Sunday, May 30, 2010

The City that Couldn't Shoot Straight

New York City has long been heralded as a point guard mecca, where the best street moves are developed and the best players can break down anyone, anytime, anywhere. At least that's how it used to be. There hasn't been a kid from the five boroughs to make an impact on the hardwood since Stephon Marbury, and that was...well, a long time ago. Starbury's rookie season was in 1996. At least he is making an impact in China, where this spring he won the All-Star Game MVP wearing a 24 carat jersey.

Marbury is not looking to pass here.

The city with the biggest rep for point guards is not representing in an era where the point guard has more freedom than ever in the NBA. Ever since the hand-checking rules were put in place, the NBA game has changed from a post-up, half-court isolation-play dominated style to one that favors the fast break and even more, point guards who can break defenders down off the bounce, penetrate and score or dish. Extra points go to those point guards who can shoot it from deep because they force defenders further from the basket, giving they and their teammates more space in which to operate. See Deron Williams, Steven Nash, Chauncey Billups, Chris Paul and Steph Curry. We are in an era of shooting, scoring point guards. With a few exceptions (Rajon Rondo, Jason Kidd, Andre Miller) the best point guards shoot to set up the drive and dish. The typical point guard these days brings the ball up, but more often than not hangs around the three-point line to stretch the defense. His role is to knock down jumpers on ball rotations more than to drive and set up teammates. Think Mo Williams, Jameer Nelson, Derek Fisher, Mike Bibby, Beno Udrih.

And maybe that's the rub with New York City point guards and their abdication of the throne: They can't shoot a lick and, for the most part, never have. NBA teams prefer points who pose at least a modicum of a threat from outside.

NYC's NBA point guards (and their career field goal percentage):

Mount Rushmore
Bob Cousy (.375 --It was all about the pass for the Houdini of the Hardwood)
Lenny Wilkens (.432 --Had they invented the jumper when Wilkens played?)
Tiny Archibald (.467 --Tiny was ahead of his time: a scoring point guard and could shoot from anywhere)
Mark Jackson (.447 --Jackson's percentage is only this high because he feasted on smaller point guards in the low post. He was an ugly outside shooter.)

Cousy set the mold of the pass-first, shoot-worst NYC point guard.

Other Past PGs of Note
Rod Strickland (.454 --Like Jackson, Strick scored far more in the post than from deep. He was a terrible 3-point shooter)
Kenny Anderson (.421 --Couldn't shoot but had crazy quicks)
Pearl Washington (.452 --Great point guard for 'Cuse but lasted just three years in the NBA)
Kenny Smith (.480 --An exception to the rule. The Jet was the opposite of most NYC point guards: great shooter, average handles and passing)

The Not So Current Crop
Stephon Marbury (.433 --Marbury's cringe-worthy jumper never impeded his willingness to chuck it)
Rafer Alston (.383 --Fans have turned to stone watching his jumper)
Jamaal Tinsley (.395 --Classic NYC PG: Sick handles, tough as hell,  poisonous jumper and a complete knucklehead)
Sebastian Telfair (.390 --Ugh.)
Erick Barkley (.356 in just 27 NBA games)
Omar Cook (.333 in 22 NBA games. St. Johns doesn't make em like they used to)

So what's the deal? Why are New York City point guards traditionally such poor jumpshooters? Thanks to this article in today's New York Times, we have an answer. It's the blacksmith's fault! The schoolyard and playground rims are made by John Fitzgerald, city welder, and his crew. While the rims are strong enough to last through the Apocalypse, if you grow up shooting on them, your jumper won't survive high school. If you are short and want to score on courts with these rims, you had better figure out how to get close in because that jumper has to be dead solid perfect to drop through. It is hardly surprising, then,  to find that New York City point guards are especially adept at driving their way to those dolomite rims. Conversely, if jumpshots are a bad offensive option, it is easy to understand why these same point guards don't develop this skill and are, as a rule, crappy shooters.

Fitzie thinks jumpshots (and breakaway rims) are for pussies. Wanna fight about it?

Now, these days the top NYC preps are playing indoors on AAU teams and never deal with John Fitzgerald's rims. So, why would they continue to be poor jump-shooters? More than that, why would their shooting get even worse? The last group of point guards listed above are the most recent NYC points to play in the Association and they are by far the worst shooters. Why? Perhaps because after years of stylistic evolution, what defines an elite point guard in New York has crystallized into great ball-handling and heroic lay-ups in traffic. The local hero point guards you aspire to be as a young player in New York are great dribblers, finishers and passers; not great shooters. In short, though Fitzgerald's rims aren't used at the most elite levels of prep basketball, their cultural legacy is very much in play.

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