted to complement the pieces around him. Instead it’s being relied upon in its organic state to complement the pieces around him and their improvements to benefit him in return.
One way to see this pattern of offensive creation is to look at his offensive possession data from Synergy Sports Technology. The different ways a player can use an offensive possession fall along a spectrum of activity to passivity. A spot-up shot marks the passive end of the spectrum – the ball arrives, you shoot it. Isolations, transition, and handling the ball in a pick-and-roll are among the more active ways a player can use an offensive possession. This season 70.6% of West’s offensive possessions have been used in those situations, with a whopping 34.1% coming in the pick-and-roll. Contrast that with 47.8% of his possessions coming in that active triumvirate last year in Boston, or 60.0% in 2009 in Cleveland, and you see a player who is being asked to do things in a different way.
West is undoubtedly making the most of the opportunities he’s being given in Dallas. He’s taking the request to drive the offense and racing ahead. To demonstrate how effective he’s been I calculated his Points Created Per Minute. This calculation includes points he scores on unassisted shots as well as the points created by his assists, giving credit for assists on three-pointers. The chart below shows how West stacks up against his teammates. (Not including numbers from last night’s win against the Celtics.)
More of the Mavericks’ offense on a per minute basis has been coming from West than any other player, and it’s not even close.
The Mavericks have built a culture of royal jelly, and it’s what has allowed them to make the most of their talent. The Spurs have a well-established reputation for finding hidden gems late in the draft and developing them into productive players, and although it’s rarely mentioned seen through this lens, the Mavericks have been doing the same thing for years with aging veterans, cast-offs and misfits. Their playoff runs have been centered around Dirk Nowitzki, but supported by Shawn Marion, Brian Cardinal, Jason Kidd, Jerry Stackhouse, Erick Dampier, all players who had never found their niche or had seen that niche dissolve as age caught up with them or their previous teams changed around them.
It doesn’t always work and the system isn’t always applied evenly. Rodrigue Beaubois is nowhere near what we thought he’d be two years ago. Brandan Wright has looked promising but rarely takes his warm-ups off. The situation West has been placed in is partially a product of circumstance, surely. But let’s not ignore the pieces of his situation that are there by design. Make no mistake: the Mavericks aren’t stuffing royalctin down his throat out of the goodness of their hearts. This is a situation of mutual beneficence, and what’s good for the goose is good for the Mavericks.