Dec 13, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Sacramento Kings guard Isaiah Thomas (22) controls the ball in the first quarter against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Shooting efficiency a complex issue for new Suns point guards

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Back in June, the Suns acquired Isaiah Thomas from the Sacramento Kings after he posted a productive 2013-2014 season. Thomas joined LeBron James, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving as the only players to average better than 20 points and six assists per game. However, while expectations may be high for Thomas, it’s important to note that new Suns’ point guards have not necessarily shown great offensive efficiency in their first season, especially when it comes to their long-range shooting.

Prior to Thomas’ arrival, Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, Sebastian Telfair and Aaron Brooks were the four most recent point guard acquisitions by the Suns to play at least 14.5 minutes per game in their first season while averaging at least five field goal attempts and one three-point attempt per game. Some of those players did increase their overall output due to playing more minutes, but all of them faced a decline in their ability to shoot efficiently in their first season in Phoenix. That can be summed up by these shot charts from Nylon Calculus that represents all four of the point guards in their season prior to landing in Phoenix and then by their first year in the Valley.

Last season before joining the Suns

Shot Chart Before

First season on the Suns

Shot Chart After

First, these charts show an obvious decrease in three-point efficiency from year-to-year, and the second chart involves players in different offensive systems under different Suns head coaches. But generally speaking, players joining the Suns have all had to adapt to a style that includes more green lights in shooting from the outside, an adjustment which which can cause their percentage to drop as they feel out the expectations of the offense.

Second, these charts show a few spots where shots are no longer being taken:

Shot Chart After With Boxes

When they weren’t taking layups, these point guards tended to shoot from fairly long range, rather than taking an extra step forward to shoot a 10-to-12 foot jumper. Most NBA fans know that the Suns tend to utilize the three-point line frequently, but these charts show that the long range shooting isn’t just in three-pointers. If they weren’t getting deep into the paint, these point guards all chose to shoot just inside the arc, likely because they were more apt to lose their defender on a pump fake, take one dribble inside the arc and pull up.

Going case-by-case, Aaron Brooks was coming off of a season where he led the NBA with 209 made three-pointers and 525 three-point attempts (see shot chart below). Brooks shot a blistering 39.8 percent from behind the arc a year before joining the Suns, which was good enough for 19th in the NBA (minimum 100 three-point attempts). Brooks’ shooting percentage was remarkable considering he took 6.4 per game.

AB Shot Chart 1

However, upon arriving in Phoenix, Brooks made just 32.8 percent of his three pointers and saw his true shooting percentage and field goal percentage take a turn for the worse. Brooks began to settle for longer mid-range jumpers, which affected his ability to score efficiently.

Sebastian Telfair would follow in Brooks’ footsteps, both literally and figuratively, as he joined the Suns for the following season. As a first year member of the Suns in 2011-12, Telfair’s three-point percentage dropped by nearly 5 percent from the 36 percent he shot in Minnesota a year prior, and he averaged fewer points and assists per game than he had in any of his previous five seasons (with 50-or-more games played). Telfair’s primary role was as a backup, but he still did not perform as well as some thought he should have. He eventually figured it out, shooting 38 percent in the first half of a tumultuous 2012-13 season before being traded to Toronto.

Goran Dragic is a bit of a unique case, considering that he was originally a member of the Suns before going to the Houston Rockets and then returning to Phoenix in 2012. However, upon returning to the Suns, Dragic exhibited many of the same signs of lost productivity. Dragic did manage to score more points per game, but his field goal percentage, three-point percentage and free-throw percentage all dipped, and they would not bounce back until his second season in 2013-14. Dragic’s player efficiency rating went down his first year as his time on the court increased, and it took him another year to really start to figure things out. In the last two years, Dragic had a true shooting percentage — accounting for the value of three-pointers and also free throw accuracy — of 54 percent, which was down 2 percent from his final season in Houston. This past season, he posted an impressive true shooting percentage of 60.4 percent.

Finally, Eric Bledsoe joined the Suns for the 2013-14 season, taking on the added responsibility of going from a backup to a starter. While the minutes increase added to his per-game statistics, Bledsoe’s efficiency from behind the three-point line dropped four percent from the previous season, though his pure shooting numbers increased. Bledsoe took on a bigger role, but the changes in what he was being asked to do certainly affected him on the court. It’s to-be-determined how he will improve upon his spot-up shooting numbers with Phoenix — whether he returns to Phoenix remains a question at present.

As I mentioned earlier, certain players such as Ronnie Price and Ish Smith were omitted because they did not meet certain criteria. Neither were considered even average shooters, anyhow.

Jan 17, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Gerald Green (14) and guard Ish Smith (3) look on in the first half against the Dallas Mavericks at US Airways Center. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Gerald Green is no point guard, but he stands out as an outlier as a player who flourished under the expectation that he should be taking as many three-point shots as he could find within the offense. Green has always embraced the mentality of a scorer, averaging more than 14.7 field goal attempts per 40 minutes across his career.

When looking at Isaiah Thomas, it is definitely important to temper expectations and understand that a repeat of his 2013-14 performance is not incredibly likely, nor should Thomas be expected to show an increased efficiency with his long-range shooting, at least not right away.

Isaiah Thomas shot chart, 2013-14

At the same time, Thomas’ three-point shooting wasn’t the main reason for his efficiency in the first place. It had dropped off in each of his first two seasons to 35 percent. Thomas’ true shooting percentages in each of his first three NBA seasons have been a solid 57 percent right on the nose, so it will be interesting to see if he can keep that up.

Thomas will be more of a long-term investment for Phoenix, and recent history indicates he might need a year to get used to an offense that has its unique principles. His first season may not be spectacular, but with time, Thomas will gain comfort and familiarity with the type of basketball that the Phoenix Suns are known for.

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