Speedy Schroder Poised for Big Breakout

Jacob Eisenberg is still high on Dennis Schroder’s potential based on analytics from his rookie season…

jacob eisenbergWhat a difference a year makes.

Just last summer, Dennis Schroder was the toast of the NBA Summer League and was heralded as the future cornerstone of the Atlanta Hawks. His long arms, quick hands and athletic prowess had veterans gushing that the Hawks had found the second coming of Rajon Rondo.

One training camp later and, in theory, we should be in the same spot from where we started last season. Schroder just turned 21 in October – mere months older than rookies Marcus Smart and Elfrid Payton – and is coming off a rookie campaign in which he made noticeable strides in the season’s latter half. NBA: Toronto Raptors at Atlanta Hawks

Regardless, positive sentiment on Schroder’s future has waned considerably after sporadic playing time as the Hawks’ third point guard. Fans expected him to dazzle like Rondo, while coaches preached fundamentals and ball protection, as they would for any 20-year-old.

The desire to please everyone left Schroder tentative and afraid to make mistakes.

“I think he got humbled a little bit last year,” Hawks swingman Kyle Korver said. “But I think it was good for him. I think Dennis’ growth is mental and emotional. Physically, he’s a gifted kid. He cares very much about being great.”

History suggests young point guards often need more than just a rookie season to prove their NBA worth. Over the past 15 years alone, consistent precedent has suggested leaps in production don’t occur until late into the sophomore season – and more often, not until the third season for young players with physical growth.

Here are Schroder’s per-36 numbers as a rookie stacked against three rookie point guards who have all gone on to succeed:

T. Parker 2002 19 SAS 77 72 2267 11.2 3.1 5.3 1.4 2.4 2.6 3.0 0.323 2.5 0.675
R. Rondo 2007 20 BOS 78 25 1831 9.9 5.7 5.8 2.5 2.7 3.6 0.6 0.207 3.6 0.647
R. Jackson 2012 21 OKC 45 0 501 10.1 3.8 5.1 1.8 2.6 2.2 4.5 0.21 2.1 0.862
Schroder 2014 20 ATL 49 0 641 10.3 3.4 5.2 1 3.4 3 2.4 0.238 2.4 0.674

In comparison to Rondo and Tony Parker, Schroder’s first season wasn’t as disastrous as critics made it out to be. It is actually favorable compared to Reggie Jackson’s. So why is there so much apathy toward Schroder as he enters his second season in the league?

Schroder just put on a masterful display at the qualifiers for EuroBasket 2015, where he led Germany to a berth in the tournament After shooting 57 percent from the floor and 10-of-23 from deep (43 percent), Schroder says he is more confident now than he’s ever been. And teammates have noticed.

“He’s shooting the basketball a lot better,” starting point guard Jeff Teague said. “He’s been a lot more aggressive so far. Last year he was a bit passive when he came into games and he didn’t make his presence felt. Because he’s so fast and can get anywhere he wants on the floor, I told him, ‘Just use it.'”

Parker, Rondo and Jackson collectively improved their perimeter shooting by an average of 36 percent in their second seasons. If Schroder does the same, he would project to shoot 32.6 percent from deep in year two, right on par with Teague.

Schroder decision making v ColeBut the real concern with Schroder has been his decision-making. He needs to take better care of the ball.

Schroder sees the court extremely well and shows flashes of brilliance with the types of passes that linked him to Rondo in the first place.

However, he had been playing professionally in Germany – where more plays were scripted – since he was 17. Still adjusting to the improvisation of the NBA, he is often careless with his delivery. He turned the ball over about once in every four plays he was featured in last season (22.8%) – among the league’s worst, per Basketball-Reference.

And Schroder showed little progress with ball control during Summer League. He averaged 4.5 turnovers, including a whopping eight against the D-League Select Team. Meanwhile, his assists dwindled from 5.6 in the 2013 Summer League to just 3.3 in 2014.

It looked like more of the same when Schroder started the EuroBasket qualifiers with consecutive five-turnover games. But he finished with a decent 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the remaining four contests.

Schroder also looked to score more this summer. He increased his Summer League average by nearly 50 percent, from 10.8 points in 2013 to 15.7 points in 2014.

“I’m looking to score more now,” he said. “My coach [in Germany] told me that every time I play a pick-and-roll, I should look to score first so [opponents] will respect my shot.”

Imagine how much of a scoring threat Schroder would be if he could finish better at the rim. He has no problem getting there; his 6.2 points generated on drives per 48 minutes last season were identical to Rondo and Kyrie Irving. But his slender 6-1, 172-pound frame may be preventing that number from being higher.

Anecdotally, Schroder missed four consecutive “gimmes” in a preseason game against New Orleans, leading to jeers on social media when one finally went down:

Statistically, he shot just 41.8 percent on drives, per NBA.com. Most of the game’s top point guards have a number around 50 percent, but Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer thinks Schroder can get there.

“We work on [his finishing] a lot every day,” Budenholzer said. “I think the fact that he’s getting [to the rim] and he’s getting such clean looks is probably really important. Now we’re really confident that he’s going to be able to finish most of those looks. It’s a credit to him how clean he’s getting and how open he’s getting. I think just a little more focus and he’ll be good. “

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Atlanta Hawks

Again, Schroder just turned 21. As Korver put it, “Dennis is going to be a really good player. He was a first-round pick for a reason.”

The big question may be whether Schroder becomes that really good player in Atlanta.

Teague is just 26 and has three seasons remaining on his contract. Backup Shelvin Mack is just 24 and just inked a new three-year deal. So where does that leave Schroder? Do they ultimately envision him as a replacement for Teague? Or is he an asset who can be traded to a team looking for a change-of-pace backup point guard?

The Hawks probably haven’t made that decision yet, and don’t have to. Oklahoma City has brought along Jackson slowly. While he remains behind Russell Westbrook on the depth chart, his patient development has paid dividends as he’s nearly doubled his minutes and production in each of the past three seasons.

The Hawks will likely stand pat with all three point guards this season and re-evaluate Schroder’s progress and Teague’s trade value next summer. With Rondo and Goran Dragic as the only two established starting point guards headed for unrestricted free agency – and both expected to get max contracts – plenty of teams could be willing to deal valuable assets for Teague and the $16 million over two years remaining on his contract.

After a summer of turmoil and uncertainty, Atlanta finally has a good problem on its hands.

Jacob Eisenberg is a senior at Emory University in Atlanta and covers analytics within the NBA for Sheridan Hoops. Give him a follow on twitter @eisenberg43 and check out his website as well.

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