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NBA players are adapting to survive

Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez (11) shoots over Atlanta Hawks forward Ersan Ilyasova (7) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, April 2, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Woolly mammoth, saber-toothed tiger, dodo, moa. As any Charles Darwin acolyte would tell you, it is not the strongest species that survives, but the most adaptable one. In a rapidly evolving NBA ecosystem where spacing is paramount to a team’s success, the low-post big man stands at an interesting inflection point in league history. In order to avoid a similar fate to those extinct creatures listed above, many big men have had to adapt their games and gravitate farther away from the rim.

We already witnessed examples of such drastic changes last season. Per Basketball Reference, below is the list of players who both attempted at least 100 3s and took at least 20 percent of their field goal attempts behind the arc for the first time in their careers.

Brook Lopez
Marreese Speights
Marc Gasol
Jabari Parker
JaMychal Green
Jonathon Simmons

Jonathan Simmons is on the list due to a limited sample size of just two seasons and having barely missed the cutoff thresholds in his rookie year. Everyone always naturally assumed Jabari Parker would migrate outside the arc. However, the rest of the guys are all big men who recognized the need to adapt and ventured into foreign territory on the court in order to maintain a significant foothold in the sport.

Brook Lopez went from attempting a career-high of 14 3s in a season to hoisting over five long balls per game. Likewise, Marc Gasol made the leap from a high of 17 attempts in a season to over three tries per contest. Marreese Speights, who did not attempt a single 3-pointer a decade ago in his two years as a Florida Gator, took more than half of his field-goal attempts from downtown last season. JaMychal Green spent more years at Alabama (4) than made 3-pointers (3) as a member of the Crimson Tide.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the transformation from these four players is how effective they were in the shared new role. The quarter combined to shoot 36.7 percent behind the arc, above last season’s league-average mark of 35.8; Lopez was the worst of the group at a still-respectable 34.6 percent on a Brooklyn Nets team largely bereft of outside shooting. It’s one thing to throw up shots from anywhere on the court, but coaches will let players continue doing it only if enough of them go in the basket. Kudos to these players for putting in the work to add a new dimension to their games that defenses now have to account for on any given night.

Who will form the next batch of NBA giants to migrate outside the 3-point arc? Dwight Howard, who has sunk five triples in his career, has been seriously working on 3-pointers this summer. Given that Howard has never been even a serviceable mid-range shooter, I’m not too optimistic about his chances.

Maybe Timofey Mozgov, who tantalized Laker fans with a stellar shooting session last fall, will follow in Brook Lopez’s footsteps and spread his wings under Kenny Atkinson’s tutelage in Brooklyn. Mozgov has shot better than 40 percent on shots between 16 feet and the 3-point line in his career, so a few feet more certainly seems plausible.

Attempts to adapt aren’t necessarily limited to big men. For what feels like the 10th time, Charlotte wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is changing his entire shot. Will this be the year a shooting coach finds the key to transforming the former lottery pick into a dangerous 3-and-D player? History and nearly every Kidd-Gilchrist jumper ever say no, but it won’t stop the Hornets from trying.

Surely, other guys will come completely out of left field and surprise us this season. Hassan Whiteside has said this summer that he “might shoot a 3 every once and a while.” The game is changing and as a matter of due course, so are its players. The NBA’s own version of natural selection should be fascinating to watch.



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