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Oklahoma City Thunder Off-Season Whiteboard: Alex Abrines will Avoid the Sophomore Slump

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All signs point to increased efficiency from the Spanish import

Alex Abrines at Training Camp

Oklahoma City had one of the premier off-seasons, if not the best, in the NBA this summer.

After using “Internal Development” as a crutch throughout his exit interview, Sam Presti, in a few swift and shocking transactions, has re-booted the engine of the Thunder ship, and is sailing them from the island of mediocrity they were destined to be stranded on next season.

Paul George is now a Thunder, Raymond Felton is on board to plug the Semaj Christion role, and we now have a stretch four with NBA experience and defensive versatility in Patrick Patterson to replace Domontas Sabonis.

Although Presti delivered Thunder Nation some new players to support Russell Westbrook, Internal Development is still a large factor in the progression of this team, and leading the pack in that category is Alex Abrines.

Last season, buried deep amongst all the Russell Westbrook hysteria, Alex Abrines was covertly taking advantage of his on-court time and getting familiarized to the NBA pace of play—when Billy Donovan allowed him. Underneath the rubble of buzzer beaters, Westbrook’s 41.7% usage rate, and 42 triple doubles, Abrines broke a record of his own—the most three pointers made by a rookie in franchise history. Who held that record for OKC before Alex Abrines? James Harden

Alex Abrines by the Numbers

Abrines averaged 15.5 minutes per game throughout his debut NBA season, and averaged 3.6 three point attempts per game—finishing the year with a 38% conversion rate. 63.3% of Abrines’ shots last season were ‘catch and shoot’ three pointers at which he shot 40.7%. He shot above 40% from three-point range throughout five of the seven months of the NBA season with an impressive 47% in February. In Thunder victories last season, Alex had an impressive 46% three-point percentage as opposed to averaging 27% in Thunder losses. If the Spaniard is knocking down triples, Thunder victories seem to trail close behind.

2016-17 Abrines Shooting Chart
Nicolò & Michele at Chart Side. Twitter: @chart_side

Although everyone is optimistic about his overall play last season, Abrines really struggled in his first full month of NBA competition. He only completed 25% of his three point attempts in the month of November. In an interview with Nick Gallo, Billy Donovan stated,

“There’s always an adjustment period when you’re coming from Europe. The style of play is just different,” Donovan said. “The environment and the way they’re playing is different. Alex is a cerebral player, a smart player, has a good feel for the game and picks things up quickly.”

Abrines did undergo an adjustment period, and it lasted 28 games. Alex exploded in New Orleans with 18 points and went 5-of-11 from the three-point line on December the 21st. After that game, Abrines pivoted to becoming one of the most efficient sharpshooters in the league. If you run the numbers from that day in late December until the end of the season, Alex finished with 73.5% of his shots coming from behind the arc, with a 42% conversion rate on four attempts per game.

Alex finished the season ranked 22nd in the league in three-point percentage. If we factor his shooting percentage from three after that night in New Orleans, he would have ranked 8th in the NBA, in front of Klay Thompson. His catch-and-shoot numbers? After that night in December, 67% of his shots were ‘catch and shoots’ and in those instances, he shot 43.6%. After the pivot, He shot 44.4% from the left corner, 43.5% from the right corner, and 41.3 from above the break.

Like Russell said,

He can shoot the piss out the ball.

So what’s with the low minutes?

The common response to Alex’s lack of minute increases has always centered around his defensive inefficiency, and while I find that plausible last season I will not accept that criticism in 2017-18.

With the arrival of Paul George, Raymond Felton, and Patrick Patterson the Thunder should field more advanced and balanced lineup options to mix defensive players with the offensive heavy ones, such as: Abrines, McDermott, and Kanter. They also won’t be playing from behind or in tight windows on a Tuesday night in Atlanta for example. Sorry Atlanta.

The Thunder won 47 games last season, and often were forced to claw for each win due to their lack of shooters, inexperience, or Billy’s eagerness to sacrifice offense for defensive lineups.

There is another reason, but it involves criticizing the king of the prairie, our savior, and I refuse to do that… The Thunder actually finished the season 17th in net rating with a whopping -.02. What are some other teams that had a similar net rating? How about the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, and the Portland Trail Blazers to name a few. Each had a better net rating than the Thunder at -.01.

What does that tell us?

It is an easy indication that last year’s team was more comparable to a .500 team, and Russell Westbrook went atomic, give or take five times, and single-handedly won games in the waning moments that we should have lost.

I think every Thunder fan would tell you that there was more than five of those instances last year. So why am I babbling about net-rating and comparing us to the Bulls? Because the enormous percentage of games that we spent in tight point margins with other teams was detrimental to the playing time of Alex Abrines because of Billy Donovan’s reliance on defensive lineups in those situations.

With the addition of Paul George and Felton’s ability to keep the second unit above water when Russell checks out of the game, the Thunder’s net rating should increase dramatically, in turn, allowing Donovan to give more minutes to offensive heavy players because every game will not come down to the wire like last season.

Shot Distribution and Line Up Alteration

Last season Alex attempted a healthy 3.6 three point attempts per game. Although that is a good number of attempts for a rookie coming off the bench, I would like to see that number grow to 5.5 or 6 next season.

When Alex is in the game, it is important to make sure he is consistently put into a situation where he can put up an open shot.

Nothing was more frustrating last season than when either Alex or Doug McDermott would check into the game and play 4-5 minute stretches without attempting a shot. It’s like having a convertible in southern California driving down the Pacific Coast Highway and refusing to let the top back. Who does that?

Russell took a career high 7.2 three pointers per game last season, and with Paul George, who averaged 6.6 attempts per game on 39% shooting, in town that number will most certainly regress to the mean of about 4.2 per game.

I don’t think we will see nearly as many late shot clock moments forcing Russell to heave up a prayer because the offense is so stagnant that is the only option. Russell Westbrook doubled his career average in three point attempts last season. Let that sink in… Victor Oladipo also took a significant amount of three pointers last season—averaging 5.3 per game. With Russell Westbrook being a little more disciplined with his shot selection and Victor Oladipo heading to Indiana, the Thunder should make a concerted effort to ensure that no three point attempts are wasted. Just because Andre Roberson is open doesn’t mean he should shoot the ball—I will die on that mountain.

If Billy Donovan can find a way to get Alex Abrines 19-22 minutes per game with around 6 three point attempts per contest, I believe we will see the breakout season everyone is expecting from the Oklahoma City sharpshooter.

Now that the Thunder have another above average wing defender in Paul George, Roberson’s minutes will most certainly regress, and Abrines’ should increase—including more time with the starting unit.

Abrines for Roberson could be the first sub next season because George can take on the defensive responsibility of the opposing team’s best player; whereas, last season Dre would often be forced to match that player minute for minute—which put a damper on Alex’s hopes for minute growth.

Last season, when Kawhi was is in town, Billy could not afford to replace Roberson with Abrines as long as Kawhi was on the floor. As with almost every aspect of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2017-18 season, things are going to be a lot different, and I believe Alex Abrines will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new and improved Thunder roster.

**Shoutout to our Friends Nicolò & Michele at Chart Side for providing Welcome to Loud City with one of their in-depth shooting charts for this article. Their shooting chart format is the best I've seen, and it really paints a picture of where a player likes to operate in a clean snapshot. Thanks Guys!