The point guard Gary Neal

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In the wake of trading backup point guard / combo guard / rock pounding enthusiast George Hill to the Indiana Pacers on draft night, and before the lockout forbade contact between teams and players, Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich let Gary Neal know that he’ll probably be seeing some time at point guard when next season starts. This according to a column from NBA.com’s David Aldridge last week.

As Aldridge points out, it’s a shame that Gary isn’t getting the same one-on-one development time with Coach Pop, Chad Forcier and others on the Spurs coaching staff that Richard Jefferson got last summer. Instead, Neal is forced to workout on his own or with whatever personal trainers he employs, and at Washington DC’s Goodman League.

Assuming that the lack of face time with Spurs coaches stifles his development as a point guard, which isn’t a guarantee, how do things look for Gary Neal as a point guard? First, we have to acknowledge that the Spurs drafted Cory Joseph from the University of Texas, but he’s expected to spend most of the season in Austin. I also envision the Spurs bringing in a backup point guard from free agency when the lockout ends, but I would guess that said player would be near the level of Chris Quinn this past season. Good enough to play some minutes but not someone you want to lean on for 15-20 minutes every game.

So what of Gary Neal the point guard? Well, if Neal is playing point guard, he will be spending a lot more time as the ball handler on pick-and-roll situations. According to Synergy Sports, more than a third of Tony Parker’s possessions that ended in a shot or turnover saw Parker as the ball handler on the pick-and-roll.

Looking at Synergy, Gary Neal averaged .84 points per possession (PPP) as the pick-and-roll ball handler and turned the ball over in 12.1% of those possessions. Not great numbers, for instance, George Hill averaged .91 PPP as the pick-and-roll ball handler, good for 23rd in the league. (Note: I’m going to be comparing Neal’s numbers to George Hill’s a lot in this piece. I expect the minutes Neal plays at point guard to be similar to those that Hill spent running the offense.)

One worrying sign is that Neal had his second lowest 3-point percentage as the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations. Neal shot just 33% when running the Spurs pick-and-roll. Hill, on the other hand, shot 40% when running the pick-and-roll.

In transition, Neal averaged 1.03 PPP, though he shot just 32.7% from 3-point range. Last season Neal’s attempted 3’s in transition came from spotting up on the perimeter. He would run to a spot on the wing behind the arc and wait for a kick-out from a teammate. While he’ll still do some of that next season, he won’t be doing that when running point. So I don’t expect his 3-point percentage in transition to raise or lower next year, I just expect his attempts to decrease.

Offensively, transition is where the Spurs will miss Hill compared to Neal. Hill shined in transition, averaging 1.27 PPP for the Spurs last season. While Hill only shot about 19% from 3 in those situations, Hill was excellent at getting to the basket. I don’t expect Neal to get to the rim at near the same rate as Hill. Neal isn’t as quick, explosive or lengthy as Hill. But I would argue that Neal is craftier than Hill, and Gary has a great pull-up jumper in transition (PUJIT).

When the second half of the season came around, and teams started to get a good idea of what Gary Neal was all about, defenses began to close out harder on Neal and force him to pass the ball. For a stretch of games, Neal showed some chops as a creator who was able to find the open man cutting to the basket. He may be a more natural fit at point guard than George Hill was.

The other worrisome area where George Hill will be missed is defensively. While widely acknowledged that Hill was the Spurs’ best perimeter defender, I hadn’t looked up the numbers until recently. In all situations last year, Gary Neal gave up .99 points per possession. Hill gave up .86 PPP. When defending the pick-and-roll ball handler, where a lot of possessions at point guard come, Neal gave up .83 PPP last season. Hill allowed just .62 PPP, good for 10th in the league last year. In isolation situations, Neal gave up 1.05 PPP while Hill allowed only .79 PPP.

And while these numbers aren’t a perfect translation — not all possessions where Neal was the pick-and-roll ball handler meant Gary Neal was playing point guard, etc — they at least provide some glimpse as to what to expect from Neal next season. Especially if the lockout prevents Gary from really getting the reps to improve at the point man. Right now, the production and defense that the Spurs can get from that position when Tony Parker is out of the game is a red flag for San Antonio’s potential. Unfortnately, we won’t know more until the players get back on the court.

  • Anonymous

    It’s a very good read, though I do have one problem with the comparisons. George was playing in his 3rd year last season whereas Neal was in his rookie season. If we’re comparing them then surely it would be fairer to compare them rookie season to rookie season, though having just looked back over it you’re writing about the Spurs back up PG and not comparing the two players hahaha apologies…
    Although comparing them as players I think George was/is/always will be a better defender than Gary. He doesn’t have the foot speed, the strength or the length to really trouble any offensive players. On the other hand I think Gary will be a much better offensive player in this league. He is more confident with the ball in his hands and he is much more adept at getting his own shot (I know George can but I think he was too passive at times). IMO George will probably end up being the better all round player.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Andrew A. McNeill

    Good point on George being in his third season, though my focus was just comparing production in point guard situations last year. Some talk about George Hill in his third year will probably come up in a podcast this week between Graydon and me, so stay tuned for that.

  • Guillermo Paz

    I really see Manu getting more Point Guard duty minutes than Gary Neal. Especially if a shortened season is ahead.

  • Will

    PUJIT.  Possibly my favorite basketball acronym.  What’s his PUJIT PPP?

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Andrew A. McNeill

    Would love to know, myself. Unfortunately, we only have access to My Synergy Sports, not the full Synergy Sports data breakdowns.

  • Peter

     Yeah, I’m more worried about his defense as well.  I think Neal’s ball-handling skills are good enough to set up the offense, and I’d bet his efficiency will improve with more reps.

    But I’m less sure that he can guard quick points.  Maybe Leonard can take on the tough match-ups, kind of like when the Pacers put their athletic rookie on Derrick Rose in the playoffs.

  • Szkorhetz

    I think that too.
    Manu should get those minutes in PG.
    I can imagine lineups like this: Manu-Jeff-Leonard-Tim-Splitter-Undefendable? Yes it is..

  • ZeusVizzle

    I think this year, specifically, Pop will be playing more by defensive committee: the players that are put out on the floor will have to be the best defender at their position. I believe this will happen, however, if I have deciphered Pop’s intentions for the upcoming season correctly in which he wants the team to be top-10 in defense again. So, by trying to make sense out of what next season will look like, my best estimation will be that Joseph will get more playing time if he can play better ‘D’ than Neal at the PG position. Why else would the Spurs want to bring in D.J. Strawberry (per ProjectSpurs.com) if not to fully shore up the defense, especially at the cost of better offense?

    Another disheartening thing that may happen if Gary Neal takes command of PG duties is the “Roger Mason Effect.” Not primarily a ball-handler but given too much pressure to make the offense work, Mason’s shot was a non-entity in his last year with the Spurs. He tried to make too much happen and, more often than not, he was getting the ball stolen from him and watching the tail of the defender as he went in for an easy layup the other way. I haven’t seen enough body of work from Neal at the point to suggest he will be comparable to Mason, but one can only hope that the same won’t happen to Neal especially after such a productive first year with the Spurs (eerily similar to the Mason situation in ’08-’09; sorry to be Debbie the Downer but just pointing the parallels).

  • Mr. Obvious

    Roger Mason PART DEUX

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  • Dr. Leonard McCoy

    Damnit Jim! I’m a doctor, not a starship engineer! I fix broken bones, not warp coils! ARRRG! This coach just seems to have this nack of placing players out of their natural playing position! Gee-Man Neal is a pure shooter. I personally think that taking him out of his natural element will dilute his ability to score, and I have a feeling that is what we will see him eventually doing. That’s what happens to Manu, that’s what happened to RMJ. Now, Manu, he’s a crafty  creatrive playmaker, unlike TP & all, but when he’s out there trying to do everything, he seems to make more mistakes, & he also becomes fatigued as well. I’d say, get a true point as a backup for that position, & let Gee-Man Neal nail those threes!

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  • Titletown99030507d

    I agree Dr.  Neal’s need to run the point will lessen spot up shots or threes that he normally makes. It will take away from him the ability to do both. What is Pop doing? If he does take on the backup PG role then expect less points from Neal. He’s going to be to busy trying to focus on being something that he’s not. I’d rather have him shoot than be an assist man.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Craig-Thomas/1541940034 Craig Thomas

    Could Pop not use Manu at point and move Gary to SG sometimes to ease off the load from a 2nd year player? Manu is tremendous in the pick and roll especially with DeJuan. I think that would be an interesting facet to our offense and really help movement all over the court.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LUYZ4QOKKBF2L3WACA5ZLQDBNU R Photography

    Unfortunately, Neal isn’t a point guard.  I’m concerned that this article concentrates on the pick and roll and transition 3 pt% as the primary listing of what makes a PG.  Ball handling is like 30% of being a PG – the rest is DECISION MAKING.  It’s seeing the floor, noticing mismatches, understanding the weaknesses of the defense and putting yourself (or others) in position to capitalize on those weaknesses.  As mentioned, Neal started to find the open guy streaking to the basket toward the latter part of the season…that isn’t gonna cut it.  If the Spurs are serious about contending, the Neal as the PG is a bad idea.  If they are using him as a stop-gap measure until the trade deadline or next year, then that makes more sense.  But, there’s really no way around the fact that Neal doesn’t possess the PG skillset to be an effective PG in the NBA.  

    I think the Spurs would be better served using Joseph as the primary backup PG and using Neal at the 3rd option. 

  • http://www.poundingtherock.com jollyrogerwilco

    When I think of Gary at the point, my first thought and main fear is the same as Mr. Obvious’, and RM2.0 is NOT something any of us are looking forward to.

    That said, Gary is better than Mason with the ball in his hands, he’s able to do more in traffic, he has a decent floater, and finishes better than Roger did. All things that make me more optimistic than fearful.

    But that fear is there, nonetheless.

  • http://www.poundingtherock.com jollyrogerwilco

    When I think of Gary at the point, my first thought and main fear is the same as Mr. Obvious’, and RM2.0 is NOT something any of us are looking forward to.

    That said, Gary is better than Mason with the ball in his hands, he’s able to do more in traffic, he has a decent floater, and finishes better than Roger did. All things that make me more optimistic than fearful.

    But that fear is there, nonetheless.

  • http://www.poundingtherock.com jollyrogerwilco

    Good stuff, Andrew.

    A couple of questions I had from reading this are about what minutes we can expect from Gary next year, and what his splits will be between playing point and shooting guard.

    If you were forced to make a guess, what percentages would you put on his playing time with him being used as he was last year versus playing at the one, and how many minutes do you think he’ll get?

  • Titletown99030507d

    Forget about DeJuan. Manu and company needs to focus on getting the ball to Splitter on the roll. 7 foot quick to the basket all by himself. If they can make that a habit then Timmy has the wide open deuce without expending any energy. (That is if he’s on the court with Splitter at the same time) You know if Splitter starts getting easy opportunities like that then the defense will flock to the rim leaving Timmy licking his chops. Pop really needs to address this. Look at the Brazilian team this summer at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Argentina this is how Pop should use Tiago. The Brazilian coach sure as hell knows what to do with him. Take note Pop.

  • Titletown99030507d

    It may be Anderson why Pop is considering using Neal at PG duties  next time they suit up. I think Pop is going to give Anderson a real good look and if he picks up where he left off before the injury. You could very well see Neal, Anderson, Leonard in the same backup rotation next season. Not a bad 1-3 backup role rotation.

  • Crigney

    Agreed.  Neal is very smooth when he only has to take 1-2, 3 dribbles at most to get his shot.  Any more dribbles and his shooting %’s go down.  Not to mention he isn’t a great play maker anyhow.

  • Phife

    Do not speak of RM, please. Neal is younger, more athletic, and I believe, a better overall offensive option. The main thing with Neal is this: nerve. This dude has been accused of rape and acquitted, played over-seas and had hot quarters thrown at him, fought for a spot on one of the best organizations in the NBA making less than 1m a year (boo hoo for him), and of course while his performance wasn’t spectacular during the playoffs; he did hit that huge 3.

    RM showed some nerve too when he first signed but never in the playoffs. Here’s a Tim Duncan quote about Gary Neal: “He hasn’t earned our respect, he’s taken it. He’s a stone-cold shooter.” There, believe in Timmy.

  • Bob

    I don’t get the comparisons between Neal and RMJ. Neal played well in the season and actually showed up in the playoffs. If you remember RMJ was a no show in the playoffs. In fact Neal should have played more in the playoffs. I thought when Pop benched Jefferson he should have gone with Neal instead of Hill. Hill airballed a wide open corner 3 at a crucial point that Neal would likely have hit. That was one of the few wide open 3’s the Grizzlies allowed in the entire series. It’s not like Hill’s defense was that great in that series. If Neal can improve his defense he can fill the role Hill had and help the team even better on offense.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SWX4Y32W7T5F7DQG5O7QYVMGEM Logan

    He should get into alot of studying on the PG position because we all know he’s a great 3-point shooter but he was a SG. For him to have a great rookie season was amazing to see him play. But the 2nd year will be very tough for him. If he plays smart, makes good passes, and a good playmaker. He will be a very good backup PG for Tony Parker. He should have that 3 point ability on him. Spurs fans including myself should see him suck at the 3 point line like Roger Mason Jr did his 2nd year wit the Spurs.

  • Titletown99030507d

    I don’t think Neal’s shooting or 3pt shooting for that matter will suffer in his second year. The fact that he did it continuously in Euro ball with his team year after year then step in like like he did without losing a step in the NBA has cemented what a shooter he will be like in future years to come in this league. He knows what he can do so I’m betting he’s not worried about it. Just don’t alter his game at the PG position. Let him loose, let him shoot as a 2 guard. This team would be better served using him that way. Just pick someone else up to back up Tony. Quinn wan’t so bad as a ball handler and shooter but his defense against more athletic 1’s was suspect. But he played with heart and hustle. If anything if they can’t find a back up right away I would go with Quinn again, heck he knows the system already why not use him and develop him further. (If there’s anything to develop)

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Andrew A. McNeill
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Craig-Thomas/1541940034 Craig Thomas

    Yea, I agree but I just haven’t seen Tiago on the pick and roll enough to judge how good he will be. DeJuan really is at his best going directly to the basket and I don’t think we should give up on him so fast (unless he pouts about Hill and doesn’t address his weight issues). Floor spacing with Tiago and Duncan on the floor I believe will be atrocious. Tiago can’t do much outside of 15 feet from the basket and therefore the opposing teams centers can just easily drift over to help on Duncan’s post up game. If we find a way to fix what I believe will be disasterous floor spacing then more power to Pop. Until we get another C/PF who can stretch the defense and trade Bonner (PLEASE FOR GOD’S SAKE), then we cannot be an all-around defensive and offensive team. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Craig-Thomas/1541940034 Craig Thomas

    While I agree with you that putting Gary Neal at PG will not be good at all, I don’t think necessarily that RJ was entirely RC Buford and Pop’s fault. I think they were too starry-eyed from the seamless transition that Finley had from explosive scorer to 3pt specialist/cutter and defender. RJ on the surface seemed to be the same type of player with and even greater upside but RC and Pop didn’t read between the lines to see how much RJ thrives in transition and sadly how much he can’t dribble to save his life. I believe that the great Finley experiment blinded them to think that any sort of veteran explosive scorer could produce the same results. On the Manu issue, I believe he is a more natural PG than TP. He is a much better passer than TP and while he can’t breakdown the defense as well, I think his shooting threat combined with the driving/passing threat would create nightmares for teams if he were put in as backup PG occasionally (not all the time). On the pick and roll though, Manu is infinitely better than Tony. The problem would come on defense and while Tony isn’t a standout defender, he is fast enough to at least keep up with the Rose and Westbrooks. That is something I definitely would not want Manu to be doing is spending his energy chasing around those super-fast PGs. That is where the true dilemma lies. However, James Anderson could come in as SG and guard the PG while Manu actually ran the point. Maybe that is just creative fantasy solution but Neal as backup PG will not do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Craig-Thomas/1541940034 Craig Thomas

    I just noticed that RMJ referred to Roger Mason Jr. and not Richard Jefferson… I’m really dumb. Anyway, the point about taking a player out of his “element” applies to RJ as much as it did to Roger Mason. Please don’t find my RJ example too out of place McCoy.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Poor RJ he’s on the wrong team. Why blame the guy when the focus is spreading the floor with (Sandwich man who had no meat in his sandwich) for Manu and Tony and Timmy. Since when was RJ going to take all their points? If that was the case then it’s a different offense and it’s not the like the ones than what won us 4 Championships. Let’s face it RJ or any other SF wasn’t going to replace Timmy. And that’s where we’re at –  the crossroads. Replacing Timmy. Not going to happen that’s why Pop went small ball, run and gun and hope for the best while neglecting his front court defense or even offense. Even if that series went 7 games no way Timmy had enough left in the tank to make up for Blair’s and Bonner’s deficiencies. Pop knows he needs another man that can score and play defense. The Leonard pick up is nice but we need a defensive presence (6’11/7 footer) on the low post to compliment Timmy and Splitter. Look at Lebron James at the 3 position when he was with the Cavs. What good did it do them him being the focal point of the offense when there was no one else dominating the the boards and scoring like Timmy did in his youth at he 4-5 position. RJ coming in to take Manu’s, Tony’s, and Timmy’s points was not a recipe for a Championship. That game plan Pop insisted on blew 2 of Timmy’s twilight years in my opinion. RJ is better served on a team that is geared for his style of play, now he’s getting too old to be the focal point on any team. His best chance was when he was with the Nets and you know how that turned out. Too bad for him we had a young  Timmy.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Once the lock out is resolved (whenever) my guess there will be some movement in the FO and a PG and a PF will be one of the first things to address in trade terms. In order to fulfill this do you think Bonner or Blair will be traded? And which one  do you think would go? 

  • Len

    Ahh, but Timmy’s post game is not even close to what it was.  Timmy does not draw double teams much, if at all, anymore.  Timmy is still a great passer though.  Drifting over to Timmy when he’s got the ball in the post is doing the Spurs a favor.

  • Len

    Great point Title.  The logjam at the 2 is still there even after the Hill trade.  Manu, James and Neal are all two’s.  But, we all know that Manu is a rare jewel that can function as a very good creator and get everyone involved.  If he and Neal are on the court at the same time, who is the PG?  Does it really matter?  IMO, no it’s just semantics.  The real test will be when Neal and James are the backcourt.  

  • Len

    Unfortunately, I think Bonner is here to stay.  He is Pop’s guy and Pop loves the stretch 4’s.  I could see Blair being shipped out though.  Pop is growing tired of his “immaturity” and his contract is very friendly. His BFF Hill is gone.  Plus, he just doesn’t give the Spurs what they ultimately need.  Interior defense.  

  • Bob

    Tiago is really good as a roll man. I remember Parker saying he was probably better than Duncan at this point. If he can consistently provide that it help both Parker and Duncan by drawing the extra attention.

  • Bob

    I am not sure how good that transition was. Finley was more than a jumpshooter before he came to the Spurs. He became strictly a jump shooter and was responsible for Manu coming of the bench. Because he didn’t help the team that much of the bench Pop chose to start him.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Craig-Thomas/1541940034 Craig Thomas

    I’m not talking about Timmy drawing double teams i’m talking about defenders shading over to help on Duncan. If Duncan is posting up with Tiago on the floor, what is Tiago going to do while Timmy methodically probes at the defense? If he stands anywhere out of 15 feet from the basket, the only danger he will pose is on a back cut to the basket. He can’t shoot and if he stands in his comfortable range to the basket, Duncan will have no space in which to operate and Duncan’s defender can close the space preventing Timmy’s patented bank shot because he knows he’ll have help behind him if Timmy beats him to the basket because Tiago’s man is so close. Until Tiago shows me a post game, I don’t think it is a good idea to put him on the floor with Duncan. I just want Tiago to be more than a pick and roll man while he is on the floor with Duncan. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Craig-Thomas/1541940034 Craig Thomas

    Yeah, but didn’t Pop and RC want to turn RJ into strictly a jump shooter as evidenced by this year? All he did was take 3’s. I would argue that Finley was a much more than strictly a jump shooter but he found a good niche in the Spurs as a cutter and corner shooter for Timmy to kick out to. He was a vet by the time he came to the Spurs and we didn’t need him to make plays by himself because we already had Manu and Tony who could do that much better than he could at that point in his career. That’s been the savvy pattern of the Spurs to take talented veterans hungry for a championship and turn them into role players. I think the Spurs management thought RJ would fill a similar niche and provide some good defense to boot but RJ was not who they, and we, thought he would be.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Craig-Thomas/1541940034 Craig Thomas

    I’d be sad to see Blair go but after his weight issues and declining play, it’s harder and harder to defend the man who use to epitomize “hustle.” Is there anyway you think we could ship Blair and land Nene in FA?

  • Len

    Tiago will be fine with Timmy.  Both big men can pass the ball well and Tiago can put the ball on the floor very well for a big man.  Not to mention, Timmy is not a focal point on offense anymore.  He doesn’t get the ball in the post nearly as often as he used to.  Tiago needs to play as he is the best chance the Spurs have at improving their interior defense.  Timmy needs help there and neither Bonner nor Blair can do it.  Timmy worked with Oberto and Rasho, he can work with Tiago.

  • Len

    Sure, if Mr. Holt is willing to pay luxury tax they can get Nene.  But he will cost quite a bit as a FA and the Spurs almost surely won’t go that far into luxury tax territory.  Maybe RC can pull a rabbit out of the hat and backload Nene’s contract so that he gets the bulk of his pay after Timmy’s contract is up.  It’s a longshot but possible, I guess.

    Blair would be an easy trade chip.  He’s cheap and he rebounds.  If he’s put in the right situation, he can help a team.  RC just will expect something in return and right now the obvious need is interior defense with size.   

  • Bob

    Blair had the same problem but he still was able to have success with Duncan. Tiago can actually hit the outside jumpshot. I’ve seen videos of him doing it overseas. I think Blair’s ideal role is off the bench where he can provide a infusion of energy and hustle.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Craig-Thomas/1541940034 Craig Thomas

    Yeah I definitely agree with you that Tiago is a solid defender. And you’re right about Oberto and Rasho. I just have problems seeing all the pieces fall into place because last year Tiago couldn’t grasp the system by missing only the preseason. We are not even having a preseason this year and may begin the season in medias res at best. I just hope Pop is able to integrate him with a shortened season and no contact with the team until then…

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