In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be fascinating. Also see Michael David Smith's original "Every Play Counts" at FootballOutsiders.com.
When the NBA announces reserves for the 2008 All-Star Game today, one of the important things to watch for will be whether Portland Trail Blazers guard Brandon Roy will be rewarded for his team's surprising first half of the season by becoming an All-Star in his second NBA season.
In June 2006, when the Blazers swapped picks with the Minnesota Timberwolves to acquire the rights to Roy, an All-Star berth did not seem to be in his immediate future. Even as one of Roy's biggest fans and a believer in the impressive stats he compiled at the University of Washington, my alma mater, I must admit I did not expect Roy to be this good this soon.
So how has Roy become one of the NBA's most feared closers and the leader of the league's most talented group of youngsters? That's a question TrueHoop's Henry Abbott has already tried to answer. I used my similar Every Play Counts method to break down Sunday's Portland victory over Atlanta, in which Roy led a Blazers fourth-quarter comeback, tying the game with a layup in the final minute and then hitting a free throw in the final seconds for the win...despite playing with flu-like symptoms. Adding the dozens of Roy's games I watched in person or on TV during his college career as background, here's my explanation.
Fans and analysts around the league have already seized upon the most unique attribute of Roy's game: his controlled pace, which sees him move more slowly with the ball than almost anyone else in the league without sacrificing explosive bursts that allow him to get to the basket. This has been explained in several different ways.
"He's a magnificent player because he's never in a hurry," ESPN analyst Hubie Brown noted when Roy was dominating the fourth quarter of the Blazers' win in Miami earlier this month.
"I'm most impressed by his pace," wrote ESPN.com's David Thorpe. "Roy plays at a unique tempo that makes him look slow. But as he goes past guys or creates open midrange jumpers with his handle and timing, we realize that everyone else is moving even slower because he is in total control of his game and the ballgame in general."
"It's thrilling to see someone so in control," asserted another veteran Roy-watcher and UW alum, Seth Kolloen, on his Enjoy the Enjoyment blog. "Roy with the basketball is like Eric Clapton with a guitar or Bill Clinton with a room full of reporters."
My favorite explanation of Roy's pace came from the Section F Sports blog earlier this week, noting that Roy was a perfect example of John Wooden's old admonition to his players: "Be quick but don't hurry."
Roy's pace is important to his game, no doubt, but I think it has actually overshadowed two other important factors: his footwork and his balance.
- Footwork. A distinctive attribute of Roy's game is his use of the stepthrough move, which he used in conjunction with a good upfake for a bucket at least once a game during his senior season at UW. You don't often see the stepthrough at the NBA level; it's actually much more common in the women's game, which is ruled less by athleticism in the paint. Former Sacramento Monarchs coach John Whisenant taught several of his players the stepthrough with impressive results. I once asked him why nobody else in the league copied him, and Whisenant explained that the move was difficult to master and working on it often caused players to become robotic. Roy's movement, while deliberate, is never robotic, and that's a testament to the individual work he has put in mastering the move.
Footwork shows up in more than just the stepthrough, however. Along with his pace, it helps explain why Roy is able to get to the basket seemingly so easily. Roy is quick, but not exceptionally fast in comparison to the players we associate with living at the rim like Tony Parker and Chris Paul. Roy makes up for it with a terrific first step.
Roy's ability to penetrate might not be as dangerous if defenders were able to back off him, but he has good touch from midrange, making this strategy dangerous at best. The effect goes both ways--Roy is also able to use the threat of the drive and his good footwork to create separation for stepback jumpers, which he did twice against Atlanta.
Footwork is also evident when Roy posts up. In the second quarter against the Hawks, he used precision and patience in the post to back Joe Johnson into no man's land, avoiding a help defender reaching in before finally going up with a half-hook that nestled softly in the basket.
- Balance. To me, few attributes are more underrated for an NBA player than core strength and the ability to remain in balance despite contact. In the past, Mike D'Antoni has cited this as a hidden key to Steve Nash's success. Up close, the physicality of an NBA game is truly stunning. While Roy's pace and his footwork allow him to avoid being bothered on his shots more often than most players, his ability to finish in traffic is still invaluable.
Against the Hawks, Roy showed off his balance by converting three times while drawing a foul for a potential three-point play (finishing all three with a made free throw). On the last play of the first half, Roy beat defensive specialist Mario West with a crossover, then split help and scored while being jolted by West. Midway through the fourth quarter, he used one of his explosive bursts to get into the paint and beat Hawks center Zaza Pachulia, who tried to foul in vain. A couple of minutes later, he split the traffic of three defenders on his way into the paint, was hit in the air by Al Horford and still managed to go up-and-under for a left-hand layup.
Balance is also a factor in allowing Roy to avoid contact and shot-blockers, as exemplified late against the Hawks when he beat Josh Smith into the lane but still had Smith, one of the league's premier shot-blockers, in the rear-view mirror. Roy leaned low to sneak up a layup before Smith had a chance to block it. The best example of remaining in control while off-balance might be Roy's remarkable layup against Toronto which saw him switch the ball from his right hand to his left in mid-air, a la Michael Jordan in the 1991 NBA Finals.
Lastly, on the Blazers' final possession of the game, when Roy was fouled and split two free throws to unbreak a tie and win the game, his core strength came into play. Atlanta wasn't in the penalty when Roy was fouled, and it would have merely been ball on the side were it not for his ability to get up a convincing attempt at the basket despite being knocked solidly off balance by the foul. I'm still not sure the play was a shooting foul, but Roy gave himself a chance to get the call by taking the contact.
Despite Roy's combination of skills, the Hawks were able to take him and the Blazers out of rhythm at times during the first three quarters by springing double-team traps when Portland went to Roy on Nate McMillan's beloved high pick-and-roll at the top of the key. Ultimately, however, Roy's patience and unselfishness paid off, as he was able to do a better job starting ball movement that ended with open three-point looks in the corner for the Blazers' wings, Travis Outlaw (who hit consecutive triples as part of Portland's fourth-quarter rally) and James Jones.
As tribute to Roy's ability to spread the ball around, his assist average (5.6 per game) trails only Allen Iverson, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade amongst non-point guards. As noted by Abbott, that willingness to pass the ball is a key part of what makes Roy a mystery for opposing defenses, who don't know when he is going to drive, pull up or dish.
At times, Roy clearly does act as the point guard for the Blazers. Against the Hawks, he brought the ball upcourt 19 times in the 65 possessions he played, a ratio which increased in the fourth quarter. Overall, Roy touched the ball in the frontcourt on 44 of the 65 possessions, and the other 21 were not as successful, with the Blazers scoring just 18 points--less than a point per possession and well below the 116.0 points per 100 possessions Portland scored over the course of the game.
Roy's unique skill set may not prove enough to earn him an All-Star berth this year, but it has made him one of the league's rising stars. More importantly, it has helped lift the Blazers, winners of 21 games before landing Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge in the 2006 Draft, into playoff contention in the Western Conference. With Roy leading the way, don't expect Portland to fade.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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