Game Changers

Sun, 12/22/2013 - 8:59pm

It's June 26 and after years of evaluation, months of contemplation, hours of deliberation, and minutes of hesitation, NBA teams must leave their perspective war rooms and finally submit their choice for each year's draft. From the moment commissioner Stern receives the selection and ascends that podium, Scouts, GM's, coaches, and fan bases alike wait with baited breath and open ears in anticipation of the decision their franchise has made. Hoping that the choice has the potential to change the direction of their team.

While no picks are ever easy, some do seem more simple to make than others - no one questioned the selection of Lebron James - though it's important to note the same could be said about the selection of Greg Oden - typically the player with the best perceived talent is chosen at each slot. Also important to note that this is scrutinizingly subjective. Yet despite the mercurial and monumental machinations that can lead to a team's drafting of a player, a somewhat imprecise equational approach to a player's NBA viability, the most volatile variable is projecting a player's ability to adapt his specific skill - be it untapped or on display- to the NBA game.

Some players have the superlative athletic ability, or skill-set, to show that while they may have been one thing in college - be it position on the floor, position on the depth chart, or position on the gps- they quite possibly could be something completely different in the NBA. Scottie Pippen and Kevin Durant were both power forwards in college, Udonis Haslem was a center and Boris Diaw was once a point guard.

It's rare that a player has the unique combination of skill and adaptable athleticism to be able to make a transition from their college position to a new position in the pros. And while teams try and fail more often than succeed with changing the players proverbial stripes, every once in a while the transition is met with success. The enticement felt by the potential of molding a player's skill set to a team's needs is undoubtedly what causes teams to take these chances and draft a player more for the position the team foresees for them, than the position they've played. These types of amorphous NBA talents are rare, and usually bely a more preternatural athleticism that surpasses that of just basketball. These guys may be asked to change their games, but sometimes they actually can change the game. Here are a few examples of recent NBA draft picks who have made such a shift, both for themselves and their teams:

Jrue Holiday-Shooting Guard to Point Guard

Jrue HolidayJrue HolidayThe 6'3" scoring guard out of UCLA immediately tantalized NBA scouts with his combination of quickness and out-of-the-gym leaping ability as the backcourt running mate to fellow NBAer Darren Collison. Though Holiday's athleticism was undoubtedly NBA-ready, the question for the one-and-done frosh was whether or not the undersized two guard could make the transition to playing point guard in the league.

Not a good enough shooter to be a legitimate undersized shooting guard (Holiday shot just 30% from the 3 his only year in college, and there were questions about whether his shot was too flat to improve) Holiday had little recourse but to adapt his game if he hoped to be a mainstay in the NBA. Though a gifted athlete, Holiday was clearly not a natural play maker (3.7 apg in over 27 minutes per game) and struggled as a ballhandler.

After a limited showcasing of his abilities as a collegiate, and making himself eligible in a 2009 draft loaded with point guard talent (Ricky Rubio, Johnny Flynn - at the time he seemed a great prospect - and Stephen Curry, and Brandon Jennings) Holiday fell to a number 17 pick to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers were gambling that Holiday could take over the guard duties for a team that did not have another point guard on their twelve man roster after the departure of Andre Miller to the Trailblazers.

In his introductory season at his new position, Holiday clearly struggled with his decision making, averaging only 3.8 assist per game (placing him 33rd in the league, behind several back-ups) with a horrid 1.79 assist to turnover ratio that season proved (ranking the former Mcdonalds All-America 130th in the league, behind the likes of Chuck Hayes and Mike Miller.)

Fast forward five years and one all-star appearance later, Holiday seems to have found his inner playmaker as his assists per game have skyrocketed to a robust 8.1 per contest (Ranking him fourth in the league) and his 2.44 asst/to rating ranks him a reasonable 29th. Just as exemplary of his excelling at this new position, is how good Holiday has become in the pick-and-roll game (an ability paramount to the success of point guards in today's game). Holiday has become a force on the pick and rolls, as his playmaking ability has created opportunities for Ryan Anderson in the corner, and more potently, Anthony Davis at the rim. Holiday has changed his game, and with it, he hopes to change the Pelicans' fortunes.

Channing Frye - Center to stretch power forward

Channing Frye didn't just adjust or tweak his game, he gave it a complete overhaul. Once a pure post presence, the 6'11 center from Arizona has gone from reigning the paint to just purely making it rain.

When the Knicks selected Frye with the 8th pick in the 2005 NBA draft, they were hoping that he could help solidify their deficit at bigman, a position the Knicks had been struggling to find productivity out of after failed experiments with overpaid free agents like Malik Rose and poor draft picks like Michael Sweetney. The Knicks actually found two bigman in that year's draft as they also drafted David Lee Frye initially looked up to the task as he averaged 12.3 points per game and 5.8 rebounds in his rookie season. But soon teams began to realize the best way to mitigate the slender Frye (only 248 lbs at 6'11) was to be physical with him and force him off the block. As teams roughed up Frye, his productivity floundered - due to his inability to finish further from the basket - and he watched his scoring average dip for four consecutive seasons, bottoming out at 4.2 points per contest in the 2009 season.

As the 2010 season loomed, Frye's NBA career seemed as though it would soon be coming to an end as he was entering his fifth season with his third team, the Phoenix Suns. Frye's inability to score off the block had become an exploited Achilles heel, so the big man went to work on his outside game. A surprising focus for a big man who hadn't shown much of a stroke. In Frye's first season with the Knicks, he had only hit 3 three-pointers in a total of 1572 minutes played, or 1 per every 524 minutes on the floor. So foreseeing a change in his low block dominated offensive game seemed highly unlikely for Frye. Yet by 2010 (his first year with the Suns) Frye hit 172 3's in 2190 minutes or a 3 per every 13 mins. on the floor.

Frye's rebirth as a lethal three-point shooter is astounding. Frye has now made himself as comfortable from the three-point line as in the paint, if not more so (108 of his 213 total field goal attempts are from behind the line this season). He currently is 13th in the league in 3 point percentage (44%) and 19th in total three-pointers made (48). At this point in the season, Frye is only behind Kevin Love and Ryan Anderson for 3-pointers made by a power forward. Not bad for a former center who made more three-pointers in a game against Golden State last week (5) than in his entire four years at Arizona (4.)

Jimmy Butler- Power Forward to Shooting Guard/Small Forward

While in college, Jimmy Butler wasn't necessarily your prototypical power forward (Butler is only 6'7 and 220lbs). But within Coach Buzz William's defensively aggressive and transition driven system, Butler often found himself playing the power forward position for the Golden Eagles. Williams system typically features undersized fours as recent NBA draft picks Lazar Heyward and Jae Crowder can help exemplify.

After being drafted by the Chicago Bulls with the last pick of the first round, Butler knew that he would have to revamp his game. Butler had been a sub par jump shooter in college, especially when extended to the three point arc (he made 20 3's in his last season at Marquette). So Butler went to work on not only his shooting, but adapting his game to being more of a shooting guard small forward highbred.

Last season, Butler began to see a spike in his playing time as incumbent small forward Luol Deng struggled with nagging injuries. Butler still struggled to find his game, scoring in double digits twice in his first 37 games while only making 4 three point filed goals (a rate of .10 makes per contest) . Yet at game 38, something seemed to change for Butler. From game 38 on, Butler averaged 11.4 ppg including 27 double digit games and making 35 3's (a rate of .78 makes per game. A far more respectable rate for a small forward).

Though Butler's offensive improvement was important for a Bulls' team struggling to find points without MVP Derrick Rose, Butler has really found his game - and conversely a place in coach Tom Thibodeau's line-up - in his ability to defend. In the playoffs last year, Butler showed the ability to guard three possessions (sg, sf, and pf) and an athleticism and toughness that had not quite yet been tapped. While the Bulls may have been dismantled by the Heat, it was through no fault of Butler's, who averaged 15.6 points per game during the five game series, and battled Lebron James defensively about as tough as has been seen by anyone not named Paul George.

Butler has continued to improve and shift his game to become a legitimate wing threat. Though nagged early this season by injuries (a plague the Bulls seem to have to fight with all their talent) Butler is now making a three per game and averaging 11.1 points per game, when healthy.

The potential Butler has shown offensively, mixed with the rugged defense he's already displayed, has made Butler an untouchable piece in trade rumors involving the infirmed Bulls. More importantly for Butler and his future, through moving positions, he seems to have supplanted himself as a building block for the Bulls.

Tristan Thompson- Left hand to right hand

Thompson's actual on-court game hasn't seen much shift from college to the pros but what has is his preferred hand for shooting free throws. The former Texas Longhorn and Canadian import makes honorable mention on this list just for being brazen enough to switch from using his dominate left hand to using his right hand now when at the stripe. Thompson, who shot a reasonable 61% from the line last year, decided that in the off-season he would switch hands to his right. The move has been met with success as Thompson is now shooting just a little under 70%. Now if he could just switch the fortunes of the woeful Cavs.

Russell Westbrook - Shooting Guard to Point Guard

Like fellow former Bruin Holiday, Russell Westbrook was the type of athlete that can turn heads on any field of play. And like Holiday, while in college, Westbrook proved to be more athletically inclined than leadership attuned on the floor.

Westbrook's abilities were in no way doubted, as his his selection as the 4th overall pick in the 2008 draft by the Seattle Supersonics proved. But what was questioned was what position Westbrook would play. In college, Westbrook had been an off-guard, as Darren Collison was the primary ball handler for the Bruins. And though Westbrook averaged a reasonable 4.3 apg his last year in college, his ballhandling was both erratic and at times, outright poor (he averaged 2.5 turnovers per contest, a high number for a non point guard.)

Despite questions about his transition to point guard on the newly-moved Oklahoma City Thunder, Westbrook was thrown in immediately. He quickly proved that he could play the point guard potion, though perhaps not quite in the classic way we were used to.

Now in his sixth season, Westbrook's ball-handling has clearly immensely improved - he's played in the Olympics, and the NBA finals, and this season his 6.9 assists per game rank him 10th in the league. But despite all his success as a point guard, Westbrook has never truly been your standard floor general (his 1.68 ast/to ratio ranks him 40th in the league, and worst among all starting point guards) and he has led all point guards in field goal attempts since entering the league. But that's because Russell Westbrook changed the position as much as he changed for the position.

What makes Westbrook's transition so interesting was not the way he changed the manner of how point guard can be played. Along with Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook has ushered in an era of the "uber athletic" point guard. The type of athlete guard that we have never seen; small men invading the space usually reserved for the guys these pointmen are normally distributing to. While there have been the KJs and Robert Packs, small guys with big hops, they were judicious with their feats of posterizing endeavors. Whereas Westbrook -and for a brief shining time Rose- has the potential to cause flashbulb blindness on any play.

If most point guards are the prudent floor general - orchestrating and directing the attack - Westbrook is the new recruit with something to prove: brash, irreverent and terrifyingly impulsive. Yet Westbrook makes it work. Because of his quickness, and possessing uncommon strength for the position, Westbrook has become an absolute nightmare to defend for his counterparts (he's averaging 21 ppg this season), especially in the open court, where he can exploit his once-in-a-lifetime athleticism. That athleticism, combined with defensive tenacity,(Westbrook was the 2007-08 PAC-10 Defensive Player of the Year) has made Westbrook a three-time All-NBA second team honorary and one of the more complete players in the league. His career 20.7 per ranks him 50th all-time and Westbrook has been in the top ten in per 3 of the last 4 years.

The exciting play and inarguable success of Westbrook has proven that sometimes a change in position can actually cause a change in perception.

The Q
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Any list like this is

Any list like this is incomplete without Antwan Jamison on it.

The guy went from one of the 3 or 4 best post players in the 1990s in college to a 3pt specialist in the NBA.

While he retired, he techincally signed a contract with the Bucks this year, Michael Redd is the other guy.

Never seen 2 guys ever make bigger transformations than them. I guess I'd put Channing Frye 3rd on that list now. But he also did it to himself by not eating right and bulking up in the weight room, that dude with his frame could easily be 270 or 280 by now and a pure beast.

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success of Westbrook has

success of Westbrook has proven that sometimes a change in position can actually cause a change in perception. I want you to thank for your time of this wonderful read!!! I definately enjoy every little
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Re: Any list like this is

Notice at the end of the column where they mentioned recent draft picks. Antawn Jamison was drafted in 1998.

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