Evaluating Kendall Marshall in transition

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The Suns are 3-0 thus far in the Las Vegas Summer League, but not everyone is feeling lucky in the desert. Over the last few days, questions about last year’s first-round draft pick Kendall Marshall have been raised, and his future in Phoenix has become suddenly cloudy like a mid-afternoon monsoon. With the arrivals of Eric Bledsoe and Archie Goodwin, Marshall finds himself buried in the Suns’ backcourt depth chart. This congestion and Marshall’s lack of improvement over his first 12 months in the NBA has led to his name being floated in trade rumors, which Kevin Zimmerman covered earlier this week.

In addition, new head coach Jeff Hornacek, in an interview with arizonasports.com, was critical of some parts of Marshall’s game, namely his ability to attack in transition. It was this criticism, more so than the trade rumors or new roster competition, that sparked Kendall’s ire. As he is wont to do, Marshall took to Twitter to express his frustration (though these tweets were subsequently deleted.) He took issue with the idea that he couldn’t lead the Phoenix fast break effectively, citing how much his Tar Heels got out in transition when he was still in Chapel Hill. And Marshall has a point. UNC was a great fast-break team during Marshall’s final collegiate season. But being great at something in college doesn’t always translate to success at the NBA level, and some, including Coach Hornacek, would say this is the case with Kendall. So the question remains, is Marshall good in transition or not? Let’s break it down.

Three Characteristics of an Effective Ball Handler in Transition

1. Speed: Having elite speed is great, but it’s not nearly as important on the fast break as acceleration. The NBA court is only so long. The faster a player can get out of the blocks i.e. start the break, the more likely he is to generate a bucket on the other end. Even if a ball handler’s top speed is slower than the defense’s, the ability to reach that speed quickly can still allow him to get out in front of his opponents.

2. Good Decision Making: The goal of a fast break is to take advantage of an opponent’s mistake and score. Sometimes that means the ball-handler finds a teammate for a great shot or easy basket. Sometimes that means he keeps the ball and attacks the basket himself. Deciding which move is the right move, in a split second, is crucial to avoiding turnovers and racking up fast break points.

3. Ability to Finish at the Rim: Most transition baskets are layups. In order to consistently take advantage of a disadvantaged opponent in transition, ball handlers must be able to finish at the hoop. There is almost always contact from the defender on transition layups, and oftentimes guards are called upon to score at the hoop with larger players chasing them down from behind. Players leading the break must be able to keep the ball for themselves and finish from point blank range if that is the best opportunity available in a given transition scenario.

Does Marshall display these characteristics? Let’s take it point-by-point.

1. Looking at his DraftExpress profile, Marshall had average-to-good speed in the three-quarter court sprint at the 2012 Draft Combine. His time last year was on par with the times of 2013 first-round picks Michael Carter-Williams and Isaiah Canaan. It’s worth noting, however, that Marshall was significantly slower in the sprint than fellow Tar Heel Harrison Barnes. But speed is not as important as acceleration on an NBA fast break. Acceleration is a product of a player’s agility. And though his sprint time was respectable, Marshall’s agility drill time at the combine was abysmal.

He was bested by such notable players as Robert Sacre, Tonike Shengaila, and Andre Drummond, each of whom stand at least 6’8”. His teammate, Harrison Barnes, was more than a second faster. What makes LeBron James and Russell Westbrook so devastating in transition is the fact that it only takes them two steps to reach max speed and fly past opponents. Marshall is not really agile enough to fly past anyone. In college, guards can run fast breaks like a quarterback. Their wings fill the lanes like wide receivers on deep post routes, and they can make decisions from the mid-court line, often choosing to pass the ball ahead to a streaking teammate. In the NBA, however, everyone is lightning fast compared to players in college. Ball handlers leading the break have to keep up with the players filling the lanes instead of lagging behind. Thus far, Marshall has not shown the ability to lead the break this way. He often lags behind which leads to turnovers and missed transition opportunities.

2. Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence in the indictment of Marhshall’s transition game is his turnover rate. Last year, he turned the ball over on nearly 40% of his transition opportunities. (Phoenix’s rate of turnovers in transition as a team was 13%.) Again, many of his TO’s were on vertical passes to teammates who were running towards the hoop, but not open enough to receive the ball. Marshall’s propensity to bring up the rear on the break does lead to more opportunities for transition threes, but it limits his attacking options, forces him into bad passes, and makes it easy for recovering defenders to trap him 40 feet from the hoop.

3. According to NBA Wowy, other than Sebastian Telfair, no player on the Suns’ roster last season was a worse finisher inside of three feet than Marshall. Though he has good size for a point guard and a very good vertical leap, Marshall simply does not finish well enough at the hoop to be highly effective leading the fast break. His deficiency as a finisher allows defenders to delay committing to him until he is closer to the hoop. This limits his passing options and forces him to keep the ball, which right now, is the best outcome for the opponent.

That last statement – ‘right now’ – is the key for Marshall. There’s nothing to say he won’t improve all aspects of his game, including his skills and decision making in transition. But right now, he is sub par and Coach Hornacek is right to criticize him. That criticism could be just the thing Kendall needs to realize his potential and improve. But he may not be in a Phoenix uniform if and when he finally does.

And 1

Grantland’s Zach Lowe sat down with Jeff Hornacek to talk the Suns’ style and the importance of numbers, among other things.

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