At this time last year, Detroit Pistons rookie forward Kyle Singler opted to spend the first year of his professional career in Spain. Normally, this would be unusual for a four-year college player who may not have needed additional seasoning, but an NBA opportunity looked gloomy for Singler in 2011-12. The NBA had already cancelled games through Dec. 25, and the Pistons were nearing an extension for veteran Tayshaun Prince. As Singler departed for Spain, what little expectations Pistons fans had for the Duke product departed with him.
Fast forward one year, and those dim expectations shared by fans, the media and possibly team officials have been entirely eclipsed. If anyone in Detroit saw the rise of Kyle Singler coming, they were certainly mum about it. This pleasant surprise has left observers like me with three important questions: 1) what are the strengths behind this solid start, 2) was there pre-NBA evidence to suggest that this was possible, and 3) is this performance a fluke, and what parts of it could be sustainable? Let's take a look at the numbers behind the buckets.
Analyzing Kyle Singler's Break-Out
There's an unspoken rarity to this kind of a performance from a rookie. Typically, the rookies that start out a season like this are in a position of ball dominance or proximity to the basket. Rookies like Damian Lillard this season or Kyrie Irving and Brandon Knight last season were handed an easy opportunity to control their own fates. They had the ball, they were granted an opportunity to make decisions with the ball and nearly all the plays started in their hands. Rookie big men of late, from DeMarcus Cousins to Anthony Davis, take advantage of a positional proximity to the basket and the ability to make plays based on activity on the glass. Kyle Singler has neither of these opportunities, yet he's begun this season producing near the top of his class.
If he's not a ball-dominant guard and he's not standing under the basket, how is Kyle Singler recording these kind of numbers? Excuse the cliche, but hustle on offense and activity on defense are earning him opportunities that are impressing just about everyone. Monday's game against Portland was a virtual essay on the virtues of doing more with less, as Singler contributed 16 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists with nary a play being drawn up to feature him. If Kyle Singler wasn't already aware, this is precisely the way to work your way into the hearts of fans in Detroit. As the saying once went, "if it ain't rough, it ain't right."
Singler's offense against Portland was based on steals, offensive rebounds, spot-up three-point shooting and quick moves in transition. The steals and transition game is a special point of discussion. Synergy Sports currently has Kyle Singler ranked as the No. 1 transition player in the game this season based on 28 transition opportunities. He's effectively scoring 82 percent on these attempts when you account for and-1 opportunities and the lack of turnovers. This only takes into account his individual offense, it does not include things like the three transition assists he earned last night on fast break passes to Prince (twice) and Knight. For a team mired in such a lethargic pace for so many consecutive seasons, seeing this is a breath of fresh air.
Beyond the hustle plays that have given Singler opportunities he may not have had otherwise, his reliable 3-point shooting has helped him considerably. He's shooting 47 percent from range to start the season (trick shots!), with nearly two-thirds of his 3-point attempts coming from catch-and-shoot plays on the wing. His efficient production on those spot-up shots is good for eighth in the league according to Synergy, suggesting that trick shot practice is paying off ...
This efficiency, sustainable or not, gives Kyle Singler the top shooting mark amongst rookies, leading the pack with a .638 True Shooting Percentage. If you told me last season that Kyle Singler would start the 2012-13 NBA season as the best shooting guard in this rookie class, I would have laughed. Raise your hand if you saw that coming. Now I'd be surprised if he's not starting in the NBA All Star "rising stars" game and putting up a challenge in the 3-point shooting contest. (YHIHF)
Were Kyle Singler's Pre-NBA Numbers Evidence Toward This Hot Start?
Short answer, yes-- but it sure was hard to believe it. There will always be questions about how NCAA basketball and Euroleague ball translates to the NBA and there is never a solid answer. For Singler, there are a few interesting details that point to the relative sustainability of his recent production.
Since the Euroleague and Spain's ACB league moved the 3-point line close to the NBA distance in 2010, Singler had a chance to adjust to NBA 3-point shooting a season early. In the 42 combined games Singler played for Alicante and Real Madrid in 2011-12, he averaged higher than 40 percent shooting from beyond 22 feet. In the 2012 NBA preseason, Singler averaged 43 percent from 3-point range, and he's started 2012-13 with a 47.1 percent outside shot. It isn't reasonable to expect Singler to maintain a near 50 percent shot from three, but this rookie could become a perennial 40 percent-plus perimeter shooter based on a 64 game sample and the strong college showing that preceded it.
Another important point from Singler's pre-NBA numbers suggests that he's most efficient at lower usage rates, something the Pistons are seeing from him right now. Singler's least efficient seasons were his junior and senior years at Duke, while he was most effective as a fourth or fifth option in his early years and throughout his career in Spain. The numbers seem to characterize an effective glue guy whose efficiency struggles to scale.
Is Kyle Singler's Hot Start Sustainable?
In total, it is not unreasonable to expect Kyle Singler to maintain a hot 3-point shot throughout this season and beyond. He may flourish in a role as a fourth or fifth option on offense, but may struggle if the Pistons try to lean on him for more of what he's doing now. His performance as a glue player is noteworthy, as he's capable of creating his own offense from his defense and connecting at a high clip from the corner.
Another question about Singler is how well his defense will hold up against guards who are perceived to be quicker and smaller. At 6-foot-8, Singler has a clear height advantage over most NBA shooting guards, but does he have the lateral and sprint quickness to cover his man? The early returns are promising but difficult to compare to his pre-NBA career. Synergy doesn't have much data on isolation defense for Singler yet, but he has defended 49 spot-up plays remarkably well, holding his man to 28 percent. There's that height advantage for you.
We can at least compare him against a range of draft classes based on his athletic testing results at the pre-draft combine. His 11.22 second lane agility drill is quite average, and in line with big men and point guards alike. He'd be quick enough to stay in front of guards like Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and OJ Mayo, each of which were within two-tenths-of-a-second of Singler. It's hard to rely on this data, however, as big men like Dwight Howard and Kevin Love fell within this range as well. His sprint result of 3.21 seconds is encouraging, as this is much closer in range to smaller, quicker guards like Aaron Brooks, Ben Gordon, Eric Maynor and others.
The pre-draft combine results present shaky data based on one moment in time and may not be indicative of Singler's ability to keep up with smaller players. On the other hand, there isn't a glaring red flag in the data that might suggestion caution on the Kyle Singler: Shooting Guard experiment. So far, he's doing well guarding the perimeter, he's active in passing lanes and he presents mismatch opportunities based on his size. Given his efficiency on the offensive end, its going to be very difficult to change this experiment that is working so well.
Can the Pistons expect more contributions like this from Kyle Singler? It's likely that the 40 percent-plus 3-point shooting and the transition prowess will continue. If Detroit's coaching staff has the discipline to continue using Singler as a fourth or fifth option, and not an iso scorer as well, he could be a surprisingly effective player throughout his career. In four years of college, one year in Spain and an early start in the NBA, one thing has become evident -- Singler is at his best when he's playing the role of glue guy, spotting up on one end and hustling on the other. It worked in Spain and it's working so far in the NBA.
The fact that Singler is even starting is a pleasant surprise for Pistons fans. One year ago, it was tough to say if he'd ever suit up for Detroit. Today, he's not only playing, he's earning and keeping a starting role that'll be tough to take away from him. If he can keep this up, he could be a Shane Battier of a contributor for a young team that needs a new look to its veteran presence on the wing. It's hard to say the last time a veteran presence came from a rookie, but that is exactly what he's bringing to Detroit.