There may not be NBA basketball in Seattle, but the Emerald City still has an impact on the league, whether in the form of locals made good throughout the league or former Sonics, including a whole team of them. Here's what I see when I look at the league through the prism of my hometown.
Huskies Made Good
The 2008-09 season didn't exactly get off to a good start for the University of Washington men, who fell 80-74 at Portland in their opener on Saturday. Still, Lorenzo Romar can be proud of the impact his former players are making in the NBA. Two ex-Huskies are on the list of breakout players in the early going. Nate Robinson has proven a good fit for Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo system in New York, while Spencer Hawes is establishing himself as a promising player as a sophomore.
The 5'9" Robinson is a blur of energy who, a la Leandro Barbosa, thought "seven seconds or less" long before he'd ever heard of D'Antoni's philosophy. It's little surprise, then, that Robinson is averaging 28.6 minutes a night off the bench, putting him amongst the 10 most frequently-used reserves in the league (Hawes is slightly ahead).
Looking at Robinson's rate stats, there are two major upgrades--his three-point percentage has gone from 33.2 percent to 41.7 percent and his steal rate is up from 1.6 per 100 possessions to 3.9. The former is less fluky than it sounds, given Robinson shot at least 39.0 percent from downtown in each of his first two seasons. With the open looks in transition, he could easily shoot better than 40 percent. The steal rate increase seems less likely to continue; Robinson has never been much of a thief. Beyond those two, Robinson has made strides in his assist rate to the point where it's not exceptionally low for a point guard. Perhaps the best thing D'Antoni's system has done for Robinson is getting people to focus on what he does well instead of his easily-identified weaknesses.
I checked in on Hawes in the preseason, when Kings fans seemed to be nearing the breaking point in frustration with his inconsistency. At some point, things apparently clicked into place. Hawes started at center in place of the suspended Brad Miller to begin the year and was outstanding in that role, production he has been able to maintain as a reserve since Miller's return. Give Reggie Theus credit for being creative with his frontcourt, using Hawes and Miller together and putting Jason Thompson in the starting lineup at small forward as injuries have stuck Sacramento's wings.
Having watched Hawes at UW, I figured his offense would come in time at the NBA level. Where he has dramatically exceeded my expectations is at the other end of the court. Hawes has quickly become a confident and aggressive defensive player who is rejecting 5.9 shots per 100 possessions, nearly double his rookie mark (3.3). Hawes has also been very good on the glass, grabbing 25.4 percent of available defensive rebounds.
There's a group of eight players this season above 20 percent in defensive rebounding and five blocks per 100 possessions, one that includes Hawes and some fairly elite company. The veterans in the group are Marcus Camby, Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard. In addition to Hawes, there are two other productive young players, rookies Darrell Arthur and Brook Lopez, exceeding these marks.
If Hawes can be a presence defensively, the Kings have their answer at center. With Thompson showing great promise as a rookie, "Shock and Hawes" may be the new "Twin Towers." Be sure to join Tom Ziller on the bandwagon early.
The Luke Ridnour Reclamation Project
Luke Ridnour never made it to Oklahoma City with the former Sonics. In August, he was dealt to Milwaukee in a three-way deal that was headlined by Mo Williams going to Cleveland. The general consensus amongst those of us who watched Ridnour regularly in Seattle was that he needed a change of scenery, having become frustrated with his role on the team and having had to deal with the baggage that came with being a hometown hero of sorts.
If you've heard Ridnour's name early this season, it's likely been in the context of someone asking how he could be starting in front of second-year backup Ramon Sessions. While I'm enamored of Sessions' potential, the question is a little silly given that Sessions is averaging 32.6 minutes a night. In Michael Redd's absence, the Bucks have had a lot of success lately pairing Ridnour and Sessions in an unorthodox lineup that works because both can do enough to be useful off the ball.
For Ridnour, the results have been mixed at best. Taking advantage of heavy playing time under Scott Skiles, including going 48 minutes in the recent overtime loss to Boston, Ridnour has put up big numbers at times. However, his per-possession numbers haven't improved as I'd expected other than surprising work on the glass. In fact, many of them have gone backwards. Playing alongside Sessions may have helped put a damper on Ridnour's assist numbers, but that doesn't explain why he's turning the ball over more frequently per possession than ever before in his career.
Besides cutting his turnovers, the biggest key for Ridnour in getting it going will be scoring from midrange and in the paint. At 6'2", he's struggled at times to finish amongst the trees throughout his career, and is making a career-low 40.3 percent of his two-point shots. When he was enjoying success as a starter in Seattle, Ridnour was hitting around 45.0 percent inside the arc. That may not sound like much, but it adds up. When Ridnour is sticking the pull-up jumper or floater, the respect he earns from defenses opens up lanes to set up his teammates.
Also, Dave Barry (no, not the economist) would like you to know that "The Luke Ridnour Reclamation Project" would be an excellent name for a band.
From Punchline to Player
It's been easy to poke fun at Robert Swift the last two years, as the young center has piled up tattoos and time on the sidelines. Swift missed the entire 2006-07 campaign after tearing his ACL in the preseason, then was limited to eight games last season due to complications from his recovery and a subsequent cartilage injury. As a result, he's been known around the league more for his unconventional appearance (a mane of long red hair and sleeves of tattoos on both arms to rival Cherokee Parks) than his game.
At long last, Swift seems to be healthy, and he's reminding everyone why the then-Sonics liked him enough to take Swift 12th overall out of Bakersfield High School. Since then, Swift simply hasn't gotten much time on the court. He essentially redshirted his first NBA campaign as the Sonics, en route to a Northwest Division title, had little time for player development. The following season, Swift started 20 games and was pretty good in the second half of the season, averaging 12.2 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per 40 minutes.
Having missed most of training camp while recovering from a hand injury, Swift did not see action in any of the Thunder's first five games. When Chris Wilcox sprained his knee, Swift got a chance, which he has quickly parlayed into a starting job in the middle. It's a small sample, but Swift is showing flashes. He had nine points and seven rebounds in 13 minutes at Indiana last Monday, then grabbed 13 rebounds against the Knicks. It is probably mere coincidence that the latter performance came in Swift's first game after getting his hair cut and deciding to go instead with a red fauxhawk.
Right now, what Swift needs is a chance to play regular minutes over an extended period, something that has only helped during the latter half of his second season during the course of his entire NBA career. Only Monday did Swift pass 1,250 career minutes. As he gets comfortable and gains experience, Swift is Oklahoma City's best shot at turning one of the team's three centers drafted in consecutive first rounds (Johan Petro and Mouhamed Sene are the others) into a productive NBA starter.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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