What to make of Nick Young
Nick Young is the Wizards’ Official Feel Good story of the season. He’s scoring points. He’s shooting well. His defense has been not bad. That’s the storyline, and while I’ve spent the past couple weeks trying to talk myself into believing it, I just don’t. The more I watch and research, the more convinced I am that Young’s performance this season is fool’s gold.
I am not asserting that Young is a lousy basketball player. But, as they rebuild, the Wizards must analyze each player with an eye toward the future. What kind of player does he project to be? Is he a building block or a role player? While Young’s scoring has been nice, he doesn’t do enough to be a long-term building block, and his skill set is such that he doesn’t make much of a role player.
I’ll start with offense since that’s Young’s primary contribution on the floor. Much is made of Young’s scoring, and with some reason. He’s leading the team in scoring, and his offensive rating (points produced per 100 individual possessions) is an above-average 111. The Wizards are scoring about 102 points per 100 possessions; league average is 106.7.
But how Young plays the game leads to at least a couple problems. First, Young’s efficiency isn’t sustainable. Second, his offensive game doesn’t help his teammates.
Ask an NBA coach what shot he would want his opponents to take in their half-court offense, and he’ll say the long two-pointer. That’s because long twos are converted only slightly more frequently than three-point attempts, but they don’t carry that bonus point. Long twos are the least efficient shots in the game, yet Young’s offensive game is built on it.
Is Young an exception? After all, he’s shooting an excellent 49.5% from that range so far this season. However, the season-long number obscures the fact that until Young became the starter, he was making 57.4% of his long twos. Since stepping up to more defensive attention and stiffer competition, Young has been shooting 42.9% — dropping closer and closer to the 40.5% he shot from that range in his first three seasons.
Young’s heavy reliance on long twos (they comprise 38% of his FGA) presents some difficulties for the Wizards offense. In addition to the drop-off in efficiency since becoming a starter, taking long twos means he doesn’t get fouled very often. Young shoots just 4.2 free throws per 40 minutes, a low number for such a high-usage player. This means he's not stressing the defense, he's not helping his teammates by getting them into the penalty, and he's not challenging opposing bigs to stay out of foul trouble.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, Young’s offensive success is dependent on teammate screens and passes. 66% of his baskets are assisted, including 73% of his long jumpers. Since he’s not posting up or driving to the basket with regularity, he’s rarely in position to set up teammates. He scores because he’s agile, he’s a good shooter — and because the team runs plays for him. The coaching staff has expertly simplified his decision-making to a basic binary “catch-and-shoot” or pass it back to the PG.
Young’s inability to help his teammates shows up in the on/off data. Including Young, there are 16 players this season with similar offensive efficiency and usage rate. On average, those players’ teams are 6.1 points per 100 possessions better when they’re on the floor. Young doesn’t make a difference: they’re 0.5 points per 100 possessions better; an insignificant change. Only Louis Williams in Philly and Shannon Brown for the Lakers have less effect on their teams’ offenses than Young.
Young has value to the Wizards in this lost season because their other offensive options are so limited. In the future, the team will add other good scorers, which will then accentuate how limited Young’s game is. But, before I go down that path, let’s get some historical perspective from Mike Goodman, a researcher at the Association for Professional Basketball Research (APBR). Goodman has an array of statistical tools, including something he calls the “Euclidian Similizer” (seriously), which compares a player’s stats to others throughout NBA history.
According to the Similizer, Young’s production this season most resembles the following players: Dale Ellis, Kiki Vandeweghe, Glen Rice, Jeff Malone and Peja Stojakovic. Not a terrible list at first glance, except — Young does less non-scoring work than any of them. Of the ten “similars” Goodman provided, Young is second to last in rebounding (ahead of only Malone), and last in assists. Even among a group of non-rebounding, non-passing guards and forwards, Young doesn’t measure up in the non-scoring categories. Plus, none of them ever won anything as their team’s alpha offensive option.
Goodman’s analysis illustrates that Young’s game is staggeringly one-dimensional.
“If I insert him among my All-Time 650 ‘substantial’ careers, these are the lowest in my versatility index,” Goodman said.
.52 Young (2011 only)
.56 Chris Dudley
.57 Mark West
.57 Mark Eaton
.57 Eddy Curry
.58 Greg Ostertag
.58 Samuel Dalembert
.58 Jeff Malone
.58 Steve Kerr
Of the top 360 players in minutes this season (12 players per team), only 11 players have a lower score in Goodman’s versatility index — Joey Graham, Emeka Okafor, Kwame Brown, Anthony Morrow, Serge Ibaka, Raul Lopez, Joel Anthony, Brendan Haywood and Ike Diogu. Of these, only Okafor has played more minutes than Young.
Finally, let’s look at defense. There are persuasive arguments that Young is a solid defender. The Wizards have been better defensively the past couple years with Young on the floor, largely been because Young does a nice job challenging shots and staying in front of his man. However, his impact is muted because he’s a poor help defender and an atrocious rebounder. While his defensive contributions are worthwhile, they’re not enough to offset the fact that his overall floor game is so deficient.
For Young to be part of the team’s long-term plans, the Wizards would have to carefully construct their roster around him. They’d need to cater to him offensively, and acquire players to compensate for his many shortcomings. But, he’s not a talent that’s special enough to warrant that kind of effort.
Much of NBA player evaluation is based on the simple glory stat: points per game. The Wizards should exploit that by trading Young for more versatile assets that will actually fit into the team’s long-term plans. They won’t strike it rich by investing in fool’s gold.
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