As a young NBA player looking to find your way in the league, it’s common to head into an offseason with a plan to improve a specific area of your game that has already been deemed a strength.
Are you a spot up three-point shooter? Work on that. Are you a pretty good perimeter defender? Work on that. Are you particularly adept at making worthwhile decisions handling a pick-and-roll? Work on that. Everyone wants to achieve LeBron James levels of entirety, but for the majority it’s just not realistic, and most lengthy careers are birthed from a niche: one elite area where an identity can be formed.
As someone who spends their time complimenting the league’s “LeBrons” (80% of the NBA), toiling on a weakness could be viewed as a waste of time and energy. (For example, Steve Novak is paid to shoot three-pointers. When he’s working on his game in August, drives to the basket and pull up 15-footers shouldn’t be on the syllabus.)
Heading into his third NBA season, Patrick Patterson chose to go against the grain, and it’s a decision that so far has paid off ten fold for both himself, and the Houston Rockets.
Right before our eyes, Patterson has suddenly become an above average NBA player. As a full-time starter for the first time in his career, he’s doubled his scoring and is posting a PER five points higher than last seasons. But simple increases in scoring aren’t nearly as surprising or impressive as how he’s getting it done.
One day during an anonymous workout over the summer, Patterson was probably shooting spot up jumpers—working himself around the court just above the elbow—when he stopped and realized that his own value (and as a byproduct, his minutes) would rise dramatically if he stepped a foot or two further back and cultivated a slightly more difficult shot instead.
Here are two shot charts contrasting Patterson’s 2011-12 season with the current campaign.
Here’s the rundown:
- Through 15 games he’s shooting 37.5% from behind the three-point line on 2.1 attempts per game.
- In his first two seasons Patterson attempted a total of five long balls, and made none.
- 17.2% of all his attempted shots have come from behind the three-point line, up from 0.6% last year.
- One in four of all his fourth quarter baskets are coming from made three-pointers.
- The percentage of his offense that’s come from mid-range jump shots has fallen from 44.5% last year to just 28.3% this year.
The areas of Patterson’s game that have shown the most improvement lie parallel with the style Houston prefers to play. When he’s on the court the Rockets’ pace leaps to 99.03 possessions per 48 minutes, which is highest for all players on the team who’ve seen action in at least nine games. Houston wants to run, and they can when one of their forwards is a bruiser who’s also dangerous from behind the arc.
If he keeps up what he’s doing, Patterson will soon be reputed around the league as a “stretch four,” that rare, super valuable breed of big man who can stretch defenses, play on various units, and create matchup problems all over the court.
Heading into this season it appeared his career would be headed down the path of someone like Brandon Bass, a muscle-bound power forward who’s elite at knocking down mid-range jump shots, popping on pick-and-rolls, and playing so-so individual defense with rebounding abilities that are nothing to write home about.
Instead we have this: A guy who’s brought his shot all the way out to the sideline, can run the floor and finish on the break, and defend the post with patience, strength, and technical intelligence. On defense he’s fouling less, getting in great position more times than not, and trusting the abilities of Omer Asik or Greg Smith should he get beat off the dribble.
According to Synergy, Patterson is allowing 0.73 points per possession in the post, making him one of the 25 best post defenders in the league. In 34 attempted shots, opponent’s are shooting 35.3%. (Last year he gave up 0.96 PPP in post-up situations, good for 220th in the league. Opponents shot 46.6%.)
The three-point phenomenon shouldn’t be something to throw a parade over just yet. Keep in mind he’s only made 12 all year, and nearly all of them came with no defenders within six feet of his body. But the ideology of Patterson making these shots impacts how defenses will defend both him and the Rockets moving forward, and that has serious value in ultimately determining wins and losses.
NBA players are professionals who’re “supposed” to improve aspects of their game each summer their first few years in the league. Everyone has their limit, and it’s up to each individual to find his. Instead of becoming the best mid-range, pick-and-pop shooter he could be, and likely slogging himself through an unspectacularly solid 6-10 year career, Patrick Patterson chose to expand his game. It’s a drastic change from what we projected him to be, and the Rockets should be grateful.