On the Inside: Yogi Ferrell

2016-17 Exit Interview: Yogi Ferrell

Mavs G Yogi Ferrell addresses the media for exit interviews.

Over the next several weeks, we will publish end-of-season breakdowns for some of the key Mavericks as part of our “On the Inside” series. Imagine never having seen the players before, and this is the scouting report. Read all of them here.

The modern basketball revolution which has quickly swept across the NBA has left in its wake a few very important questions. Does an inability to shoot the 3-pointer disqualify a big man from playing power forward? Is there really such a thing as “shooting guard” anymore? And, most important of them all, what exactly is a point guard supposed to be these days?

It used to be that point guards simply didn’t shoot the ball. John Stockton never took even 12 shots per game in a single season. Steve Nash never attempted more than 13.6. Jason Kidd took more than 14 attempts just twice in 19 seasons. There are exceptions, of course — before Russell Westbrook averaged 30 and 10, Nate Archibald did it way back in 1973, and Oscar Robertson is 12th on the all-time scoring list. But, generally speaking, point guard has not been a scoring position — until now, that is.

Even three years ago, the thought was that a team could not win a championship with a point guard as its best player and best scorer. Stephen Curry put that notion to bed, and one year ago Kyrie Irving outdueled Curry by averaging 27.1 points in the Finals and hit the game-winner in Game 7. Westbrook averaged 31 points and a triple-double this season, and the MVP will probably go either to him or James Harden, who averaged 29 and 11 running point for the Rockets.

In this new NBA, the point guard position has experienced perhaps the most dramatic evolution of them all. The term “pass-first” point guard has suddenly left the lexicon, outside of Mark Cuban’s tongue-in-cheek description of Tony Romo before he joined the Mavs for the home finale. The closest example is probably Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio, who averaged just 8.7 shots per game, which still tops seven of Stockton’s seasons.

So what, then, is a pure point guard? Is it one who strictly hunts for shots? Is it someone 6-foot-5 or shorter who can handle the ball? Is it someone who can excel in the pick-and-roll? I don’t believe it’s any one of those things, specifically. It’s all of those things, together, and then some.

“We want him to remain aggressive looking to score but just make the meat-and-potatoes plays,” Devin Harris said about Seth Curry late in the season, when the Mavs gave him some run at the 1. “If you see a guy, feed him. Get us in our offense and remain aggressive. It’s not easy for a young guy. But we’re better when he’s scoring.”

In the Mavericks’ offense, a point guard must simply run the offense. That’s a fairly vague responsibility, but at its core, running an offense means the ball-handler has the power to make the right play. Shoot it if you’re open or pass it if someone else is. Play with command, play under control, and keep the ball moving. Think the game, see the game, and make a play. It sounds easy, but it really isn’t: NBA point guards carry more responsibility now than perhaps ever before.

Harris was referring to Seth Curry in the above quote, but he easily could have said the same thing about Yogi Ferrell, as well.

Kia Western Conference Rookie Of The Month: Yogi Ferrell

Yogi Ferrell of the Dallas Mavericks is your Kia Western Conference rookie of the month.

Ferrell, who will turn 24 in May, just completed his first pro season after spending four years at Indiana. Think of how much the NBA game changed while he was in school: During his freshman season, only eight NBA point guards attempted at least 15 shots per game. This season, 13 did. Ferrell himself attempted 11.9 shots per 36 minutes with the Mavericks, which is more than Stockton ever attempted any season in his entire career.

He arrived to the NBA able to score the ball, there was no doubt about that: He finished top-6 in the Big Ten in scoring each of his last three years at Indiana, and he was averaging 18.7 points per game for the D-League’s Long Island Nets before receiving a 10-day offer from the Mavericks. He also demonstrated in four years with the Hoosiers that he was a high-IQ kind of player who could play within a system and keep his teammates involved. He could both score and pass, and the Mavericks asked him to do both right off the bat, and a month later he was the full-time starting point guard and the Western Conference Rookie of the Month.

Ferrell took many strides this season as a developing player, but perhaps his most important improvement came in the closing weeks of the season, when all of a sudden it looked like something clicked and he gained command of the offense. That quality — “command” — is almost purely a theoretical concept. There’s no real way to measure it, but you know it when you see it, and if you watched closely in March and April you saw that Ferrell had it.

Taking command of the offense

Command is more than just handing out assists and playing like a quarterback, but Ferrell did that to a large degree this season. In his 36 appearances for Dallas, the Mavericks were 12-8 when he dished out 5+ assists, per Basketball-Reference. Dallas was 17-19 when he turned it over three or fewer times, but 16-13 when he gave it away twice or less, and a very respectable 10-7 when he made just one or fewer turnovers. But it’s about more than mere numbers in a box score.

Command is about bringing everything together — speed, athleticism, vision, smarts, deception — to put yourself and your teammates in positions to be successful. It’s being in total control. Here’s how Ferrell got there.

There was never a question that Ferrell had next-level quickness. He arrived to the NBA with an explosive first step and above-average straight-line speed which, when used in combination, allow him to get to the rim against pretty much anyone. That gives him the ability to make spectacular plays look kind of easy.

But the NBA is full of players who are at least as nearly as fast as Ferrell, and there are big men and wings who can sniff out smaller, quicker guys who play at one speed. Their anticipation can result in crowded lanes, forced jump passes, active hands in passing lanes, and — especially if the point guard is playing faster than his teammates — icky turnovers.

Ferrell can’t always control where his teammates are or what they’re doing, but it’s his job as a point guard to read the floor and create a good opportunity, even if that means slowing down so that he can take full advantage of a screen, or so the big man can dive to the basket. Not long ago a point guard was the symphony’s conductor, but in today’s NBA he’s the first-chair violin, floating on top of the supporting players. His sound must soar above everyone else’s, but he’s still got to stay in time with the tubas. It’s not an easy job.

Very early in his time with the Mavericks, you could see the gears spinning as he’d make reads. You knew he was trying to make plays — that he was trying not only to look for his own shots, but to set up his teammates for easy shots — but at the highest level of competition in the world, you can’t afford to over-think. You can’t make an early pass to a big man 15 feet from the basket just because his man takes one step toward you.

Now, to be sure, the “right basketball play” is ultimately to send a pass to Dwight Powell. And, to be fair, this was only Ferrell’s second game as a Maverick, just 48 hours after he signed a 10-day contract. But the pass simply arrived too early, forcing the big man into a situation where he had to collect a pass on the move, take a dribble, and put up a contested shot. (Ferrell scored 19 that night in a Mavericks win.) As the season progressed, and as he gained more experience, he learned mixing in a hesitation dribble and simply slowing down by a step or two can open things up so much more.

This is the same exact play run two months later. Watch as Ferrell takes a slight hesitation dribble and one more step into the lane to lull the defenders to sleep only for a fraction of a second. That quick herky-jerky move gave Nerlens Noel all the time he needed to get to the rim, and by that time both defenders had already committed to Ferrell.

Ferrell has lethal speed, but super-quick players don’t always need to get into the teeth of the defense to make a play. Sometimes, using the threat of a blow-by is enough to draw the center from the basket and gain the upper hand. That’s command.

Command is about manipulation, changing speeds, and using a combination of patience, cleverness, and aggression to complement your physical gifts. It’s when your brain, not your foot speed or your vertical leap, beats opponents. It’s when you move from the passenger’s seat into the driver’s seat.

Command is driving into a crowded lane against Giannis Antetokounmpo — perhaps the most physically imposing wing in the NBA — and attracting unbelievable amounts of attention to set up Harrison Barnes for a dunk.

In the play above, Ferrell uses an early Dirk Nowitzki screen to breeze into the lane six seconds into the shot clock. It would’ve been easy for him to launch toward the rim and seek out a foul, but trying to do that against two 7-footers is a risky proposition. Instead, Ferrell hesitates slightly to get Antetokounmpo on his hip, then knifes past Thon Maker and makes a banzai charge directly into Khris Middleton, which opens up Barnes under the rim. That’s a superior basketball play for a guy listed generously as 6 feet tall. There was never a chance that Ferrell was going to shoot the ball: He made that play for the team.

Why is command so important? It’s what separates similarly sized J.J. Barea from most other backup point guards in the NBA. Barea is a guy who is always under complete control of the offense, and that more than anything has helped him overcome his relative size deficiency for a decade. Even if he wasn’t making shots on any given night this season, the Mavericks were usually good when he played. For the third straight year, Dallas had a higher offensive rating with Barea on the floor than without him. Following his return from injury on March 10, the Mavs scored 109.5 points per 100 possessions with Barea on the floor versus just 97.1 points per 100 when he was on the bench. It’s not always reflected so obviously in on-off splits, but that gives you an idea of just how good Barea is at running the show, and Ferrell appears to be developing into that kind of player.

3-point threat

The rookie is quickly evolving into a legit NBA point guard. As he continues to gain command, he’ll be able to show off his most devastating weapon: his 3-point shot. Of the 24 rookies who attempted at least 100 3s this season, Ferrell finished fifth in 3-point percentage, at 38.6. He connected on a solid 40.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys. He was terrific at catching and shooting on the move, as well.

The most potent element of his shooting game, though, comes in transition, when he can race up the floor, stop on a dime, and let ’em fly.

You’ve got to be careful throwing around this comparison, but given his size, his shooting form, and his self-confidence, Ferrell is capable of having Westbrook-type flashes on the floor. He’s a point guard whose athleticism and occasionally irrational confidence allow him to make plays other guys his size simply cannot. In the sequence below, he plays a long outlet pass like a defensive back, then gets back down the floor and steps into a straightaway 3, holding his follow-through until it finds the net.

As teams wise up and begin to close out on him harder in the open floor or defend him more tightly in half-court situations, that can free up his driving game. He showed some potential as a finisher around the rim this season, mostly when sharing the floor with Nowitzki to help alleviate some pressure from opposing big men. As teams begin to focus more on him, Ferrell will have to use screens more effectively to create space and get to his spots. But he’s already shown he’s capable of figuring out the hardest part.

The long-range shot is more important than the around-the-rim stuff, though, at least in his immediate future. He came to the NBA with an “NBA skill,” as Rick Carlisle likes to call it. Young players must establish themselves as soon as possible, in any possible way. Ferrell’s nine-trey explosion on a Friday night in Portland gave him a reputation as a dead-eye 3-point shooter, and he backed it up for the rest of the season; he connected on 40.3 percent of his triples for the Mavericks, on 149 attempts. Below is a chart showing the most prolific 3-point shooters among rookies from Jan. 29, the date Ferrell debuted for Dallas.

Player Team 3-Pointers Made 3-Point Percentage
Buddy Hield Pelicans/Kings 74 41.1
Jamal Murray Nuggets 62 35.4
Yogi Ferrell Mavericks 60 40.3
Denzel Valentine Bulls 52 36.9
Dario Saric 76ers 50 28.4

Combined with his pesky full-court defense and ability to dodge screens on defense, Ferrell already has a defined skillset with plenty of room for growth. That’s what you hope to see in any rookie.

His shooting and high basketball IQ earned him a trip to the league, and later a starting job. But whether or not he ever becomes a full-time starter, his command and emerging ability to take control of the offense could make him a productive, valuable point guard in this league for many seasons to come.