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Jarell Martin Should Start Game Three: Deep Dive

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Grizzlies fans have so little to cling to as the season nears its close. So let's spend a few Vines and a few thousand words on Jarell Martin.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

I began writing this piece last June. It started out as a reaction piece to the NBA Draft. But you know what they say about best laid plans. Martin's foot injury coupled with the birth of my first child were a double whammy on both the relevance and my time to write about Jarell Martin.

I'm not a scout. I stopped watching college basketball years ago. So when I was critical of the Grizzlies drafting Martin last year, that criticism was isolated to the only context I pay attention to: statistical projection models.

That's right. In this case, I actually don't watch the games. Spreadsheets only. And spreadsheets were generally not kind to Jarell.

Despite the consensus of publicly available draft models grading Jarell as a 2nd round prospect, the Grizzlies stated numerous times after the draft that their black box internal analytics rated Jarell Martin quite highly. Rather than cast doubt on this claim, I took it seriously. While the consensus among public draft models was not kind to Martin, there were outliers that rated him as a 1st rounder. I contacted the architects of the two draft models that rated Martin the highest, and asked them why they thought Martin was a good prospect.

And the two guys I talked with...they really know numbers. And, interestingly, the methods behind their models are very different. This is one thing that people both understand, and don't. Numbers are a starting point. They are not the entire picture, but they are a very important part of the picture. More on that in a bit.

The first was Steve Shea, who runs a very good basketball analytics blog. His model rated Martin as the 15th best prospect in last year's draft class. He takes a different, and refreshingly simple approach to modeling NBA draft prospects. Where other models weight college statistics that they feel translate better to the NBA, Shea's model holds all stats in equal regard. Instead of being selective as to which statistics are more valuable, it places higher significance on the best games a player played.

In this way, Shea's model is looking, perhaps, to quantify that unquantifiable term known as "ceiling". Shea explained it to me this way:

If we only look at a player's average production at season's end, his good and bad performances can average to look mediocre.  In other words, the player's inconsistency can blur their true potential.  To get around this, I use full game log data rather than just season averages.  Then, my model systematically drops poor performances from the calculation.  I only look at the player's better performances.  CPR measures how excellent a player can be on his good days.

Martin's best days in his sophomore season were really good. Shea notes Martin rates well for two reasons:

First, his rebounding in college was excellent.  He had 4 games with at least 14 rebounds.  (Remember that CPR is looking at the player's better games in each stat and not season averages.)  Martin grabbed at least 5 offensive rebounds in 7 games.

The second reason for Martin's ranking is that he's solid in most other categories, really everywhere except 3P and FT shooting.  He had 12 games with at least 2 steals.  He had a 6 block game.

Rebounding, steals, and blocks are common recurrences in statistical models for NBA draft prospects. Steals and blocks are commonly used as markers of predictable NBA athleticism, and rebounding has proven to be a very translatable stat as well.

In short, if a draft prospect rebounds and creates turnovers in college, he can reasonably be expected to continue that in the NBA.

The second model that liked Martin was created by Jesse Fischer, who runs the blog ToTheMean.com. They did this cool visualization that compiled a ton of draft models from around the Internet in one place, and compared their effectiveness relative to each other.

Jesse's model is actually a compilation of over fifty other models, sort of like a mutual fund for draft models. His model rated Martin as a fringe first rounder - 24th overall in the class - almost exactly where he was drafted. (The caveat here is that Fischer's model does not rate international prospects, so Martin probably rated a little lower than 24th once accounting for that.)

Fischer doesn't like to reveal too much about his method, but he did note that the main reason his model liked Jarell was not some mind-blowing secret, but a tried and true axiom of scouting. Jarell got better. Here's Fischer explaining:

{Martin's} freshman season didn't translate into NBA success as much as his sophomore one did. This is even while accounting for age/year in college. I.e. The exact same stats for a freshman may show NBA value but may not for a sophomore. He took a bigger jump this last year than most. Generally players should stay constant in value throughout their college career.

One expects players to improve from their freshman to sophomore year, but Martin improved way more than expected. Perhaps that is because he hasn't been playing basketball that long, but making that leap in logic is probably not supportable. We like to think of improvement as a nice round bell curve, but the truth is that every player is different, and the situations they are placed in are different, and that leads us all the way back to the present.

Jarell should start Game 3 of the playoffs.

I buried the lede, but there it is. He should start. The Spurs are lethal when you let them leave an offensive player unguarded, and that's what they're doing to Birdman. And not to take anything away from Jarell but, like, why NOT start him at this point?

I came away from those talks ten months ago encouraged. Billed as a hybrid forward able to play both the 3 and 4, I started to see Jarell as more of a straight 4, with enough tools in his belt to never have to develop a 3 point shot. Quite a bit of my frustration stemmed from thinking of him as a stretch four. But if you shift your focus to Martin becoming a "playmaking four", a player who dives into the space defenses leave for him, rather than shooting from distance, then his career isn't dependent on a 3 point shot.

My thinking has sharpened in the last ten months. Jarell isn't even a playmaking four. He's a playmaking small ball center. Basketball Reference estimates that Jarell has played 66% of his minutes at center in smaller lineups, and this move has allowed him to exploit bigger, slower players with his quick first step.

A faceup game is nice, but it is merely a building block for Jarell's future. Can he hold up on the boards vs taller players? His defensive rebounding numbers are anemic, however the team cleans the defensive glass about as effectively with him on the court as off (77% on court vs 75% off). Team rebound is usually a better indicator of individual rebounding prowess, and the number of minutes he's played (less than 400) is still too few to paint an accurate picture here. Combine these numbers with his good college rebounding numbers and I'm encouraged that Jarell will be able to do enough as a small ball center to not be exploitable on the defensive glass night to night. The open question here is if he will need to be surrounded by effective defensive rebounders to be effective himself, because that would limit the types of lineups you could play him in.

Meanwhile, Jarell has proven to be effective on the offensive boards. Any double digit OREB% is strong, and Jarell's 11.2% is identical to Zach Randolph's career rate. The Grizzlies' overall OREB% spikes from 24.5% to 31.1% when Martin is on the court.

Early on I was concerned with Jarell's ability to finish over and around defenders, but almost half of Jarell's shots come inside 3 feet, and his 57% finishing rate on those shots is good enough. My own eye test has noted some improvement in this respect, specifically that Jarell has a canny ability to adjust his body in the air and change the angle of his shot to work around taller players.

In the above Vine, Jarell is pinned at an awkward angle, and while Doug McDermott is not a stellar defender, this is the type of finish that can cause a young player can rush or concentrate solely on drawing the foul. Jarell already knows he has to come to a complete stop as he is catching so he doesn't get pinned behind the backboard, and the small double clutch allows him to absorb the contact he knows is coming.

Finally, Jarell has displayed surprising quickness defending in space, and that has compensated for the fact that he doesn't really know where to be yet, or exactly the best angle to take to get there.

In this Vine Jarell switches onto Tony Parker, and takes a great angle to cut off the drive into the paint. Then Martin shadows him out to the three point line, and even causes a dribble off the leg. Even if Martin does everything right, Parker wins this matchup most of the time. But Jarell's footwork, his ability to shuffle out in space, rather than lunge, was something I didn't think he was capable of.

You can see the exact moment when Jarell realizes he needs to close out Boris Diaw. Thankfully, either an injury or a surplus of crepes has rendered Diaw a little less able to exploit the space, and Jarell is able to not only close him out, but box him out with a strong bang after the shot goes up. This is the other reason I'm willing to overlook Jarell's rebounding numbers. Dude is difficult to move. He plays stronger. Just watch how much harder it is for other players to move him compared to JaMychal Green. Green doesn't have the natural strength Martin does, which is why Martin is often left guarding the centers. That's simply not in Green's toolbox.

With all of that said, Jarell has weaknesses. Can he do enough on defense either protecting the rim or switching on the perimeter? The former is probably not in the cards for a forward playing center, and the latter requires a defensive awareness that Jarell has not quite displayed yet. You don't react to a screen by switching. You know the screen is coming and know the plan is to switch before it gets there.

Though not a screen and roll, Jarell gets hung up on screens quite often.

Jarell has only shot more than 7 FGs in six of the 29 games he's played. Some of this is a dearth of minutes, and a rookie playing with mostly veterans, but you'd like to see a less deferential Martin next year.

Jarell can exploit centers with his quickness, but how will he adjust if the other team puts a small on him? He doesn't have a post game. Will he crash the boards enough - will he realize that the only way for him to be effective is to crash the boards - to counter the smaller player? Will Memphis have enough shooting to punish the other team for putting their center on another player? {Hrdlicka note: I hate to belabor the point, but this is another reason why Marc has to shoot threes next year.}

And even though I'm encouraged by Martin's finishing at the rim, he's far from elite and contact often results in a foul, instead of an "And One". 57% is about league average, and you'd like to see that number creep towards 65%.

These are open questions for Martin, ones that we will only know the answer to years from now, after thousands of minutes, not mere hundreds.

But it is safe to say he is not a bust. Jarell is an NBA player. He has specific strengths that he should be able to carry night to night, which is more than you can say for most guys drafted outside the lottery.

If I could tell Jarell to work on any specific skill it would be passing. If he can develop the court awareness to know how the defense will react to him after he catches the ball on a pick and roll, then the entire offense changes for Memphis. Memphis has so few effective passers, and they will need to take the load off of Conley and Gasol next year. If you can get a skill like passing from an unlikely position like power forward/center, it becomes a weapon instead of an expectation. Said another way, if Jarell can hold up rebounding the ball as a center, finish decently at the rim, AND know how and when to move the ball after getting by his man, then there's a chance that he can carry the second unit offense for stretches.

But we're not there yet. Where we are right now is that Jarell Martin is better than Birdman.

Look at that sentence. That's the 2015-2016 Grizzlies.

Editor's Note: WELP.  Jarell Martin has been ruled out for the remainder of the season.