Kendall Marshall: A different kind of freak athlete

Marshall chest-passed his way to an incredible career.

If extreme is your thing, this year’s NBA Draft was an introduction to all manner of future delights. From the length and athleticism of Anthony Davis, to the brute force of Jared Sullinger; the relentless ferocity of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to the beautifully robotic three-point stroke of John Jenkins, this year’s draft class is wealthy with physical features and skill sets that make their homes just beyond the outer reaches of normal.

Each of those extremes are things which strike in a single occurrence. You don’t need to watch the particular way Davis rises up and swats a shot more than once to know you are witnessing an entirely unique basketball act that. However, the most severe basketball variation from this year’s draft is not something than can be spotted in a single play. It is something that can only be sussed out through careful observation of a career. A fringe that is revealed by pattern, not outlandishness; this extreme is wrapped in a much more subtle package. This aberration in sheep’s clothing is the newest Phoenix Sun, former North Carolina Tar Heel, Kendall Marshall.

Marshall had more assists than turnovers this past season, not surprising for a top-flight collegiate point guard. He also had more assists than rebounds. And steals. And blocks. And personal fouls. And field goal attempts, three-point attempts, free throw attempts and points.

Of all the basketball statistics which are counted, Kendall Marshall did nothing quite so often as pass the ball to a teammate who scored. Marshall averaged 10.7 assists per 40 minutes, pace adjusted this past season. In the last 11 seasons no collegiate player has entered the NBA with a higher assist average. Marshall averaged 1.56 assists for every field goal attempt this past season, a number that is also unmatched over the past 11 years of brand new NBA players.

Quite simply, Marshall has passed more often, and to greater effect, than any player who has entered the NBA in more than a decade.

While his repertoire includes examples of stunning handle and passes that stretch the understanding of vision and geometry, it is his single-minded devotion to creating shots for others that sets him apart. His praetorian adherence to offensive responsibility may lack the aesthetics of a Jenkins jumpshot or Kidd-Gilchrist drive, but it is every bit as distinctive.

For many basketball players, like students in general, college is a time to experiment and push boundaries. It’s a time to try on new roles and develop new skills. A leap to the big time slaps a label on your present and potential, snuffing out the freedom to roam and find who you are. Coach tells you who you are. A young big man attempting an ill-advised three-pointer in the NBA receives a one-way ticket to the end of the bench. A big man attempting an ill-advised three-pointer in college may get nothing but a stern look from a coach who knows that plan B is a 6’3” walk-on from Long Hill, NJ.

But in two seasons at Chapel Hill, Marshall appeared to exploit none of this space, seize none of those opportunities. He has become a generous individual to the nth degree because he knew who he was and what he was supposed to be doing from the moment he was first inserted in the starting lineup. He knew his job was to move defenders, with his shoulders, with his eyes, to bring the ball across half-court and sheppard it into the hands of a player more suited than him for the much celebrated responsibility of putting it through the basket. In his collegiate career there has been development and growth, but all within the framework he selected. I mean this not as a criticism. In fact, I find myself in awe of a player with such consistent devotion to his own truth.

Extremism is not necessarily a precursor to success in the NBA, just ask Shawn Bradley and Stanley Roberts. But Marshall has been lucky enough to find himself in Phoenix, a place where basketball oddities of all stripes have thrived in the past. The Suns are an organization who have found success in the past by throwing convention to the wind. Steve Nash, the motor which has driven their engine of non-conformity for the past eight years has moved on. Goran Dragic appears to be his successor, and a worthy one at that, but NBA fans have been spoiled by Nash’s offensive orchestration the past eight seasons. The possibility of a passer with Marshall’s skill and devotion taking his place is tantalizing.

Marshall’s statistical profile is unlike any other, but it slips below the radar for lack of rim-rattling dunks and step-back three-pointers to provide punctuation. But don’t miss an opportunity to appreciate a player the likes of whom we may not see again for years. Take note of Kendall Marshall. Even in a time of universal exceptionality, his repetitive and responsible subtlety is a revolutionary act.

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  1. [...] Ian Levy of HoopSpeak explains why the Suns decided to select Marshall despite his lack of athleticism, and it all comes down to the fact that he “has passed more often, and to greater effect, than any player who has entered the NBA in more than a decade.” [...]

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