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Whither Spellcheck?

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By Kevin Sawyer

Those who are inclined to follow preseason stats (I am one such individual) have surely noticed Arron Afflalo’s eye-popping numbers. Spellcheck is shooting the lights out, hitting 55% of his shots and 71% from three-point range.

The standard scouting report on Afflalo is that he’ll earn time with his defense, and merely needs to exhibit a competent offensive game. Fair enough, but where does that type of role player fit in a championship-caliber squad? The Pistons play good defense across the board. Does adding another defender justify a muted offensive performance from the two or three positions?

I would argue that it does not. Further, there is an open question as to whether or when Afflalo will become the sort of lock-down defender that merits such a role. All-Defensive team rosters are littered with guys who have been in the league for years. Reputation plays a role in the phenomenon, but it seems that, unlike offense, defense gets better than age.

This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, defense is 50% effort, right? Maybe not.

Take Amir Johnson. Nobody has accused the kid of being lazy. In fact, his hyperactivity seems to be his primary obstacle, insofar as he can’t stop fouling. Why does he earn so many fouls? Because skilled offensive players know how to draw fouls on hyperactive shot-blockers.

They also know how to elude novice shooting guards. Good defense requires hustle, and staying on your man. Great defense requires a mastery of a variety of defensive schemes, many specifically designed to prey upon good on-the-ball defenders.

Some players buck the trend, compensating by way of physique. Tayshaun Prince is a smart defender, but it doesn’t hurt that his arms are 200 ft. long. Dikembe Mutombo soared to the ranks of elite defenders because he is gigantic. For all his effort and basketball intelligence, Spellcheck doesn’t have the genetic cheat sheet to thwart the learning curve.

Which is why Afflalo’s blazing start is encouraging, albeit in a preseason, grain of salt sort of way. He earned his rotation spot last year with a strong preseason performance, after all, and regression to the mean dictates that he is profoundly unlikely to hit 5 of his next 7 three pointers.

But then, it is difficult for poor shooters to hit any five of any seven three pointers, much less 21 of 38 field goals. If Spellcheck can hit, say 38% and 45% respectively, then we have to revise the scouting report.

Further, compared with last preseason, Afflalo has shown superior judgment on defense, nabbing picks with three times the frequency while cutting his foul rate in half. This reflects an enhanced understanding of passing lanes and decreased gullibility on defense.

While Spellcheck has been an afterthought in many of the discussions about our promising young nucleus, he is emerging as an intriguing player with a diverse skill set. Appropriately assessing his value will be one of the more prominent challenges facing Michael Curry and Joe Dumars this year.