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Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's understated breakout

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The Pistons shooting guard is in the midst of a breakout season... and it's going mostly unnoticed.

KCP gave the frontrunner for MVP fits.
KCP gave the frontrunner for MVP fits.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Quick, name the top three shooting guards in the league aged 22 and under that you'd want on your team.

Clock's ticking...

Ok, time's up.

Your answer? Yeah, there's only one right answer. It's Bradley Beal, Andrew Wiggins, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. There are some other nice shooting guard prospects out there like Devin Booker or Gary Harris, but these three are in a class of their own.

It's a new spot to be in for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was the just the third shooting guard picked in the 2013 NBA draft and for many fans a disappointing choice over the hometown favorite prospect, Trey Burke.

Many fans looked for a breakout season out Caldwell-Pope last season when he was the heir-apparent to the starting shooting guard spot. The volume was there as KCP led the team in minutes and shot attempts, but struggles with efficiency left the season with a sour taste.

But that breakout looks to be underway this season.

Overall, his numbers are up only modestly. 13.5 points per game up from 12.7 last season, 1.4 steals up from 1.1, and his rebounding and three point shooting are actually down. But that's part of the sign that Caldwell-Pope is the developmental hump of a young but sub-par player to a bona-fide solid starter.

Caldwell-Pope's three point shot hasn't been falling yet this year, as he's shot just 31 percent even after his 4-7 three point shooting performance against the Washington Wizards. That's part of life for shooters, that there are stretches where the ball isn't falling as well as normally. But in the past, when KCP has fallen into those slumps it has sunk his whole game.

Last season, Caldwell-Pope had two stretches below his season average of 34.5 percent from behind the arc. His true shooting percentage in those two months combined for 48 percent, well below the league average for shooting guards of 53.6 percent.

KCP's current true shooting percentage is still a bit below the league's average, but it's better than his career average. That's a good sign. Without the benefit of his three point shot, he's already more efficient than he has been historically. So what's the difference?

The first piece is getting to the line. His free throw attempt rate (number of free throws per field goal attempt) is up to .190, a new career high. Once he gets to the stripe, he's knocking them down at 83 percent, also a career high. Which is especially promising since KCP's breakout season in college also coincided with a big bump at the line.

The other element boosting Caldwell-Pope's efficiency is his effectiveness near the hoop. It seems like he's doing a much better job attacking the basket, but it may have more to do with the ball falling rather than his regularity attacking the rim. About the same percentage of his shots are coming from within 8 feet as last year, but he's knocking them down at a 63.6 percent clip after making just 50 percent last year.

KCP won't finish the season as a 31 percent three point shooter. It'll even out, likely with a minimum of his 35 percent last season. Once that happens, Caldwell-Pope will see another nice jump in his efficiency. But that his low-water mark is already above his career average is a great starting point.

And that's just one side of the ball. Caldwell-Pope's defense has also reached a new level this season. He's always shown the tools to be an excellent defender with his defense-first mentality and athleticism. But the results haven't always matched the eye-test.

His first two years opposing players actually shot better than their season averages when Caldwell-Pope was defending them, by 2.5 percentage points last year and 3.1 percentage points as a rookie. But so far this season, the opposite is true as KCP is holding them to 2.9 percentage points below their season averages.

Even more importantly, he's taking on opposing teams' best offensive players and shutting them down - especially when it's crunch time.

At the end of the day, you're left with a player helping the Pistons win games. For the first time in his career, he's boasting a significant positive net rating, the difference between his offensive rating and defensive rating. It's up to 7.2, the third best on the team, after sitting at just .5 last season.

Box Score Geek puts him at .143 wins produced per 48 minutes, up from just .45 last year and .44 as a rookie. After spending his first two seasons as a below average player by the metric, KCP has been among the better starters in the league at his position this season.

It's an extremely positive development for one of the Pistons' better young prospects, especially considering the struggles they've had developing their own guard prospects in recent years. KCP is clearly validating his existence as part of the team's young cores, and also offering an interesting exercise in thought.

In a re-draft of the 2013 NBA Draft, Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo would obviously be the top two picks in some order. But who would go at number three?