Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Season Preview: O.J. Mayo Revisited

Posted By on Tue, Oct 12, 2010 at 4:13 PM

A year ago in this space, I approached the question of what kind of player O.J. Mayo would become by comparing his rookie season to the rookie seasons (or, in some cases, just the first full seasons) of players who embodied on of the three types: The Big, Scoring Point Guard, The Shooting Specialist, and The Ball-Dominating Two Guard.

So far, O.J. Mayo hasnt shown quite the handle or passing ability to warrant a move to the point.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • So far, O.J. Mayo hasn't shown quite the handle or passing ability to warrant a move to the point.
The evidence after year one pointed fairly strongly toward the second path. Mayo's rookie assist ratio paled to that of Big, Scoring Point Guard prototypes such as Chauncey Billups and Gilbert Arenas (neither of whom played the point full-time to start their careers) and he ranked near the bottom among scoring guards in both assist and turnover categories. And he lacked both the dynamic, versatile production and size/athleticism of Ball-Dominating Two Guards such as Joe Johnson or Brandon Roy.

Mayo compared favorably to the shooters however, his rookie-year shooting percentages and three-point prolificacy in line with players such as Kevin Martin, Ben Gordon, and what may be the gold standard of reasonable Mayo comparisons: Ray Allen.

A year later, not a whole lot has changed. Mayo's second season was only modestly different from his rookie year. His turnover ratio improved from 56th to 44th among shooting guards, but his assist ratio was stagnant. There's still an issue of opportunity here. But both on the stat page and on the court, Mayo hasn't demonstrated the kind of handle, passing, and decision-making ability to make him a great creator from the two-guard position, much less someone ready to play the point full-time.

Mayo's improved efficiency at getting to and finishing shots at the rim (he went from taking 21% of his shots in the paint and converting 50% to taking 27% and converting 65%, though he still doesn't draw fouls very well), is somewhat more persuasive. And Mayo's declining usage was certainly impacted by the addition of Zach Randolph and the team's ongoing passing problems. But even though these modest improvements and legitimate caveats give some hope that he could yet emerge as a Roy or Johnson type — the kind of scoring guard you can run an offense through — that projection would still seem more based on faith than evidence.

If youre looking for a reasonable O.J. Mayo role model, here it is: Walter Ray Allen
  • If you're looking for a reasonable O.J. Mayo role model, here it is: Walter Ray Allen
Instead, it's the "Shooting Specialists" that Mayo again mirrors. I'm not talking about pure catch-and-shoot role players such as Anthony Morrow or Kyle Korver. I'm talking about more well-rounded guards who still build all-star-level resumes with shooting as their core talent.

Mayo's free-throw shooting took a slight dip last season, but his percentages (field-goal/three-point/free-throw) and prolificacy (three-point attempts per game) still match up well with the second (full) seasons from Ray Allen and Kevin Martin:

Mayo: 46/38/81 — 4.3
Allen: 43/36/88 — 4.5
Martin: 47/38/84 — 4.2

Notably, Allen is the second most similar player to Mayo in Basketball Prospectus' comps. The first is Jason Richardson. Third and fourth are Latrell Sprewell and Hersey Hawkins, respectively.

Mayo is similar to a young Richardson in terms of the balance between his scoring and middling ball skills, but Richardson was a more explosive athlete and far shakier shooter early on, not becoming more of a three-point specialist until later in his career. Similarly, Sprewell was also more of a slasher than Mayo has been so far.

But Allen and Hawkins might provide an interesting spectrum for Mayo. An undersized two guard and terrific shooter without being entirely one-dimensional, Hawkins had an excellent career as a longtime quality starter, but was never really a star. Barring injury or the unexpected, Hawkins seems like Mayo's floor. Allen who, as established here, shot very similar to Mayo his first two seasons, emerged as a dominant shooter, launching 6-8 three pointers at a 40% success rate in his prime, while balancing his shooting with a good all-around game. Unless some kind of dramatic transformation happens to make Mayo a more ball-dominant player, Allen may be his ceiling. But that's not too bad a ceiling.

A Bummer of a Summer
This was not a particularly good summer for O.J. Mayo. After resisting giving him many minutes on the ball through a season-and-a-half, his coach, Lionel Hollins, assented to Mayo's desire to try out his point guard skills in the Las Vegas Summer League. Mayo manned the point for two games and, while I don't think two summer league games are exactly determinative of anything, it did not go well. Mayo combined to notch six assists to 15 turnovers before stepping aside to prep for national team tryouts, while Hollins all but dismissed the idea of Mayo logging minutes at the point during one game broadcast. Afterward, the team signed journeyman Acie Law and combo guard Tony Allen to go with draftee Greivis Vasquez, giving the team three options behind starter Mike Conley all likely to warrant more of a look at the point than Mayo.

Mayos competition with Eric Gordon did not go well this summer. Will that change when the regular season starts?
  • Mayo's competition with Eric Gordon did not go well this summer. Will that change when the regular season starts?
As for the national team tryouts, those didn't really go Mayo's way either. After a reportedly lackluster camp, Mayo played very well in a public scrimmage, but it wasn't enough. Not only did teammate Rudy Gay and fellow 2008 lottery picks Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook make the team ahead of Mayo, but more significantly, he lost a direct competition with the similarly sized and skilled Eric Gordon (also a 2008 lottery pick) for a role as bench shooting specialist on the team. Mayo stayed home. Gordon went overseas and played very well, elevating his stature heading into this season.

Rethinking the 2008 Draft
What does this national team experience say about Mayo's place among his draft class? As you'll remember, Mayo was, at the time, the consensus #3 prospect on a draft board that went like this:

2008 Top Five:
1. Derrick Rose
2. Michael Beasley
3. O.J. Mayo
4. Russell Westbrook
5. Kevin Love

What would that draft look like if re-done today?

For starters:
1. Derrick Rose
2. Brook Lopez (originally 10th)
3. Russell Westbrook

After that? Unless you think Beasley's going to figure things out or you really, really believe in the upside of Danilo Gallinari (6th), Anthony Randolph (14th), or Nicholas Batum (25th), there are three contenders for 4th: Mayo, Love (5th), and Eric Gordon (7th).

So, even if the Grizzlies "missed" on Mayo, they didn't miss by much. At the time, Mayo was the consensus #3 prospect in the draft. And if both Lopez — a true center who looks like a 20-10 staple — and Westbrook — a dominant athlete as a lead guard — certainly look like better prospects now, Mayo still slots as 4th-6th in a pretty good draft. But where does he rank in that grouping?

Most statistical indicators will tell you that Kevin Love — whom the Grizzlies drafted and dealt to get Mayo — is the better player. And he may be. I'd still call Love and Mayo a close call because Love has some holes in his game (not a go-to post scorer, struggles in some defensive matchups) that point toward him being an elite role player rather than a true star, and because Mayo's ability to create and make shots is so valuable.

But the direct match-up of Mayo and Gordon — who was being pushed hard as an option at #5 by some members of the Griz decision-making team — is perhaps more interesting.

Who's Better: Mayo or Gordon?

Is there a pair of significant players in the NBA more similar than Gordon or Mayo? I ask that question, admittedly, without having thought it through, but Gordon and Mayo have an awful lot in common.

Eric Gordons ability to get to the rim and absorb contact has made him a more versatile scorer than O.J. Mayo so far.
  • Eric Gordon's ability to get to the rim and absorb contact has made him a more versatile scorer than O.J. Mayo so far.
Both were picked around the same spot in the same draft after spending a single season in college. They play the same position and are roughly the same size (Mayo seems to have an inch on Gordon). They each were acquired by historically bad franchises and neither has made it to the post-season. They are each thought to be an average athlete whose value is predicated in large part on his shooting ability. And through two seasons, their surface per-game production is quite similar, with Mayo's higher scoring average seemingly a function of more minutes and more shots. (Neither made significant improvement from his rookie-year production.)

Mayo: 18 points, 4 boards, 3 assists with 45/38/85 percentages and 4.5 three-point attempts
Gordon: 16 points, 3 boards, 3 assists with 45/38/80 percentages and 4.7 three-point attempts

In fact, Gordon's two top comps in Basketball Prospectus are the same as Mayo's: Jason Richardson and Ray Allen.

The biggest differences between the two? Mayo has so far proven more reliable at the free-throw line and better on the boards. Meanwhile, Gordon has been a somewhat more versatile scorer, getting more shots in the paint (36% of attempts last season, to Mayo's 27%) and getting to the free-throw line at twice the rate. This has made Gordon — who seems to have a stronger upper body and seems a little more explosive — a more efficient point producer.

As playmakers, the statistical differences have been negligible, although Mayo just looks like he has more to offer in that regard. Defensively, both are undersized for the position and grade out negatively, although Gordon slightly less so. Again, we've seen Mayo make some clutch plays defensively, but the overall numbers aren't good. And, for what it's worth, Gordon is a year younger.

Maybe it's hometown bias speaking, but Mayo feels like a more significant player. Maybe that's his reputation impacting perception, but he seems to have a presence and composure on the court that stands out and suggests he could be playing a more central role. But based on the evidence, the differences between to the two are very small, although John Hollinger's projections are somewhat more optimistic about Mayo.

But the idea that Mayo is some kind of clear notch ahead of Gordon — which seemed to be the assumption on draft day and even after their actually similar rookie seasons — doesn't have much basis in actual performance.

Looking Ahead
Tracking Mayo against Gordon will be an interesting sideline this season, but, more crucially, Mayo's long-term status with the Grizzlies looks more uncertain than it did a year ago. Mayo's spot in the 2008 draft pecking order isn't the only place where he seems to have slipped.

O.J. Mayos path to potential stardom may rest on this shooting form.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • O.J. Mayo's path to potential stardom may rest on this shooting form.
Rudy Gay's near-max contract this summer set a bar Mayo would have been unlikely to reach even without the potential changes looming in a new collective bargaining agreement this summer. Further, Mayo will be the last of the team's current "core four" to be up for a new contract, with both Zach Randolph (unrestricted) and Marc Gasol (restricted) — not to mention Mike Conley (restricted) — heading into free agency next summer. Assuming the Griz end up paying market value contracts to at least two of those three players, the chances of the team also ponying up for Mayo is starting to look dicey. Adding to this uncertainty is an off-season that provided a couple of cheaper replacement options at Mayo's position, both short-term (Tony Allen) and long-term (Xavier Henry). The Grizzlies presently lack the same kind of in-house options to replace Randolph, Gasol (despite Hasheem Thabeet's draft status), or even Conley.

Mayo was acquired with the notion that he would emerge as true star. And it was assumed that the question wouldn't be whether to retain him but whether the team could retain him. Two years in, stardom isn't off the table, but realistic expectations align more with Mayo has a high-level starter rather than a top-tier talent. This makes the question of his future with the team more complicated. The questions about what Mayo can be and where he fits into the team's plans going forward will be a crucial subplot to the season, and the Grizzlies would do well to come to some kind of resolution on the second issue before too long. If Mayo isn't made a re-signing priority, then he could emerge as really significant trade chip.

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