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The NBA's Underrated: Ty Lawson

While Ty Lawson has been an effective role player in his first two years in the NBA, he has a much higher ceiling as a basketball player, one that has shown through despite limited opportunities on an extremely deep Denver Nuggets team

After backing up Chauncey Billups his rookie year and then sharing time with Raymond Felton late last season, his career usage rating is only 19.0. Usage rating, an estimate of how much offense a team runs through a particular player, is one of the most useful of the “advanced” statistics that have become popular in the last few years

A balanced team like the 2004 Detroit Pistons will have a lot of players with usage ratings near 20. Their primary offensive options (Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace) all had usage ratings between 25.6 and 23.2, meaning they “used” (took a shot, passed the ball to a teammate who did or turned the ball over) nearly a quarter of their team’s possessions when they were on the floor. Their other starters (Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace) had usage ratings near 15, as they depended on others to create shots for them.

In contrast, the Los Angeles Lakers, their opponent in the 2004 NBA Finals, were extremely top-heavy. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant dominated the ball, with usage ratings of 26.3 and 29.1 respectively, while none of the other players in their rotation had usage ratings over 21. 

So when a young player has a usage rating under 20, it doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t be a primary offensive option. It just means they haven’t been given the opportunity yet.

And in his time with Denver, Lawson has done nothing to suggest he wouldn’t shine if given a bigger role. A 6’0 195 point guard who combines blinding fast-speed with the ability to score from all over the court and a great feel for the game, he’s a complete offensive player.

He takes 43% of his shots from inside the paint and is assisted on only a quarter of those attempts, absolutely preposterous numbers for a barely 6’0 guard with a 6’1 wingspan. He has an effective field goal percentage of 63.7% in the lane, a tribute to his ability to finish through defenders and draw fouls as well as shoot over them by using a variety of release points. You’re certainly not going to see many guards his size doing this to a 7’0 center.

But unlike most players who can get to the rim, he has the ability to score from the perimeter as well. He’s an excellent shooter, shooting 40.6% from beyond the arc and 76.2% from the free-throw line for his career, which has allowed him to be successful while spreading the floor for shot-happy scorers like Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith. 

Most importantly, despite his ability to score, he’s still a pure point guard. Last season, he averaged 4.7 assists and 1.7 turnovers, giving him an assist to turnover ratio of 2.75, right behind Andre Miller, Felton and Deron Williams.

None of this is a surprise to anyone who saw him play at North Carolina. While Tyler Hansbrough received the majority of the publicity, Lawson was the key player on a 34-4 Tar Heel team that had one of the most dominant six-game runs in the history of the NCAA Tournament.

The point guard is the key player in Roy Williams’ secondary break offense, which emphasizes running disciplined sets amidst a fast-paced, uptempo style of play. Lawson quarterbacked it beautifully, making sure the other four starters (Hansbrough, Deon Thompson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green) each averaged over ten points a game. But when the team absolutely needed a basket, Lawson could call his own number too, as he had the highest field goal percentage (53.2%) of all the starters.

With Lawson running the break and four veteran players spreading the floor, North Carolina blitzed their opponents into submission. In their six tournament games, their average margin of victory was 20.2 points. They were never challenged in games against Gonzaga (Austin Daye), Oklahoma (Blake Griffin) and Villanova (Dante Cunningham). In the national title game, they played a Michigan State team in Detroit that had already toppled Kansas, Louisville and Connecticut teams stacked with future first-round picks. They raced out to a 36-13 lead and the game was never in doubt.

Yet, at the next level, without the benefit of playing off Lawson, none of those Tar Heels have been nearly as effective. Thompson never got a shot in the NBA, while Green has rode the bench for Cleveland and San Antonio. Ellington, a first-round pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves, has been a disappointment, with a career shooting percentage of 41.4%. Hansbrough has been a solid player in Indiana, but despite having a much higher usage rating, averaged fewer points on a worse shooting percentage than Lawson last season.

His one weakness is his lack of size, as he doesn’t have the length to defend the vast majority of the NBA’s perimeter players, something Oklahoma City was able to exploit when the Nuggets tried to play him and Felton at the same time in their first-round playoff series. But his strength and quickness make him at least passable defensively against most of the NBA’s point guards, and it would be relatively easy to hide him on defense against bigger back-courts in much the same way that Phoenix hides Steve Nash.

In college, Lawson could go wherever he wanted to go on the court and then either finish or pass to an open teammate. It’s impossible to know exactly how good he would be if he had a similar role in the NBA, but if I was Denver, I would sure want to find out.

This is the latest in a series of articles by Jonathan Tjarks where he previously looked at underrated players such as LaMarcus AldridgeEric GordonJrue HolidayAndrew BynumJames HardenJosh Smith and Tracy McGrady.

 

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