Come with me for a moment down the rabbit hole and into the fabulously surreal small sample size theatre. This is the place where we cut off players’ splits at just the right time to prove our point, where we are ready to give JR Smith a huge contract this summer after merely a month of him playing like he’s not JR Smith, where we judge a players’ value not just on singular games, but on a play by play basis. Small sample size theatre can be fun as all hell with all its arbitrary nonsense, but occasionally, if you look at the right places and you stare at the numbers long enough (god only knows I have), you can find something meaningful. Case in point: the magnificent eight game stretch that Evan Fournier has just put together.
As is George Karl’s want, Fournier’s rookie status automatically relegated him to only the most blowout-y of mop-up duties. Not unlike the similarly dejected dreadlocked Khal of the Nuggets’ Dothraki horde, who received the same regulatory rookie benching at the start of last year, it took an injury to uncover the hidden French gem. The brief loss of Ty Lawson and the tragic long-term bereavement of Danilo Gallinari has lead Fournier to take over their combined duties as both a secondary ball handler and a spot up shooter.
Per Synergy Sports, Fournier is currently, and amazingly, first in the league in points per possession as the pick and role ball handler (1.16) and third as a spot up shooter (1.43). Again this is on the extremely tiny sample size of 38 and 37 possessions respectively, and on the meager total of 66 field goal attempts combined from both the pick and roll and spot up shooting. His ranking will obviously go down as his attempts, minutes, and usage rate improves but as the tape shows, his effectiveness as a shooter and his adeptness in the pick and roll especially, is no fluke.
Fournier’s biggest knock coming into the draft was his lack of athleticism, a trait that is almost a necessity for a primary ball handler in a league full of athletic freaks. One’s ability to get to the rim is predicated on how well they can operate in the pick and roll and, for the athletically disinclined ones, how well they can turn the corner on the hedging big.
In both clips Founier is able to turn the corner effectively, get the inside lane to the basket and finish at the rim. This may seem simple enough but this is a make or break ability that is nearly impossible to instill in un-athletic guards, a fact Greivis Vasquez has spent the past three seasons tragically coming to grips with. However he has not just shown a grasp of the fundamentals, but also possesses a deceptive handle and an almost loping gait that, if you squint just right, looks incredibly (and comfortingly) similar to Gallo’s.
Here Fournier uses the space Chandler’s half screen gives him to fake out CJ Watson with a hesitation dribble, crisscrosses him and Reggie Evans, fakes out the fumbling Evans with a look off at a spotting up Wilson Chanlder, gets into the paint and finishes just high enough off the glass to avoid Brook Lopez’s outstretched arm. The sequence is a thing of poetry that speaks volumes of Fournier’s knowledge and calm control when operating as a ball handler (Synergy categorizes this as a pick and roll with Koufos but it is more of a pick and pop with Chandler).
Even more impressive than his capabilities in the pick and roll is how deadly a spot up shooter Fournier is, and the resulting offensive space that comes from it. Per Synergy, Fournier is shooting nearly 59 percent in spot up attempts, and 54.2 percent from three. A quick look at his shot chart might show why he has been so insanely efficient, not just in spot up scenarios, but overall.
The man does not take mid-range jump shots. Out of the 70 total shots he has taken in this eight game stretch, only three of them have been outside the paint and below the three point line. This shot chart is the artistic personification of what George Karl wants his offense to be, tons of threes and shots at the rim.
Not only is his spot up lethality an obvious floor spacing help, it also helps Fournier to continue to use his deceptive handle to attack the rim. Defenders are forced to respect Fournier’s jump shooting and can ill afford to give him any space, something the French guard takes full advantage of.
Poor Luke Babbit. Fournier easily blows by him on the initial drive, forces the defense to collapse around him, and delivers a pass to a wide open Lawson. Lawson, who has yet to fully shake an early season tendency to pass up open threes, passes it back to Fournier in the right corner. Babbit again is forced to close out, and gets dribbled around with embarrassing ease as Fournier makes his way to the basket and eventually finished the play off with a layup.
Fournier is still a rookie and, this being the first eight games of meaningful play in his NBA career, improvements are obviously needed. Particularly his unfortunate tendency to round the corner in the pick and roll with no idea what he is going to do, a habitual rookie error that more often than not leads to a turnover.
That said, the limited sample we’ve seen of Fournier has been excellent and just what the Nuggets needed heading into the playoffs. The loss of Gallo is devastating and potentially contention-killing, but the revelation of Fournier’s skill as a pick and roll operator and spot up shooter helps mitigate the loss. The next season begins now and the time for small sample size theatre has ended. The postseason is notorious for its ability to expose faulty trends and player’s brief charades. In the next coming weeks, Fournier’s NBA career will begin in earnest, and how he responds may be the difference for the Nuggets’ playoff hopes.