As distasteful as it is in theory, using stereotypes to describe basketball players is standard practice. This is especially true in the build-up to the NBA Draft, as huge amounts of information about different prospects is communicated to fans and media members, most of which have only seen each player in a handful of tournament games. Stereotypes are the shorthand of scouting and analysis, an attempt to put the most information into the smallest package; one that’s easily digestible because people are comfortable with the language and concepts inherently contained in these labels.
For a player coming out of college there may be no more limiting a description than “dead-eye shooter, limited athletically” or any of its linguistic variabilities. Throw in any mention of a player’s slightly pinkish skin tone, and you’ve drawn about as rigid a box around a player’s skill set and ceiling as a basketball fan’s grey matter can construct.
This stereotypic template of a “white shooter” drags associated characteristics with it. White shooters shoot. They are defensive liabilities, that need to be hidden. They don’t handle the ball, for fear of having it stripped by a quicker, more athletic player. They stand on the perimeter, wait for someone else to create a shot for them, and with a flick of the wrist do their basketball jobs. Eric Piatkowski, Kyle Korver, Steve Kerr, John Paxson, Jason Kapono; this particular stereotype has a legacy, long and vidid.
Knowing all that, and the place the “white shooter” template holds in popular basketball schema, it’s amazing that J.J. Redick’s slow-motion burst out of the confines of that stereotype hasn’t been trumpted more boisterously.
In terms of perception being reflected by actual events, it’s hard to think of a recent player making the transition from college to the NBA who fit that “white shooter” stereotype more completely. Although he was acknowledged as one of the greatest shooters in NCAA history, almost everything else about his ability to play in the NBA was in doubt. Consider this, a summary from DraftExpress of Redick’s performance in his final college game, a loss to LSU in the Sweet Sixteen.
From the very start it looked like it was going to be a rough night for Duke’s All-American guard. LSU small forward Garrett Temple forced him to put the ball on the floor time after time by absolutely draping him with his length, and Redick fell hook line and sinker for their plan and exposed all of his weaknesses by forcing his way into the lane time after time. It seemed like every time Redick touched the ball he either traveled, had the ball stripped, or when he did manage to get into the paint forced up a weak lay-up that rimmed out or had the ball swatted away by LSU’s gangly frontline. The Tigers threw multiple defenders at him off every single curl, trapped him once he got the ball in his hands and absolutely smothered him with their length every time he touched the ball. The biggest question marks Redick’s detractors have about his game, specifically his lack of explosiveness and ball-handling skills, were all exposed as major potential problems for him at the next level.”
And now this quote from a piece by Evan Dunlap of Orlando Pinstriped Post, just a few weeks old.
One is a lengthy lamenting of the manifestations of Redick’s shortcomings, the other is an off-hand mention in a piece about Chris Duhon, but these two quotes speak volumes about his transition. In just six NBA seasons Redick has transformed himself from specialist of the highest degree, one who couldn’t create his own offense against a borderline NBA player with length as his only advantage, to a solid and complete shooting guard who provides positive production in almost every area.
When he came into the league the initial challenge for Redick was to mitigate his defensive weaknesses and earn enough minutes to make an impact with his shooting. The fact that he’s no longer considered a defensive liability is amazing enough in itself. The fact that he’s actually considered, in many circles, to be an above-average perimeter defender is even more incredible. This season he is holding his man to just 0.81 points per possession in isolations and 0.72 points per possession in pick-and-rolls as the ball-handler. Redick has not gained an inch in length or height since joining the professional ranks. While his endurance, strength and footspeed have surely improved a bit, he’s made himself an impediment on the perimeter merely through effort and throwing himself whole-heartedly into the schemes and expectations laid out by Stan Van Gundy.
Offensively he’s no longer a stand-still shooter. As a rookie, assisted three-pointers accounted for 32% of his total offensive contributions (points and assists). This season they account for just 25%. Despite limitations in size and athleticism, he’s found ways to bring his offensive game closer to the basket.
As a rookie the ratio of his three-point attempts to shots at the rim was 6.5 to 1. This season it’s down to 3.2 to 1. He’s making 59.5% of those shots at the rim, and creating far more of them on his own, with just 58% of those made layups assisted on. A quarter of his possessions this season have come as the ball-handler in pick-and-rolls, and he’s averaging 0.91 points per possession, the 32nd best mark in the league. He’s also expanded his ability to find teammates; his Ast% has hit a career high 16.2% this season and he’s turning the ball over on just 9.4% of his possessions.
These are things that pure shooters, of any skin color, just don’t do. These are the statistical contributions of swiss-army knife, jack-of-all trades wing. These are the type of numbers put up by O.J. Mayo, Evan Turner and Anthony Parker.
Stereotypes have the luxury of being flexible enough to expand and contract on their borders. By that I mean they can shrink or grow just enough to include or exclude anyone who might unravel their foundation, should they be found on the other side. But Redick’s development places him outside even those flexible confines. In an unique way he has transcended the player he was. For every player who’s scouting is made easier by the use of stereotypes, there is another, like Redick who’s complete make-up and potential aren’t captured by familiar shorthand.
Saturday the Magic begin their playoff series against the Indiana Pacers without Dwight Howard. Key to their ability to stay competitive will be Redick’s performance. Not just his shooting, but his ability to get into the lane, get to the line, help corral George Hill and Paul George, and create shots for his teammates. It would have been a ludicrous assertion six years ago, but in this year’s playoffs J.J. Redick’s all-around game will be more important than his shooting.