Don’t Give Up On OJ Mayo

OJ Mayo is having a rough season. For the last month, he’s been coming off the bench in favor of the emergent Xavier Henry, and seems to have slipped from franchise staple to expendable asset in the eyes of fans and the franchise. While teammates Rudy Gay (24) and Mike Conley (23) have received expensive contracts, it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that Mayo (23) will be offered an extension after he becomes a restricted free agent in 2012. If the Grizzlies do decide to spend on their own again soon, Chris Wallace will target Pau Gasol’s furry little brother first.  But while a decrease in playing time and importance within one’s franchise is not usually a positive, I’m holding out hope that Mayo is will continue to find increased relevance in his new role.

This jumper will look even prettier in another uniform

Maybe I’m blinded by the fact I’ve been hearing about OJ since he was hitting step-back jumpers eighth grade, but every time I see him play, I find myself digging his game. The vapors of that middle school legend might be confounding my critical evaluation, but damn if Mayo doesn’t play like a starter for a good stretch every time I watch him (like on Monday when he put 27 on the Spurs in his only start since being benched in November). Yet, I also understand why he may not mesh along side with the diminutive Mike Conley.

Indeed, Mayo’s skill set is a catalog of contradictions:

He’s got a high basketball IQ but makes poor decisions distributing the ball. He’s got clever scoring instincts, but can have difficulty creating his own shot. He’s strong and has good hands as a defender, but has only average wingspan and is undersized when defending shooting guards. He’s still quite young, but doesn’t seem to be shoring up the deficiencies in his game, like ball handling, as quickly as one might expect from a player with his obsessive work ethic.

It’s the collision of these descriptions that make Mayo ill-equipped to start against the bigger, faster twos or lead an offense from the point. But while the transition has not been smooth this season, I believe Mayo will ultimately deliver great value in an expansive sixth man role– perhaps on a new team.

After an ugly start in his new role, over his last five appearances off the bench he’s averaging 14.8pts/gm, 58.3% FG, 38.9% 3PTFG, and 2 AST in 23 minutes of burn.

Some might compare him to Denver’s J.R. Smith for their shared ability to score in bunches using questionable shot selection. But unlike Smith, focus has never been Mayo’s hang up. Instead, one gets the sense that Mayo just needs the right situation to regain his swag. NBA players don’t produce in a vacuum, and the right surroundings could mitigate Mayo’s limitations in the same way Jason Terry so brilliantly compliments his teammates in Dallas.

Off the bench, Terry has mastered the ability to attack relentlessly with his exceptionally accurate midrange pull-up/pick and roll game and also disappear from the defense’s consciousness for wide open threes. He is equally comfortable cashing in on opportunities created by his assist happy Dallas teammates or creating crunch-time buckets of through the unstoppable Dirk-Terry Two Man Clinic. This balance allows him to carry the second unit just as naturally as he fits in as the second or third option with the starters. I can see Mayo’s maturity as a player allowing him to fill a similar role on more veteran club.

Certainly Mayo and Terry aren’t perfect analogs. There was never a question as to what position Mayo would play in the NBA, and he’ll never average 7.4 assists like Terry did in Atlanta. But OJ is a steady ball handler if he doesn’t have to run the point. Though his 1.22 Ast/TO ratio isn’t great, his turnovers per 100 possession rating is similar that of Terry and Manu Ginobili. Terry is also the more explosive athlete, though at this point in his career his filthy pull up sets up his drive.

But Mayo’s mid range and overall shooting game is sure to be of value for many years, and his numbers last season (45.8% FG, 38.8% 3ptFG) already compare favorably to JET’s career marks (44.9% FG, 38.1% FG). On midrange jumpers (16-23 ft), his shooting percentage in his two full seasons, 42.7%, is better than that of Paul Pierce (39.06) and Kobe Bryant (41.34) in that same time period, though not quite in Terry’s rarefied class (44.83%).

Still a couple years from his statistical prime, Mayo is far from a bust. Though he may never be in the same echelon as draft-mates Eric Gordon or Michael Beasely, his understanding, appetite for improvement and near flawless shooting motion make him a very attractive pick up for a good veteran team that can maximize his specific talents while helping to temper his incurable deficiencies.


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