Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Luke Babbitt re-discovering his game and confidence for Trail Blazers

For his first season and a half in the NBA, Luke Babbitt struggled to find the court for the Trail Blazers, seeing more court time in the NBDL than with Portland. Even when he did get playing time, Babbitt seemed hesitant to shoot the ball, and was largely thinking instead of reacting when on the court. Many, including myself, had doubts about his long-term fit in the league, and wondered if he could ever see consistent playing time for the Blazers.

It's not as if Luke Babbitt didn't have talent. In 17 games with team D-League affiliate Idaho, Babbitt averaged 20.2 points and 7.6 rebounds in 30.1 minutes per night. He shot 50.0% from the field and 40.7% from three, numbers similar to his time in college with Nevada, and one of the reasons why he was selected with the 16th overall pick in the 2010 draft.

Babbitt started to receive consistent playing time for the Blazers shortly after the All-Star break. The team's seven game road trip would signify the end of the current incarnation of the team, as head coach Nate McMillan was fired after a 121-79 loss to the Knicks, and starters Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby were traded earlier that day. Assistant head coach Kaleb Canales took over for McMillan, and the departure of Wallace opened up playing time for Babbitt at both forward positions.

Since the All-Star break, Babbitt has seen his minutes increase, and his production has also seen an uptick. In 16 games, Babbitt has averaged 5.1 points and 2.1 rebounds in just 10.8 minutes per game. While those numbers will hardly blow anyone out of the water, Babbitt has been deadly from behind the three-point line, sinking 20 of 37 three-pointers in that time, for a 54.1% clip.

Canales has been much more willing than his predecessor to give young players minutes, and that will likely benefit the Trail Blazers down the road. Babbitt's confidence was almost non-existent for much of his first two seasons in the league, but Canales' faith in him has been rewarded. Babbitt no longer hesitates to take the open shot, showing a consistent stroke at various spots outside the arc. He's also shown a willingness to work on both the boards and defense. Babbitt still struggles with defensive rotations when the team uses a zone defense, which it often does when playing him at power forward against traditional opposing lineups. He has shown a willingness to crash the boards, scrappiness when fighting for loose balls and is unafraid to use his fouls instead of surrendering easy buckets. Babbitt's game could benefit from continued development of his dribble-drive game, which would be a great compliment to his strong outside shooting.
While Luke Babbitt may never become a starter for the Blazers, he's acquitted himself nicely as a capable "stretch-4" option off the bench, and accurate three-point shooters will always have a place in this league. While he's currently ineligible, Babbitt would lead the NBA in three-point accuracy for any player who has attempted more than 1.0 threes per game played (53.5% for the season). It's amazing what a consistent playing time can do for a player's confidence and subsequent production.

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