With the Thunder’s season finished, it’s time to start looking back at the body of work of the third youngest roster in the league. I’ll be reviewing the season submitted by all three Thunder rookies, and kicking things off with Spanish sharpshooter, Alex Abrines.
The Most Sincere of Apologies
I admit, I was open about my reluctance to believe in Alex Abrines. Upon the announcement of his signing, I was nothing but pessimistic. I saw a wing with very little muscle on his bones and a slew of glaring defensive problems. However, after watching him appear in 68 games in his rookie season, it feels necessary to issue an apology.
That being said, Abrines did struggle defensively for the first half of the season, as he was prone to poor fouls and his footwork was that of nightmares. He constantly over-adjusted and put himself out of position, went over screens he should’ve gone under and mysteriously went under screens against sharpshooters. Overall he was a wreck defensively early on, but began showing signs of life on the defensive end along the way.
Abrines has excellent length and good athleticism, two assets needed to be an above-average wing defender. After a combination of adjusting to the NBA and good coaching, he started using those attributes to his advantage. Here’s a couple good examples:
His “happy feet” footwork all but disappeared, and he began to cause turnovers with his length. He shared these good defensive possessions with the same lapses as before, but began committing errors at a lower rate. Abrines finished his rookie season with a below average Defensive Rating of 110, but more importantly, an Offensive Rating of 113. As his defense improved, so did his offense.
Simply put, Abrines’ defensive deficiencies no longer outweigh his offensive talent, and that will be a huge development for the Thunder moving forward. With Abrines transforming into a solid defender, Oklahoma City finally has a reliable shooter who won’t hemorrhage points to the opposition — something OKC has lacked since the departure of Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Martin.
So Abrines had a successful rookie campaign, but let’s delve into the numbers to see how he stacked up against a similar rookie in Sacramento’s Buddy Hield. The reason we are looking at Hield is because they are the same age, 23, and spent similar time gaining experience and prepping for the NBA.
First off, let’s look at the numbers. Since Abrines played just a little more than half of Hield’s 1,888 minutes, we’ll view the Per 100 Possessions statistics.
Looking at the graphs, we see Hield was a better player in nearly every facet. This is reflected in their raw numbers, as well, but when digging deeper, those stats look less impressive compared to Abrines’ contributions.
We see that although Hield put up larger numbers, his team did not benefit from his play like the Thunder did with Abrines on the floor. With an Offensive Rating of 100 and a Defensive Rating of 112, Buddy is a -12 player, while Abrines sits at a net rating of +3.
In no way am I saying Buddy Hield is going to be a terrible NBA player — he flashed serious ball handling skills AND the ability to carry an offense after being dealt to the Kings — but when comparing their play and achievements, Abrines was an above average NBA player as a rookie.
To put a cherry on top, on the surface Hield looks like a more efficient and impactful scorer — .426 FG% and .391 3P% to Abrines’ .393 FG% and .381 3P%. But the data tells us differently. Not only do the advanced shooting percentages favor Abrines, but his Win Shares blow Hield’s out of the water.
So while Abrines’ raw stats don’t have the same eye-popping elements, he established himself as a better, slightly more efficient scorer than the top drafted shooting guard in the 2016 Draft class –something OKC fans should be extremely excited about.
Numbers are just numbers, but what is Abrines actually doing on the court that is having such a positive impact? More importantly, how does that correlate to the numbers that actually matter?
First off, Abrines is really good at hitting corner threes. While they make up just 23% of his threes taken, he hit 40% of them. This is especially useful when he is the only shooter on the floor. Even more important than his ability to hit the corner three is his ability to hit while contested. In fact, he hit 39% of his threes with a defender in “tight” coverage — 2-4 feet away, according to NBA.com.
This was on display in the first quarter against the Bucks late in the season:
What helps make Abrines a dynamic player is his ability to be active off the ball. The Thunder has lacked such a player for it’s entire tenure, as even James Harden was never an active off-ball threat such as JJ Reddick or Klay Thompson. However, this is one area where Abrines shines. With elite screen setters in Enes Kanter and Steven Adams, Abrines has been able to get separation enough to get a catch-and-shoot three or attack the basket, where he has shown a craftiness not often found in rookies.
Although we’ve touched on a few of the best aspects of Abrines’ game, his biggest impact this season was his contribution to the bench unit.
Billy Donovan experimented heavily with the influx of characters that played a role off the bench, and while he trusted Semaj Christon more than I would’ve liked him too, he did a good job of managing the strengths and weaknesses of his reserves. Semaj is not a gifted facilitator and neither is Abrines, which left OKC without a quality facilitator in either guard position. However, Enes Kanter emerged as someone who the offense could be run through — which is one of the big reasons for the growth of Abrines.
With a sharpshooter at the wing, and the freshly acquired Doug McDermott stationed on the opposite side, Kanter had the space to get a 1-on-1 matchup in the paint, or draw a double team and kick to one of the two shooters. Just watch how natural this play is for Abrines and Kanter:
This was the go-to option up until Kanter broke his arm punching a chair. After his return, Donovan put the ball in Semaj’s hands more and put Kanter into a screener/distraction role. The sad part of this — besides not getting to watch the beauty that is Enes Kanter working a defender in the post — is that the Abrines/Kanter play took a backseat in favor of drive-and-kicks.
While Abrines has taken great strides, the rest of the bench was in constant flux, making it one of the worst second units in the NBA. With the 21st pick in the draft, look for GM Sam Presti to build the second unit in the offseason, giving the bunch stability it lacked this season. As the reserves improve, watch as Abrines begins to shine even brighter.
Since this is a report card, let’s hand out some grades. We’re going to have four different grades starting with Production — how much did said player actually produce this season? Secondly we have Growth — how much did the player grow through the season? Third we have Potential — how much potential did the player flash during the season? Finally we have the total grade. This last one is a combination of the three previous scores and a little bit of my own opinion. Think of it as a 75/25 split.Production:
To conclude, I want to give what I believe to be the ceiling and floor of each rookie through player comparisons. For Abrines’ floor, Jodie Meeks stands out to me as a player Abrines is better than right now, but could regress to. Meeks is a stellar shooter with good length, but doesn’t offer much outside of the occasional good defensive possession and floor spacing.
As a ceiling, pre-achilles tear Wesley Matthews. Matthews transformed into a reliable 3-and-D player that was a major cog in the LaMarcus Aldridge-era Trailblazers. If Abrines can grow into being even 3/4 the player Matthews was, the Thunder is going to be contending sooner than anyone thinks.