PHOENIX — I watched “Moneyball” for the third time the other night, mostly because Brad Pitt plays a great Billy Beane and Jonah Hill was somewhat endearing as the bashful, smart front office talent. Forget that I’m not a huge baseball guy; it speaks to me as a somewhat fictional account of a real, inspiring story.
The analytics movement in baseball didn’t happen overnight, but it became mainstream pretty damn quickly.
At the beginning of the film, Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, sits down with his crusty old scouting staff, which doesn’t know he’s in full nerd mode. When Beane dumps on a few eye-test-based scouting reports and begins pushing his numbers-driven theories on his sour old staff members, one word stuck out to me.
2014 draftee Tyler Ennis was a controversial pick for Phoenix at No. 18, and he doesn’t seemingly fit the Suns’ recent moves that emphasized athleticism and upside. But he does have an elite skill, and he proved it in his senior year of high school and one year of college.
Ennis just doesn’t make mistakes.
“With Tyler, his composure at his age stands out,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said during Ennis’ introduction. “If you look at his numbers in close and late games, they were terrific, like, unbelievably good, what he did down the stretch of games with the game on the line. When he needed a shot to win or tie the game or needed to make a play to bring the team back, he did it at a remarkable rate. That’s pretty rare for a 19-year-old freshman.”
Ennis posted a turnover rate of 11.9 percent in his only collegiate season, which is nearly half the rate of Michael Carter-Williams’ 22.1 percent at Syracuse a year prior. The scary Ennis comparison for Suns fans, 2012 pick Kendall Marshall, had the same 3.5 assist-to-turnover ratio as Ennis. But Marshall’s college turnover rate clocked in at at 27.8 times per 100 possessions, according to College Sports Reference.
Both Eric Bledsoe and Ish Smith turn the ball over at a relatively high 17.8 and 17.9 percent rate. Compare that to the ball-dominating Goran Dragic’s 14.3 percent or the more surprisingly safe Gerald Green’s 11.3 percent, and there’s a lot of room to improve the miscues in the guard slots. The aggregate of the Suns’ turnover issue as a whole tends to point to where Ennis could be so valuable. He’ll help bring that turnover rate down.
Turnover percentages are a big deal.
Turnovers lead to easier opportunities and are the catalyst to finding an easy way into “early offense,” which itself has become a buzz phrase for Phoenix. Coughing up the rock also obviously takes away a shot attempt — you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take — and the ability for an offensive rebound. So on, so forth.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post’s Seth Partnow called avoiding turnovers the “new moneyball.” Using the Portland Trail Blazers as an example, he points out the statistical difference in possessions begun by a turnover and those that aren’t.
… avoiding turnovers, especially live ball turnovers (steals for the opposition) greatly aids a team’s defense. Blazer’s opponents had an eFG percentage of 57.3 on possessions starting with a steal, whereas they shot only 48 percent eFG off of Portland missed field goals. That gap is wider than the difference between the best defense (Indiana) and the worst (Philadelphia) in terms of opponents’ shooting.
Effective field goal percentage (eFG), which accounts for three-pointers being worth more, is something directly linked to turnover rates, and the Suns are also buying into that with Ennis’ rookie teammate, forward T.J. Warren.
After the draft, I asked Hornacek if Warren would, in a different way than a low-post scorer, give the Suns a more diverse offense.
But Hornacek answered a question about Warren as a mid-range scoring threat more broadly. No matter how the team scores (with threes, in the paint, off drives or in the mid-range) it all comes down to that efficiency, he said.
“Our system, we do shoot a lot of threes,” Hornacek said. “But you hear the analytics, it’s always effective field goal percentage. Our goal is to shoot 51 percent or better in effective field goal percentage. Now, whether you do that through all threes or all twos, whatever. T.J. shot over 50 percent from the twos (last year) and he made threes also.”
McDonough was introduced last year after president of basketball operations Lon Babby labeled the offseason “the Summer of Analytics”. McDonough emphasized the importance of getting into early offense, but noted that was a direct result of the Suns forcing turnovers themselves.
Bledsoe and Dragic made Phoenix a terror in the fullcourt in 2013-14, and it was absolute doom for opponents once turnovers fueled the Suns.
The 2014 draft class includes two very different looking players that seemingly don’t fit the Suns’ up-tempo system from a year ago. But both fit in quite well in terms of analytical improvements — character and all that too.
The numbers say Tyler Ennis and T.J. Warren will help the aggregate of two very important team statistics.