"And then I went off," Rivers said. "I said, ‘Guys, that's what he does. You think he's a dunker, he's really a shooter.'
Those were the words of Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers following Terrence Ross' 51-point explosion against Los Angeles two weekends ago. Still two weeks shy of his 23rd birthday, Ross' outburst was the third-highest individual scoring effort this season. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Brandon Jennings are the only four players in the last 39 years to score as many points in a game at a younger age.
The versatility of the effort might have been what registered the most, a fact not lost on Rivers. How many guys can jump over a child and do an under-the-leg dunk and also drop 10 threes in an NBA game? Ross can. He drained five in the first quarter on his way to 10-of-17 shooting from deep on the night. He also threw down a vicious tip-dunk in the second half and followed it up by slamming home an alley-oop on a fast break.
Regular playing time is just starting to come for Ross, a second-year player out of Washington. His killer outing against the Clippers was the type of breakout individual performance young players dream about. It also affirmed one of the most exciting trends in the first half of this season: The infusion of talent at shooting guard.
(Richard Mackson / USA TODAY Sports)
Michael Jordan wasn't the NBA's first modern shooting guard, but he might as well have been. The off-guard has been a glamor position ever since, with the prototype needing dunk contest-worthy athleticism, deep shooting range, a quick crossover and playmaking ability. Kobe Bryant was the ideal heir to Jordan's throne, reflecting so many of MJ's traits. It only further entrenched them in what we think the archetype for a shooting guard is supposed to be.
For the last 10 years, Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Manu Ginobili have done the position proud. Ray Allen, Joe Johnson and Vince Carter were routinely spectacular along the way as well. Brandon Roy looked like he was going to be as good as any of them before chronic knee pain cut short what would have been a great career far too young.
But while the generation of shooting guards that followed Jordan have carried the torch well, it wasn't clear where the next wave was. The last few years, shooting guard has been as shallow as any position this side of the traditional center. There's been underwhelming lottery picks (O.J. Mayo, Evan Turner), stunted development from once-promising talents (Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon) and a group of players who were useful, but never stars. As the Bryant, Wade, Ginobili contingent ages gracefully into the twilight of their careers, there appeared to be a dearth of young talent looking to pick up the reigns.
But that might be changing. It isn't hard to rattle off 10-15 players who haven't turned 25 yet who are starting to leave a heavy imprint on the league. That doesn't even count for young veterans like Arron Afflalo and Wes Matthews, who are taking big leaps forward this season.
James Harden, still just 24, is the household name here. So much attention was focused on what initially looked like a paltry return for Oklahoma City in the trade that sent him to Houston, but the real lesson of Harden's situation lies in the benefit of added opportunity for young players. Harden showcased a full offensive arsenal as a member of the Thunder, but he wasn't going to get the touches required to be a superstar with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook sharing the floor. In his first game with the Rockets, Harden dropped 37 points, 12 assists, six rebounds and four steals. He's held the belt as the best shooting guard alive ever since.
All he needed was the opportunity to be the man. His story acts as a blueprint for any young talent struggling to find a bigger stage.
Lance Stephenson is about to find himself at a similar crossroads. The one-time Brooklyn bad boy groomed by Larry Bird in Indiana might be the most visible of the breakout shooting guards this season. Stephenson is a terrific two-way force with ability to run the point for the Pacers bench unit. There aren't many guards who affect so many areas of the game at both ends of the floor the way Stephenson does. Durant is the only other player in the league to average as many points, rebounds and assists on nearly 50 percent shooting like Stephenson. As a second round pick in the 2010 draft, he is poised to become an unrestricted free agent after the season. A max contract isn't out of the question.
Would it be better for Stephenson to stay within the structure that fostered his rise to prominence, or to chase a bigger opportunity elsewhere? Stephenson may very well have never become the player he is today without the faith and support the Pacers gave him from the moment he was drafted, but there's always going to be limited touches in Indiana with so many offensive threats on the floor. Right now, Stephenson is seventh on his own team in usage rate. If you think he's dynamic now, imagine the benefit of a bigger role. He could be like Harden, only with infinitely better defense.
Speaking of two guards who might fetch a max contract this year: Gordon Hayward says hello. The 23-year-old Jazz guard is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, assists and steals this season, though his shooting numbers are down because he's absorbing more attention from defenses. Hayward may not project as a No. 1 option going forward, but that's why Utah is likely praying for a shot at Jabari Parker in the 2014 draft. It won't prevent Hayward from drawing something close to a max deal in free agency after the season if he doesn't get it outright.
DeMar DeRozan, Ross' teammate in Toronto, is the lone first-time All-Star in the group. Ross entered the league as a shooting guard, but shifted to the small forward position after the Gay trade because he's a superior defender, allowing DeRozan to focus his energy on offense and make opposing defenses all season long. DeRozan is second in scoring among off-guards (21.8 points per game) and fifth in PER. After years of gradual improvement, he's an All-Star at 24 years old.
DeRozan, Stephenson, Hayward and Harden are putting up numbers that get players noticed. Even though none of them have hit 25 years old yet, the four players have a combined 16 years of experience. Sometimes, it takes time for numbers to start backing up the talent.
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(Geoff Burke / USA TODAY Sports)
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That's why there's a tier of young shooting guards, much like Ross, who haven't put up consistent statistics yet, but seemed poised for a similar breakout in the near future.
It didn't matter that Jeremy Lamb was the second best player on UConn team that won the 2011 national title, or that he was the No. 11 pick in the 2012 draft. Most NBA fans probably didn't know his name before this season. Lamb was widely considered in afterthought in the Harden trade as a return piece to Oklahoma City, but he's shining this year after seasoning in the D-League as a rookie. Just 21 years old, Lamb popped off for double-digits in scoring in eight games in January, including an 18-point effort in the Thunder's big win over the Heat. The numbers might not show it yet, but they will soon. Lamb is another Sam Presti gem. He's going to be a very good player for a long time.
The exact same thing can be said about Bradley Beal and Klay Thompson (also up for an extension this summer), the two best shooters of the bunch. Victor Oladipo is the most athletic, if also maybe the least developed. Avery Bradley and Jimmy Butler are the best defenders. Players like Ben McLemore, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope Dion Waiters have plenty of talent too.
The statistics aren't great just yet for players like Ross, Lamb and Oladipo, but the ability is clear to see. It wouldn't be surprising if any of those players make a similar jump next season to the ones DeRozan, Hayward and Stephenson have made this year.
After years of an apparent talent drought, the NBA suddenly looks stocked with quality young shooting guards. The position is in good hands going forward, but pecking order is only just starting to get ironed out. That's what's really exciting.