Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Season Preview: Projecting O.J. Mayo

Posted By on Tue, Oct 27, 2009 at 1:49 PM

What will O.J. Mayo be? Shooter? Point Guard? Do-It-All?
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • What will O.J. Mayo be? Shooter? Point Guard? Do-It-All?
Last summer, after drafting O.J. Mayo, one of the primary discussion topics for the Grizzlies was what kind of player he's going to be: A point guard? A shooting guard? A hybrid? A superstar? An all-star? A merely good player?

This is an important question in that the answer should help determine much of what the Grizzlies do with the rest of their roster, and one of the problems I had with the team's offseason is that the franchise itself didn't seem to be operating with a clear idea of where Mayo was headed and kind of players would help him maximize his skills.

Is Mike Conley a good fit alongside Mayo long term? If not, was there a guard in the draft — Tyreke Evans? James Harden? Stephen Curry? — who made more sense? The answer, pardon the pun, is surely not Allen Iverson.

The way the Grizzlies build their backcourt going forward should be contingent on where and how Mayo needs to play and what teammates can best help him do that. The Grizzlies — with a GM who seems intrigued by the idea of Mayo at point guard and a coach who seems unusually opposed to even testing that notion — don't seem to have a strong handle on the question.

After a stellar rookie season, there's more info to draw from in analyzing Mayo, so let's take another look at which direction Mayo's career could head, breaking down the three general types of player he could become:

1. The Big, Scoring Point Guard

Examples: Chauncey Billups, Gilbert Arenas, Sam Cassell

Worst-Case Scenario: Rodney Stuckey

Could O.J. Mayo use his size and shooting to be an unconvential point guard in the Chauncey Billups mold?
  • Could O.J. Mayo use his size and shooting to be an unconvential point guard in the Chauncey Billups mold?
Observationally, Mayo seems to have playmaking instincts, particularly in the pick and roll, and a decent handle, but he struggled last year with turnovers and with orchestrating transition plays (unless he was taking it all the way himself).

In his player preview, John Hollinger points out that if Mayo had trouble taking opposing scoring guards off the dribble, it will be even worse at the point. So, if Mayo were to transition to the point, he would certainly not be a traditional penetrate-and-dish distributor. He would instead be in the mold of a Billups, a sweet-shooting big point guard who utilizes his size and strength advantage on both ends of the floor.

Mayo's rookie-season production is not promising in terms of assessing his point guard potential. Using statistics from Basketball-Reference.com, compare Mayo's rookie assist ratio to those of these other big, scoring point guards:

Mayo: 15.5
Billups: 22.6
Arenas: 24.8
Cassell: 25.8
Stuckey: 23.9

Mayo's assist numbers are nowhere close to the others. You can argue that Mayo's low number is, in part, a function of how he was used last season, but neither Billups, Arenas, or even Stuckey were exclusively point guards their rookie seasons. They all played as combo guards.

More discouraging is, as Hollinger points out, Mayo was 58th in pure point rating (a Hollinger-specific metric for playmaking production) and 56th in turnover ratio — for shooting guards.

2. The Shooting Specialist

Examples: Ray Allen, Ben Gordon, Kevin Martin, Rip Hamilton

Worst-Case Scenario: Jamal Crawford

Mayos astounding rookie shooting evokes Ray Allen.
  • Mayo's astounding rookie shooting evokes Ray Allen.
Mayo had an astounding rookie year as a shooter, and his shooting numbers compare favorably to the first full seasons of these players. (I'm using the second NBA seasons for Hamilton and Martin, who were part-timers as rookies, and the third full season for Crawford.)

Here's the breakdown in terms of the three shooting percentage categories — field-goal percentage/three-point percentage/free-throw percentage — and the number of three-point attempts taken per game:

Mayo: 44/38/88 — 4.6
Allen: 43/39/82 — 3.6
Gordon: 41/41/86 — 4.0
Martin: 48/37/85 — 2.5
Hamilton: 42/36/77 — 1.1
Crawford: 41/36/80 — 3.0

Mayo had a better overall shooting percentage than anyone but Martin (in his second pro season after four years in college), was topped from the three-point line by only Allen and Gordon (perhaps the two purest shooters in the league), had a better free-throw percentage than any of them, and was the most prolific long-range shooter.

And this was all with less experience (one year of college) than any of the other players had in their first full NBA seasons. If those rookie shooting numbers are any kind of accurate indication, then Mayo has a chance to be one of the league's most deadly shooters. In his prime, Allen launched 6-8 threes a game at a 40% success rate. This could be where Mayo is heading.

These numbers are made more impressive by how dynamic Mayo was as a rookie shooter. He was deadly on catch-and-shoot threes, but that was only the start, as he was effective with his jumper in pretty much every way imaginable: Catch-and-shoot mid-range jumpers on the move, off the dribble, fading back with a hand in his face, whatever.

Mayo seems more dynamic with the ball and (as a finisher) in transition than the other players on this list, but as a shooter he profiles pretty closely to the league's best current shooting specialists.

3. The Ball-Dominating Two Guard

Examples: Dwyane Wade, Brandon Roy, Joe Johnson

Worst-Case Scenario: Randy Foye

Mayo might lack the athleticism to be a do-it-all guard in the mold of Dwyane Wade.
  • Mayo might lack the athleticism to be a do-it-all guard in the mold of Dwyane Wade.
This is the kind of role many people — myself included — assumed Mayo was likely headed as he started his NBA career, and maybe he still is. But after watching him for a year, there's reason for doubt.

For starters, Mayo's rookie year assist ratio wasn't just considerably below that of the ostensible point guards on the first list, but well behind that of Wade and Roy. Further, Mayo didn't really get into the paint that much as a rookie and when he did, he wasn't a great finisher.

These kinds of lead guards are much more dynamic offensively than Mayo has been — more prolific at setting up teammates and at breaking down defenses off the dribble. They are also better athletes: Mayo lacks the explosiveness of Wade or the size of Roy.

Conclusion: Based on Mayo's rookie season production, he seems to project more as a shooting specialist than a point guard or ball-dominant scoring guard. That could have a lot to do with how he was used as a rookie, but his physical make-up — 6'4" without elite athleticism or overwhelming quickness with the ball — also points in that direction.

I think Mayo's future could still head in any of these directions and think the team should be more aggressive about testing Mayo's abilities with the ball, something that will be difficult to do with the need to fit in both Conley and Iverson, both far less adept than Mayo at playing off the ball. But where I was once agnostic on the subject of Mayo transitioning to the point, I'm now skeptical. But until the team more fully tests the proposition, it will be hard to definitively know where Mayo is headed.

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