After signing an 11th hour extension last winter, Stuckey started the shortened 2011-12 season hampered by a sore groin. Then he put together the best two months of his career, playing like one of the top guards in the league. This streak ended in March when Stuckey missed time with a hamstring injury that appeared to limit him for the rest of the season.
Today, Stuckey is healthy. He's approaching a new season having spent much of the summer working out with his teammates. If he can stay healthy, can he register a full season of the improvements he realized when starting at shooting guard? His history doesn't provide much hope, but thankfully the numbers do.
Rodney Stuckey: 2011-12 Year in Review
14.8 points, 2.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, .8 steals, 1.9 turnovers, 42.9% shooting
After spending $91 million on shooting guards that are no longer with the team, Joe Dumars finally found his "shooting guard of the future".
There's a problem with this interest in combo guards-- it's not that they're able to play both guard positions, it's that they're stuck between them. Many have suggested that shooting guard is Stuckey's natural position, but they but they ignore one very specific flaw: at shooting guard, Rodney Stuckey loses his size advantage and becomes a defensive liability. So before we get into the good stuff about his last season, we need to get this out of the way.
Of the 415 possessions recorded by Synergy Sports where Stuckey was the primary defender, he allowed .98 points per possession. That ranks 422nd in the league, almost dead last amongst players that played at least 1 game last season. At shooting guard, Stuckey was serviceable at guarding isolation plays, but he seriously struggled at staying on his man for catch-and-shoot, spot-up plays. When his man didn't have the ball in his hands, Stuckey gave him too much room. When they received the ball, they had too much room to operate and Stuckey didn't tower over them they way he did against point guards. His speed, strength and lateral quickness helped him out in isolation, but his focus on the ball and his lack of size hurt him deeply.
Despite this really poor showing on defense, Stuckey was a net gain contributor to the team. When he was on court, the team was at its best-- the offense was more productive and the margin over the opposition was large enough to nullify his weakness. This might surprise you given that Stuckey averaged just 43% from the field and 32% from the perimeter. Stuckey has a very valuable ability that served him very well in 2011-12 and it should continue. What is that ability?
Stuckey gets to the line like a superstar. In February last season, Rodney was getting to the line 8 times per contest. Even into early March, Stuckey was drawing more fouls than any shooting guard in the league other than Kobe Bryant. In a February 19th win over Boston, Stuckey only made two baskets... but he scored 16 points.
Stuckey has improved his ability to draw contact and get to the line year after year. Since earning a starting role in his sophomore season, Stuckey's per 36 free throw attempts have increased from 4.1 to 5.2 in year three, and from 6.3 in year four to 7.0 last season. That 7.0 per 36 is better than Dwyane Wade and James Harden, it's tied with Carmelo Anthony and a hair behind Kevin Durant. In short, when it comes to drawing contact, Rodney Stuckey is a superstar.
Next, 31.7% three point shooting isn't normally something to get excited about. For Rodney, this is very admirable, and it points to continued improvement. His three point shooting has steadily increased over the last two years, and it climbed to as high as 41.4% on 2.9 attempts per game in March. He struggled after the hamstring injury, and there is reason to believe that he could maintain a higher percentage if he can stay healthy for a full season.
Areas to Improve in 2012-13
1. Off the Ball Defense
This season, Stuckey must find a way to improve his defensive effort. It's not unreasonable to expect that he could significantly improve at shooting guard despite the loss of his size advantage. While a few more inches in height and reach could prevent guards from shooting over him, he can improve his defensive performance by making one simple change: stop watching the ball and stick on your man.
Stuckey was killed on spot-up plays last season largely because he left his man wide open while shifting toward the basket and watching the ball handler. He needs to work on a defensive court vision of sorts, of knowing where his man is and preventing him from getting loose. It's fair to think this can change, since this might be new to Stuckey. It was his first full season at shooting guard, and the defense here is different. You're not as focused on the guy with the ball as when you guard a point guard. Now, Stuckey will have to learn how to defend catch-and-shoot plays with greater anticipation and hustle.
2. Three-Point Shooting
Stuckey gets an attaboy for breaking the 30% mark for the first time in his career, but he should still focus on improving his 3-point shooting further. If he can approach 34% from the perimeter this season, he will be a deadly piece with an inside/outside game.
2012-13 Projected Production
It's a little easier to project Rodney's 2012-13 numbers than it would be for Brandon Knight. There are three commonalities in Stuckey's record: 1) he has consistently improved in several areas year-over-year, 2) he's been consistently injured, 3) he's inconsistent. Let's look at each of those:
First, Stuckey has improved his 3-point shooting for two seasons straight. He almost broke 30% in his second year, but he then fell back on two years of poor shooting. Given the trend of the last two seasons, it's fair to expect Rodney to improve this year. He improved 27% two years ago and 10% last year, so if we account for diminishing growth, we could reasonably expect a 3.7% improvement this season-- good for 32.9% shooting from the perimeter.
He has also improved his ability to get to the line year by year. Using a less scientific method, he had gained almost one free throw attempt per 36 minutes year over year until last season. He may not have peaked yet, given the new position and the .7 FTA increase last season. Another half of an attempt per game should be in his reach, so 6.3 free throw attempts per game feels like the right number.
Second, Stuckey has been consistently injured each year. He has missed 9 games, 12 games and 11 games in each of the last three seasons, so it's unreasonable to expect him to not be hampered at some point this season. He might have long streaks of solid production, but each one will likely be ended by some sort of nagging injury. We can hope that Stuckey will have a full season of healthy, but it'd be foolish to project one. We'll need to expect the worst in that regard.
Last, Stuckey has also been naturally inconsistent. He's always been a streaky player and we shouldn't expect that to change. However, if he increases his number of trips to the line, if he improves his 3-point shooting, the bad stretches won't be as bad as they were when he was a point guard. He can have off nights, like shooting 20% against Boston, but still be buoyed by an uncanny ability to get to the line almost at will.
32 minutes, 17 points, 3.1 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, 2.2 turnovers, 43% shooting
If Rodney does all of a sudden put together a season at full health, the numbers above are a base line which could be quickly exceeded. Taking into account his history of injury and inconsistency, those numbers feel much more reasonable. Fans can expect growth, as he's entering his second year as a shooting guard with some experience behind him. He's at or near his peak age, so fans may see this year what they'll get out of Rodney for several more years to come. The one lingering concern is his defense, but he may be able to correct that if he starts defending shooting guards like they're shooting guards, not point guards. Fingers' cross'd...