Suns draft pick Marshall will have big shoes to fill quickly

BY KEVIN BERTRAM, contributor

The Phoenix Suns selected point guard Kendall Marshall with the No. 13 pick in this year’s NBA Draft. Photo by: Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet / Flickr

In last Thursday’s NBA draft, the Phoenix Suns surprised many by taking North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall, 20, ahead of other, more alluring talents, such as collegiate teammate John Henson, Iowa State’s Royce White or Baylor’s Perry Jones III.

The Suns were in an unenviable position heading into the draft, with early every position — beyond center, manned by the still-improving, near-star Marcin Gortat — in need of an upgrade, and with serious question marks surrounding Steve Nash’s future in Phoenix. So, as many analysts asked, why did the Suns take Marshall ahead of other, more-talented players?

The simple answer is that Marshall is a talented player. He’s arguably the best pass-first point guard to enter the league since Ricky Rubio in 2009. In 33 minutes a game at UNC, he scored 8.1 points-per-game and dished out 9.8 assists per-game. He averaged 2.8 turnovers-per-game. These statistics placed him second in the NCAA for assist-to-turnover ratio with 3.5, a useful metric for measuring how efficient a passer is. Overall, he finished second in the NCAA in assists-per-game by a hair to Iona’s Scott Machado, who had less talent on his roster to work with, but also faced less-threatening defenses.

Marshall’s passing skills, court vision and leadership are things that immediately translate to the next level, and his flaws are not any more glaring than those of White (anxiety issues, yet to act on talent), Henson (needs a great deal of bulk to compete in the NBA) or Jones (plays uninspired).

The problem with Marshall is that he doesn’t fit the mold of what fans or scouts now consider “talent” in the league, by which they mean elite athleticism — the contradiction is lost on them. That’s not to say that athleticism is useless in the NBA — quite the opposite. Rather, certain players are undervalued in the draft because they do not fit a certain mold: great wingspan, height, speed, etc.

The San Antonio Spurs have made the rest of the league look foolish by snatching up these players with late picks in the draft (Dejuan Blair, George Hill, Manu Ginobli, Tiago Splitter). Marshall is one of these players, and he will play dividends for a Suns team now looking toward the future.

Marshall fits the system that the Suns run and their current personnel. The Suns have spent the last few years finding undervalued players that, when paired with a great point guard like Steve Nash, they could get production out of. Jared Dudley (a throw-in from a deal with Charlotte), Channing Frye (glued to the bench in Portland) and Shannon Brown (a nice bench player for Los Angeles) are good examples of present players who all have had decent-to-good years playing beside Nash.

There’s a reason for this: while he might not be the best point in NBA history, Nash is the be the deadliest pick-and-roll point in NBA history. Currently, the Suns offense when Nash is on the floor runs around the pick-and-roll between Marcin Gortat (formerly, Amare Stoudemire) and Steve Nash. It’s a brutally effective play: Gortat shot 56 percent last season, even though he took more field goal attempts than ever before in his career.

There are other options, however. Frye’s value is, traditionally, as a pick-and-pop player. After setting the screen for Nash, Frye rolls back to the perimeter while Nash drives. This has resulted in wide-open threes for Frye his three years in Phoenix. Much of the Suns lack of success last season resulted from the Suns running the same exact play, but with Frye failing to hit shots that he normally hit. Between 2009-2010 and 2011-2012, his numbers have plummeted: after shooting a respectable 45 percent from the field and 44 percent from three in his first season, he only shot 41 percent from the field and 34 percent from three last season.

These numbers would be alright, but not at the rate at which Frye is shooting them: last season, he attempted, on average, at least 4 threes a game — in per-36 numbers, he would have tried for almost 6 threes a game. Frye has compensated for his lack of range by playing more in the paint, but he is a mediocre rebounder (8.2 per-game, per-36 minutes) and is foul-prone (3.8 per-game, per-36 minutes). As a result, Frye saw his minutes and role taken last season by rookie Markieff Morris, who had nearly identical shooting numbers (40 percent from the field, 34 percent from three) and rebounding stats (8.2 per-game, per-36 minutes), but — defensibly — was a rookie and is seven years younger, with room for his game to grow.

When Frye was shooting 45 percent from three in 2009-2010, he added a valuable dimension to the Suns offense. With the Suns unlikely to use their amnesty clause on his contract, despite his recent shooting woes, it appears that he’ll be a core part of the team moving forward. Marshall can duplicate much of the success that Nash had with Frye by using pick-and-pops to lure perimeter defenders to the rim.

While Marshall is not a Hall-of-Fame point guard on the level of Steve Nash, there’s little reason why he cannot operate in a similar system. His vision and passing skills will again make the Suns a deadly pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop team.

Much is made about two deficiencies that many believe will prevent Marshall from being an effective point guard in the NBA. The first is his jump shot, which — while mechanically sound — has little lift. In his sophomore campaign at North Carolina, he shot 45 percent from the field and 35 percent from three. He doesn’t project to be a great shooter at the next level, but the jump shot can be improved. It should be noted that an inconsistent jumper, however, hurts Marshall’s chances at becoming an elite pick player like Nash.

As one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, Nash learned to punish teams that went underneath the pick by hitting threes coming off curl screens at the top of the key. At least at the beginning of this career, Marshall may have trouble convincing defenses that his shot needs to be feared, leaving his roll man with the double team coming off the screen. This could be a major problem for the Suns next year, and it’s easy to anticipate two major headaches for Marshall: low shooting numbers because of shots he’d rather not take but has to, and lots of turnover for his roll men when they become trapped by two defenders.

Even more troubling is Marshall’s lack of athleticism. While a good team defender, he lacks the lateral quickness or speed to keep up with the NBA’s new breed of speed demon, paint-drivers, like Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo. This might be where Marshall struggles the most, and it’s unlikely that he’ll ever develop into a factor on the defensive end of the floor. Yet, if this diagnosis sounds familiar, it is because Nash struggled in much the same way. And while Nash has received just criticism for his inability to defend top-flight guards over the years, to the Suns’ credit, they have found ways to hide him on defense, mainly by using his height (6-3) as a point guard to put him on larger, but slower, SG’s and SF’s.

Marshall also has great size for a point guard (6-4), so it’s not inconceivable that the Suns could switch him out onto other players, while letting Grant Hill — if he returns — or Jared Dudley take PG assignments. It is not an ideal situation, but it may be the only way to keep Marshall on the floor in games against elite guards.

Despite the flaws, Marshall looks to have a bright future with the Suns. His court vision and timing are incomparable in this draft class, and he’s a smart, heady player who makes good decisions with the basketball. Yet, more importantly to the team, he is a natural leader. The Suns are about to enter a rebuilding period, where the patience of younger players will be tested.

Marshall should help the team keep their wits about them, and it’s not inconceivable to think that — with a few years of development — he might not lead the league in assists one day. With an improved jump shot, he might do even more than that.

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