I’m not sure if it comes through in my condescending tone or consistently judgmental world-view, but I support my basketball blogging habit working as an elementary school teacher. Both pursuits are challenging, rewarding and intellectually stimulating, but the nature of each means there is generally very little crossover. Over the past year however, I’ve been looking for ways to bring my hobby and professional life closer together. The latest iteration of that pursuit is a project I helped start this summer at Hickory-High called the K-12 Analytic Challenge. This project aims to get students engaged with scientific reasoning and mathematical argumentation through basketball analytics. Every few weeks we’ve been posting a basketball question and asking students to submit answers supported by statistics.
I’m sharing this project, not (entirely) for shameless self-promotion, but because in preparing the latest challenge I stumbled across a Dallas Mavericks story I had missed from last season. The most recent challenge asked students “Who will win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award for the 2012-2013 season?” Each challenge also comes with a set of scaffolded hints designed to make the project accessible to students with all levels of statistical sophistication. In putting together one of those hints I pointed out that one group of players who often win the Most Improved Player Award are those who have been very effective in limited minutes the season before, and are then given a big bump in minutes the next season. These players don’t really improve, so much as they are given more opportunities to show off their skills — think Ryan Anderson last season or Kevin Love the season before.
In guiding students to use this line of thinking in the challenge, I used a search from Basketball-Reference’s Play Index to generate an example list of players who fit that set of circumstances for this season. I was looking for players who had been very productive in limited minutes last season, and who might have the opportunity to play a larger role this year. I set the criteria for my search as players 25 and under, who had played more than 500 minutes and less than 1200 minutes with a minute per game average below 25.0. If you sort the results by PER you find a Brandan Wright second from the top.
I watched Wright closely last season, celebrating his ability to finally stay healthy and use some of his considerable talents to contribute on a winning basketball team. But somehow I must have overlooked his stat-line all season long because I was literally shocked to see how his success manifested numerically. With per 36 minute averages of 15.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.9 blocks with a 61.8 FG% and a PER of 21.6, Wright didn’t just have a solid season last year, he shattered my statistical expectations. Those numbers were not dissimilar from what he had accomplished in Golden State but were accumulated during meaningful basketball minutes as opposed to the garbage-time work he had done previously. If an opportunity to play starter’s minutes opened up for him this year, turning those per 36 numbers into per game numbers would surely catapult him into discussion for the league’s Most Improved Player Award.
While that scenario is exciting, it leaves a lot to be desired from both a team and individual perspective. If Wright finds himself playing 36 minutes a game this season it will likely mean that Dirk Nowitzki’s return from knee surgery takes an unexpected turn for the worst, or that Chris Kaman or Elton Brand are able to provide significantly less production than hoped for. For all his physical tools and shot-blocking ability, Wright is still anything but an impact player defensively. Although his individual numbers are impressive, the Mavs were slightly worse defensively when he was on the floor last season, especially on the defensive glass and in keeping opponents out of the paint.
Then there is the issue of stagnation. It feels like Wright has been in the league forever and it’s easy to forget that just he’s 25 and entering his fourth NBA season (he missed all of the 2009-2010 season with injury). Wright has played just 2,234 career minutes across those four seasons, a testament to the unpolished nature of his game and the previously fragile nature of his physical being. That’s only 105 minutes more than Brandon Knight played just last year as a rookie during a 66-game season. While staying healthy and duplicating his success over more minutes would certainly be a step forward, it stands to reason that there is still room for him to actually improve beyond that extrapolation.
Wright is a very efficient offensive player in several different capacities. Although he only finished 54 possessions as the screener in a pick-and-roll according to Synergy Sports, he averaged 1.24 points per possession on those plays — the ninth best mark in the league. He was also very effective on post-ups (1.00 points per possession), cuts (1.20), offensive rebounds (1.24) and in transition (1.42). However, all of those possession types are dependent on his finishing ability and an opportunity, created by a teammate or circumstance, to catch the ball near the rim. If there was a consistent mid-range jumpshot in his future, and with it the hint of a ‘pump-fake-and-go’ face-up game, those offensive contributions would be much more difficult for opponents’ to account for. Defensively, attention to detail, decisive rotations and some added strength and determination in the post and on the glass could make all the difference in his ability to be a net positive for the Mavericks’ regardless of the score or situation.
The Mavericks have a roster in transition this season — an assortment of young pieces that need to be assessed for long-term value and a group of accomplished veterans trying and hold everything in place, keep the team competitive as potential becomes production. Wright’s relative mix of experience and inexperience leaves him towering in the middle, straddling the line between the two camps. He faces the challenge of improvement, both by conquering chronology and putting into play all that he has practiced. I anticipate that watching him resolve those challenges will be a pleasure to watch this season, whether or not the results are recognized with a trophy.