Arron Afflalo’s improved play: fluke or trend? | Magic Basketball

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Dec 06

Arron Afflalo’s improved play: fluke or trend?

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Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Arron Afflalo fascinates. Not his actual game, per se, but the unique off- and on-court circumstances that permeate it.

Playing — by far — the best basketball of his career on a near-bargain contract with two years (including the present one) and a player option remaining, the 28 year-old is at a crossroads nevertheless. Afflalo was popular trade fodder coming into the season, owed as much to his underwhelming debut campaign with the Magic in 2012-13.

The player Orlando expected Afflalo to be this season is a very valuable one, but less so to a team in its unique position. Legitimately impactful two-way shooting guards are few and far between in today’s NBA, and every contender could use an additional “3-and-D” threat to guard the league’s elite perimeter talents and stretch the floor on the other end.

The question wasn’t whether or not Rob Hennigan would shop Afflalo at February’s trade deadline, but what the Magic could get for him. Remember, his stock took a hit after a disappointing season last year, and there was nothing to suggest a coming renaissance.

But Afflalo’s rewritten the narrative over a month into 2013-14, perhaps drastically altering the course of his career in the process.

Can Orlando really trade a guy whose 21.4 PER leads all shooting guards? That ranks ninth in points per game at 22.6? Who is playing like arguably the best player at his position in the NBA?

The answer’s an incredibly layered one no matter what it is, and all available analysis must be considered in coming to that conclusion. Off-court factors might be more important to Hennigan, but that stuff is best avoided for now. There’s no telling what kind of trade offers Afflalo would fetch in February if he sustains this level of play; moving parts abound for not only potential suitors, but the Magic, too.

It makes most sense now to examine Afflalo the player more than Afflalo the asset. What’s behind this Paul George-like leap in play and productivity? Is it a flash in the pan or the new status quo?

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When a player makes this type of rapid ascent — Afflalo’s PER is more than eight points better than it was last season — the function behind it is normally obvious. A new shot chart, tighter handle, evolved post game, and extended shooting range. Basic stuff, but the kind that extends beyond one single improvement related to scoring.

Afflalo? His current game is a near mirror image of what it was in 2012-13 when it comes to shooting tendencies. The chart above illustrates that synergy. Afflalo is taking and making more 3-pointers this season, but that’s the only major, positive change to speak of here.

He’s assisted on basically the same amount of baskets, gets fewer points via the paint, and hasn’t enjoyed a notable spike at the free throw line, either. Afflalo’s the same scorer he’s been his entire career, except for one important development: he’s become an absolute dead-eye jump-shooter.

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2012-13

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2013-14

Above are Afflalo’s shot-charts from the current and most recent seasons; green is good, yellow is average, and red is bad. The greatest advancement, obviously, occurs on the left side of the floor. It’s like Afflalo pushed a button over the offseason, turning his biggest weakness into his biggest strength. He’s shooting at least 50 percent from every spot on the left side of the court this season after failing to do so in 2013.

That’s quite an improvement, of course, and Afflalo and the Magic have worked hard this season to capitalize on it. Take a look at the shot-distribution charts below.

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2012-13

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2013-14

The colors don’t pop this time the way they did earlier, but there’s still a sea change to speak of here. Afflalo attempted 31.8 percent of his shots from the left side of the court last season. This year, that number has jumped almost 11 points to 42.6 percent. So he’s not only shooting far better from these areas, but far more frequently, too. That’s a troubling combination for defenses, and speaks more loudly of his overall growth than any other aspect.

Jump-shooting is notoriously fickle. That complicates matters for the Magic going forward. Afflalo’s progress this season can be directly attributed to a more accurate jumper. Does that indicate his start is unsustainable? It means that humbling thought is a possibility, to be sure, but the specifics behind this supernova shooting mean there’s more to it than that. All players are better shooters from certain areas of the floor. Afflalo has developed that tendency this season. What if his bisected supremacy is simply the new reality? Only time will tell.

Afflalo gleans curiosity, and his dramatic gains — here to stay or otherwise — give Orlando even more roster flexibility and general optimism for the future. Whether or not he remains with the Magic past this season is anyone’s guess, but the coming trajectory of his play this season will likely decide that fate.