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Tre Jones: the Spurs' unexpected but now obvious offensive stabilizer
San Antonio's up-tempo attack has struggled mightily when its starting point guard has had to sit, and last night provided glaring evidence of that.
Ahead of the season, the idea of Tre Jones as starting point guard was more unremarkable than it was invigorating. Despite the clear signs of progress he made last year, replacing an All-Star like Dejounte Murray with the incumbent game-managing former second-round pick was surely more of a place-holding decision than anything else, and eventually Joshua Primo or even Blake Wesley would shoulder more of the ball-handling responsibilities over time.
Now, Primo is no longer on the team, and Wesley might be on the shelf for the rest of the calendar year as he recovers from a Grade 3 MCL sprain. Best-laid plans, as they say…
With the burden of point-guard duties squarely on Jones’ back, the third-year guard has not only been a solid, steadying presence, but a major difference-maker to boot. In the seven games since Wesley’s injury, the Spurs’ offense has been at its best when Jones has been on the court, and at its very worst when he hasn’t been.
During that span, San Antonio’s offensive rating has tumbled from an already-meager 105.8 points per 100 possessions when he plays (a team high among regular minutes-earners), to a team-worst 98.6 when he’s on the bench — a great number for a body temperature but brutal for an NBA offense. That 7.2-point on/off discrepancy has been the largest of any Spur in those seven games, and a troubling sign for both the short term and potentially the rest of the season. While Wesley’s eventual return will help significantly, he’s still just a 19-year-old who was destined to spend a good chunk of time in Austin this season until the Primo situation unfolded. The Spurs are razor-thin at the position, and the results of that are speaking for themselves.
Offensive rating is not an individual statistic, but it does tell part of the story of a player’s impact. Still, if you’d like to get more specific, the details of the overarching subject matter are clearly written. Since the Wesley injury, San Antonio’s numbers have dropped across the board whenever Jones sits.
Assist-to-turnover ratio: 1.72 to 1.19
Percentage of field goals assisted: 64.8 percent to 60.8 percent
Percentage of plays that result in turnover: 16.1 percent to 18.3 percent
Team effective field-goal percentage: 54.9 percent to 49.7 percent
Team true-shooting percentage: 56.4 percent to 52.5 percent
While these statistics may inform us a bit about what is happening, they don’t specifically tell us why these issues are occurring. But that part is simple: No other Spur has broken down defenses and stirred them around the way Jones has this season. Not even Keldon Johnson or Devin Vassell.
Jones has accounted for the highest percentage of the team’s drives per game (24.4 percent) during that span, three times more potential assists than anyone on the team (16.0), and more than double the number of points created via assist per game (21.0) put up by Jakob Poeltl, the team’s second most efficient distributor.
Without an elite individual scorer, San Antonio depends on its offensive system and a point-of-attack guard (or just player in general) to generate good looks. Johnson and Vassell have made great strides in creating for themselves and others, but they’re both still adapting to their roles and firmly on the upslope side of their developmental trajectories. And right now, when Jones is off the court, the easy stuff has been very difficult to access.
Points in the paint have long been a barometer for the Spurs’ success. When they’re scoring inside, it means they’re likely getting the kick-out opportunities that jump-start the offense when opposing defenses collapse. But when they’re not able to get downhill, everything devolves into hot-potato sequences of dribble-handoffs and ball-movement around the perimeter in the hope that somewhere along the way a defender will blow an assignment. Defenses can simply shift side to side and keep ball-handlers in front of them, running around in circles 25 feet from the basket. And without the threat of an attacking guard, they can do so aggressively.
Since the Wesley injury, 54 percent of San Antonio’s points have come in the paint when Jones has been on the floor; when he sits, that number has crumbled to 40.7 percent (again, the largest discrepancy on the team). And not only has the shot frequency veered toward the perimeter when he’s on the bench, the efficiency has also dropped significantly. The Spurs have been scoring 1.46 points per attempt at the rim when Jones has been in the game applying pressure on the defense, and just 1.19 points per attempt when he’s been sitting; that number has dropped along the 3-point line in Jones’ absence as well, from 1.11 to .97 points per shot.
And speaking of the easy stuff, transition numbers have also suffered. Fast-break points have accounted for 15.5 percent of San Antonio’s scoring when Jones has been on the court over the last seven games, a figure that’s been cut to 8.4 percent when he’s been on the bench despite the Spurs forcing almost exactly the same number of turnovers.
Throughout training camp, the preseason, and during the early stages of the regular season, Spurs players and coaches alike have raved about the improvements and impact Jones has made and provided. Johnson in particular has spoken often about Jones’ ability to get him the ball in his comfort zones, which has provided relief from defenders who might try and load up against him.
“He’s definitely a point guard you want on your side,” Johnson said Friday night. “He sets us up great.”
While Vassell has displayed the shot-creation chops many have expected to see as he’s developed, Johnson still thrives attacking gaps when defenses are forced to move and shift. But when Jones has been on the bench during the last seven games, Johnson has struggled mightily while facing fronts designed to keep him out of the paint.
During that span, he’s scored 1.22 points per shot with Jones on the floor and just .82 points per attempt without him, and Johnson has been the recipient of more Jones assists than anyone on the team. Not that it should be surprising the starting point guard and the team’s leading scorer hook up more frequently than other pairings, but the efficiency comparison paints a vivid picture of their on-court relationship. And by the way, while this piece has focused primarily on the stretch of games following Wesley’s injury, Johnson’s season-long numbers with and without Jones on the court have not been much different (1.21 pps to .93 pps).
San Antonio’s offensive issues hardly start and stop with Jones — his presence is not preventing Monday night’s 132-95 ass-kicking at the hands of the Warriors — but his absence illustrates a larger point as it pertains to the team’s depth and experience: When even a single significant piece of the roster has to sit, the Spurs’ ability to compete takes a big hit. Especially against a team like Golden State that, despite its early season record, can still quickly overwhelm inexperienced or wonky lineups on any given night.
Jones has been one of the team’s unexpected offensive stabilizers so far this season, and without him San Antonio was playing even further behind the eight-ball in San Francisco than it normally would’ve been. But the Spurs missed a bunch of decent shots on Monday and seemed to fall flat after getting hit in the mouth early, which hasn’t been the norm through 14 games. As good as Jones has been, it’s not always going to look THAT bad when he sits.
Still, it served as a reminder of the impact he’s had, and that scoring efficiently is going to be difficult any time he’s off the court.
“He’s a natural leader, somebody that everybody trusts and gives everything he’s got. I kind of compare him to Avery Johnson,” Gregg Popovich said of his point guard recently. “Avery wasn’t the most talented kid in the room, but he gave everything in every way, shape and form. Tre does the same thing, and whatever he’s weak at, he’s working on.”
Somewhere along the way the Spurs will get much-needed reinforcements at the backup ball-handler positions, whether that’s simply in the form of Wesley’s return from injury, continued experimentation and development of point-Sochan, or the acquisition of another player in free agency or on the trade market. Wins may not be the ultimate goal right now, but proper balance also allows for more efficient player development, and it’s difficult to imagine San Antonio will subject its bench to this kind of nightly grind for the rest of the season.
Until then, it’s Jones or bust — a line nobody ever expected to hear, but now understands all too well.
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