The Evolution of Chris Paul

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Published: December 28, 2007

I must be feeling ambitious today, so have a second post!  If you want the game preview, scroll down, then come back and read this one.  Do it for the children.  And Chris Paul.

A lot has been written about Chris Paul over the last few weeks as he's become a favorite target for stat-focused writers to push as an under-rated player.

John Hollinger of ESPN, creator of the popular PER stat, has always loved Paul, posting articles about him every year pointing out his greatness.  He's claimed Paul had the 3rd best Rookie year of any guard ever, and recently posted an article(ESPN Insider, sorry) stating Paul is having the best year of any 6-3 or shorter player in the history of the NBA.

Dave Berri of the Wages of Wins has also posted an entire series of articles about Paul in response to the many pieces comparing Deron Williams to Paul and finding Paul wanting.

Regardless of whether you like Deron more than Chris, or think that there is no way Paul had a better rookie year than Magic Johnson, no one can refute the fact Paul is having an incredible season.  He has led the Hornets to an 18-10 record and the 3rd Seed in the brutal Western Conference, trailing powerhouses San Antonio and Phoenix.

His numbers are, quite simply, incredible:

21.7 Points per game, 3.8 Rebounds, 10.0 Assists, 2.92 Steals, 49.3% FG, 39.8% 3PT, 91.4% FT.

His assist to turnover ratio is a great 3.5 to 1.  His Hollinger PER is second in the league behind LeBron at 28.67.(15.0 is average)  His Wins Produced per 48 Minutes is a 6th best 0.344.(.1 is average)

The accolades are great, bringing some attention to a Hornets team badly starved for both national and local recognition, but in all the articles about him, none of them have really dug into the remarkable transformation of Paul's game itself.

Paul was one of the best penetrators from the day he entered the league.  His uncanny ability to change speeds and an explosive first step propelled him time and time again to the hoop for tricky floaters and slick layups.  in that first season, 35% of his shots came close to the hoop, and only 65% were jumpshots.  His assault kept his shooting percentage respectable, since he finished the close shots 51% of the time.  He also earned 6 free throws a game, an amazing number for a point guard, but his style of play also resulted in bruised ribs, a bruised tailbone, torn ligaments in his thumb, and numerous sore muscles from being knocked around.  Such tactics were necessary, however, since his jumpshot was only finding the net 39% of the time.  28% when taken from beyond the arc.  He just wasn't a good shooter. Yet.

His second year he took some of the lessons he learned in the first and spent a little less time at the hoop, taking 30% of his shots close to the basket and shooting jumpshots 70% of the time.  His jumpshot showed some improvement, mostly from the 3-point line, as he shot 40% overall from range, and 35% from the 3-point line.  Still, though nearing the league average, he just wasn't a great shooter and he recognized his best weapon was driving to the hoop, where he could convert 53% of his shots.  So he kept driving.  Again, injuries told.  He rolled an ankle badly going to the hoop in Seattle, keeping him out of 17 games, and later developed a stress reaction in his foot that required surgery in the offseason to implant a screw.

As he entered this third year, I had expected more of the same Chris Paul.  Flashy drives to the hoops for spectacular finishes, and maybe a slightly improved 3-point shot.  But I was completely wrong.  Paul had learned a hard lesson the past few years.  No longer would he drive recklessly to the basket, throwing his body at the massive defenders near the hoop.  Now, he keeps his dribble alive, weaving between defenders in a style that only Steve Nash can duplicate.  He probes the defense relentlessly, trying to find a seam.  If he can't explode to the basket, he weaves back out, looking for the open man his pressure almost always creates.  As a result, he's only taking 20% of his shots from close to the basket, down 10% from last year, but the shots he does take are of a higher quality, falling 62% of the time.

But here's the kicker.  If Paul had simply learned how to keep his dribble alive in traffic, he would be getting better shots, but he still would have his one great weakness: shooting.  Defenses could lay off, wait for his dribble penetration, and force him to shoot outside.  So Paul has combined that talent with another existing talent of his to devastating effect.  An accurate, fast, mid-range set shot.  No, not jumpshot.  Set shot.  Old school.

Paul's most accurate three-point shot has never been his jumpshot.  When he's been forced to jump to get a shot off over a defender, his accuracy has been poor at best.  He's much more accurate when he sets his feet, gives a fast, odd-looking half-hop, and fires.  Whenever he shot that way, I could usually count the points before it swished through.

But to get that shot off closer to the hoop?  Paul is six feet tall at best, and trying to get a set shot off over a defender without the spacing available at the three-point line is no easy task.  That is where his new ability to probe the defense comes into play.  As he probes, his defender usually ends up on his heels or so worried he will drive by them that they are unwilling to close on him.  As a result, he takes a dribble or two, stops on a dime and does that little hop.  Swish.  The defender can barely react.  He's firing 48% on shots taken inside the three point line, but at least 10 feet from the basket.  48%.  He shoots better on long 2's than most NBA players shoot from under the basket.

As a result, he's become a complete offensive weapon.  He's devastating from inside, outside, and in between.  Even though he goes to the hoop less, he is still one of the best Point Guards in the league at getting free throws, averaging better than four and a half a game.  His court vision is exceptional, his teammates are deadly from range, and he always finds them if they are open.  At this point I'm not even certain Nash is a better floor general, and Paul blows Nash away on the defensive end.  He's become the clear number one point guard in the league in my book.

And get this.  He's only 22.  He can still improve.

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