David Fizdale is proving he can play the numbers game

Unfortunately, David Fizdale’s run as the head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies was short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful, as he posted a 50-51 record and contributed to ending the team’s seven-year playoff streak. Despite those shortcomings, one glaring positive stood out from his time on the banks of the Mississippi River in southwestern Tennessee.

He was able to maximize the offensive efficiency of his best players.

This is an extremely important skill for a coach in the modern NBA to possess. As the NBA rapidly shifts to an analytics-based league, favoring the three-pointer and the efficiency-first game more and more, it’s becoming necessary for a coach to understand how to play to those numbers.

For the coach of a rebuilding team, like Fizdale with these baby Knicks, it’s imperative that he instills positive shooting tendencies in his young cornerstones that will help them gracefully adapt to the present-day NBA game. By hammering home productive habits early, the kids can easily become impactful players once they mentally and physically mature into the league.

Even before donning the orange and blue, Fizdale showed major potential in this area back in Memphis.

Mike Conley was perhaps the most glaring example. In the 2016-17 season, Fizdale’s only full campaign as head coach of the Grizzlies, Conley posted a career high 20.5 points per game, which remains his single-season best by over 3.0 points compared to his second best season, back in 2013-14 when he averaged 17.2 points.

Points per game can be one of the most misleading stats in basketball. Every team has plenty of shots to go around. Somebody has to take them. Just about anybody can launch up a lion’s share of shots and claim their spot in the coveted 20 PPG club.

Conley’s career year had much more going for it than simply a high volume of shot attempts. Conley became a completely different player under Fizdale – an absurdly efficient one.

Over his first nine seasons in the league, Conley posted a .491 effective field goal percentage (eFG%). Among the 83 guards with at least 3000 field goal attempts in that span, Conley ranked only 44th in eFG%. He was productive throughout his career, but his efficiency was at a middling level, holding him back from producing like a bona fide star.

That all changed under Fizdale. In 2016-17, Conley posted still-standing career highs in field goal percentage (.460), three point percentage (.408) and two point percentage (.497). Altogether, he clobbered his previous career highs in eFG% and true shooting percentage (TS%), with .545 and .604, respectively. Each mark is at least .040 ahead of his career second-best mark. For comparison, that’s about the difference between the career efficiencies of Tony Parker and Elfrid Payton.

That season from Conley didn’t just put his previous career bests to shame. It was among one of the most efficient shooting seasons from a guard in recent history.

How did Conley do it? Most noticeably, he significantly upped the portion of shots he was taking from deep. Previously only attempting 27.4% of his shots from deep, he increased his 3PAr to 41.5% in his career year.

With that uptick in attempts came an improvement in efficiency, as he improved from a previously solid career percentage of .373 from deep up to an elite .408. In turn, with increased efficiency and volume from deep, Conley became more efficient on his inside shots on a lower volume. He shot above his previous career average in every range inside of the arc – a product of becoming a drastically more dangerous threat from beyond the arc.

In addition to Conley, Fizdale worked a few other efficiency miracles.

Marc Gasol posted a .503 eFG% under Fizdale, which remains the best mark he has posted in the eight seasons he has played since starting to regularly shoot from outside of the paint.

JaMychal Green posted remarkable numbers of a .555 eFG% and a .601 TS% under Fizdale. He hasn’t come remotely close to either number in his other two seasons with extended minutes in the NBA.

The ageless Vince Carter posted a .508 eFG% under Fizdale, which is the 3rd best single-season mark he has posted in his illustrious career that has now surpassed two decades.

So, with Fizdale having coached 12 games as the head man at the Mecca, what early signs have there been to suggest that he will carry over his trademark efficiency magic to these tenderfoot Knickerbockers?

Frank Ntilikina stands out as a prime example. Frank has upped his 3PAr from .314 to .465, an increase almost identical to that of Conley’s in his career season under Fizdale.

Ntilikina is still working to improve his shooting numbers, as he is currently only shooting 30% from deep, 42% from two, and 36% from the field overall. However, Ntilikina’s increased 3PAr, coupled with a drastic improvement in FT% from 72% last year to 92% this year, have his efficiency numbers up slightly. His eFG% has risen from .414 to .434, and his TS% from .437 to .465. Frank still needs to get those numbers significantly upped in order to become a quality offensive player, but the early signs under Fizdale are positive. He’s certainly taking some baby steps.

Tim Hardaway Jr. is also seeing some positive shooting trends. His free throw attempt rate is at a career high .325. That has been the driving force behind his TS% improvement, from .533 last year to .559 this year. To boot, he is hitting a career high 38% from beyond the arc on a career high 8.9 attempts per game.

Damyean Dotson is playing nearly triple the minutes he played per game last season, jumping from 10.8 to 30.4. He’s third on the team in field goal attempts per game at 10.7, yet sports an impressive .542 eFG%.

Noah Vonleh currently rocks a fiery .585 TS%, a drastic .086 better than his previous career average. The primary reason is his stupendous .538 FTAr, sixth best in the NBA among players with at least 200 minutes played.

Rookie Allonzo Trier has turned the most heads with his isolation scoring, but his efficiency has been the primary reason he has looked like such a stud so far. He’s currently averaging 11.9 points per game in only 24.5 minutes, as he has shot 45% from deep and 51% from two point range. Altogether, he’s been hyper-efficient, with a .547 eFG% and a .620 TS%. In fact, his .620 TS% ranks third best among the 31 rookies with at least 50 minutes played so far. The only rookies currently scoring more efficiently than Trier are Hornets first rounder Miles Bridges and ……..

Fellow ‘Bocker Mitchell Robinson, who currently leads rookies with a .646 TS%.

A huge reason both of these guys are spearheading the rookie list in scoring efficiency? Free throws – the most efficient method of scoring in the game.

Robinson currently owns a .471 free throw attempt rate, Trier, a .458. Those are the top two marks among qualified rookies to date.

All of these signs are very, very promising for the long-term prospects of the Knicks under David Fizdale. His basketball mind has stood out as something special since the very first time he spoke publicly as the head coach of the Knicks. While we never expected this team to compete for the playoffs, and still don’t, the way he has this team competing every single night is tremendous. It is very impressive how many players he has either smashing expectations, performing shockingly well to start their careers, making positive developments, or all three.

The Knicks are not going to win many games this year. That wasn’t going to be the case before the season, and it still isn’t the case in spite of all these surprises. This team is as raw as it gets. Mentally and physically, there is a boatload of filling out to be done across this roster. Until those progressions are made and more pieces are added to compliment them, the talent level on this team simply is going to be bottom-of-the-barrel.

Despite that, what we have learned since the start of this season is that the seeds planted in the ground beneath Four Pennsylvania Plaza have the ability to grow much, much faster towards a ceiling much, much higher then we could have possibly imagined looking at them one by one before the year.

Perhaps even more promising than the stunningly quick growth of those seeds has been the man responsible for nurturing them. His patience, dedication, and perhaps most importantly, his wherewithal and awareness of the climate, have this youthful crop ready to blossom sooner and brighter than expected.

The Knicks might finally have the right man to grow this thing from the ground up.

Make sure to follow Michael Nania on Twitter for more great analysis.

All stats via Basketball-Reference

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