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Assessing KG: Untapped offensive potential
by Dennis Hans / February 11, 2005

At first glance, it would seem absurd to suggest that Kevin Garnett is an underachiever at the offensive end of the court. After all, he’s remarkably consistent at a fairly high level of efficiency and production. For the third consecutive year, he’s shooting right at 50 percent, and his points per game over that span have been 23.0, 24.2 (last year’s MVP season) and 22.4 through 50 games this season.

Measured against the competition, he’s outstanding. Measured against what he’s capable of doing, it says here that he’s reached 80 percent of his offensive potential. It’s not a question of effort, which is always there, but effectiveness.

The analysis that follows is not meant to suggest that KG is responsible for the Timberwolves troubles this season. Far from it. He’s played very well, though he could be a much more effective help defender, as I explained in this essay. If Sam Cassell’s hip hadn’t gone bad in last season’s playoffs, it’s my view that KG would have a championship ring right now, and maybe a Finals MVP to match his regular season MVP. My point is that just because a player is great doesn’t mean he couldn’t be greater.

One of the all-time underachievers is the man many regard as the greatest player of all time, Wilt Chamberlain. He threw away thousands of points at the line (as does Shaq), shooting .511 for his career and .465 in the playoffs, and wasted thousands of possessions on a ridiculous fadeaway jumper that he probably made 30 percent of time and which always took him out of offensive-rebounding position. (And why shoot a fadeaway when you’re taller than everybody and have great hops?) Even if my critique of KG is right on the money, he’s nowhere near the underachiever Wilt was.

KG is at the peak of his b-ball powers now, and he should remain there for the next three or four seasons. He’s got the polished skills and physical tools to up his field-goal percentage to 53-55, his points per game to 28-30, and his free throw attempts to 9 or 10, while still being a good distributor from either the center or power forward position.

What’s holding him back are two related flaws: (1) the tendency to “settle,” or bail out a mediocre defender, and (2) predictability, which he displays in his over-reliance on turnaround jumpers, in which he almost always turns in the same direction (clockwise), as if he’s made up his mind beforehand the shot he’s going to take and the dribble-and-pivot sequence that will lead to it, regardless of the actions or liabilities of the defender.

The result of these two flaws is that KG squanders countless opportunities to get an easier, shorter shot or even get all the way to the rim. It doesn’t prevent him from going, most every night, a solid 9 for 18 from the field and 5 for 7 from the line. But it does prevent him from going 15 for 22 on deuces and 12 of 15 from the stripe. That is, it prevents him from wreaking havoc on a more frequent basis and punishing the opposition for thinking they can get away with putting Juwan Howard on an MVP-caliber player.

There’s a long list of players who shouldn’t be able to guard KG but nevertheless do a respectable job because he doesn’t expose their inadequacies. Instead, he just does his routine, taking pretty much the same shots he takes against the better defenders. That’s generally not what great scorers do. (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an exception, but he had the most deadly weapon in NBA history – the skyhook – and a lifetime FG percentage of .559.)

On offense, KG is an improved, slightly less predictable version of Elvin Hayes (career FG percentage of .452), who was the ultimate predictable player with his over-reliance on clockwise-pivoting turnarounds and fadeaways. That shot was both his bread and butter and his Achilles heel. Fortunately for Elvin, at age 31 a new coach, Dick
, got him to improve his shot selection and be a tad less predictable, which in the next three seasons led to his two best percentages, .501 and .487.

If early Elvin represents one end of the predictability-and-settling spectrum, The Artist Known as Kevin McHale represents the other. If we assign Elvin a rating of 1 and McHale a 10, KG is perhaps a 3 or 4. The sooner he gets closer to 10, the better.

McHale, like KG today, was a long, skinny forward/center with a world of talent and coordination. McHale may have been a bit more nimble than KG in confined space, but KG gets the edge in strength and stamina, and a
big edge with his explosive first step.

In McHale’s prime years, he had six consecutive seasons where he averaged between 20 and 26 points on these FG percentages: .570, .574, .604, .604, .546, .549. And yes, one of those .604 seasons came when he averaged his career high of 26. Of course, it helps to have Larry Bird as a teammate and play in an up-tempo era, but the main reasons for McHale’s stunning efficiency were his dazzling footwork, his array of low-post moves and the fact that he never bailed out the defender. He made the most of every possession, and his counter-moves allowed him to destroy defenders who overplayed him or were too eager to challenge his shot.

McHale has worked one-on-one with KG over the years, but for whatever reason he hasn’t been able to impart the essence of his scoring approach. They need to get back at it, and the old dog needs to teach the new dog a lot more tricks. Here’s something they can work on immediately, in regular practice and personal sessions:

In back-to-the-basket situations, KG can only shoot turning-counterclockwise shots (jumphooks, jumpshots, one-handed baseball tosses off the glass, a la Duncan and Shaq from the right low block; it’s released on the way up, and it’s one of the easiest and most effective shots in their repertoire). He can use clockwise pivots as fakes, but not as shots. He’ll quickly discover and master a world of easy shots. As an added bonus, once he establishes his counterclockwise moves in game situations, defenders won’t be able to overplay him, which will lead to better quality clockwise shots and fewer never-draw-a-foul fadeaways.

Another insufficiently utilized KG asset is his blinding first step, which rivals Amare Stoudemire’s. In face-the-basket situations, KG needs to take advantage of the crackdown on hand-checking by blowing by his defender at every opportunity. Layups and free throws await, and while KG has raised his free-throw attempts from 5.7 last season to 6.8, there’s no reason he can’t reach double figures with more drives and an expanded low-post repertoire. He’s a .798 FT shooter, and he should make it his business to live at the line.

KG has all the ingredients – stroke, touch, footwork, first step, effortless elevation, length, strength, agility and ballhandling skills – to be an offensive monster. It would be his and our loss if he settles for anything less.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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