The point guard Gary Neal
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.