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What’s the story behind Jalen Green’s struggles?

The Rockets’ star sophomore has had his issues this season. Why?

NBA: Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder
Opposing defenses aren’t making life easier on Green
Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Jalen Green isn’t having as bad of a season as you think. Let’s start there.

He really isn’t. This will be a stat-heavy piece, but it doesn’t even have to be. A volume-scoring sophomore has increased his volume at the expense of his efficiency. This should not come as a shock.

On some level, Rockets fans are spoiled to the core. We’re not used to watching a 20-year-old whose primary focus is on getting buckets. Why is he posting his outfit on Instagram after having a dismal shooting night? Sure, Harden was at the club with one of Lil Baby or DaBaby, but he was one of the most efficient offensive engines in league history. Shouldn’t this kid be at the gym?

We don’t completely know what Jalen Green does in his free time. I’m not going to go total apologist here, either. He needs a deeper bag. His three-point percentage needs to tick up if he’s ever going to be an elite player. There are some valid concerns.

Still, most of the discourse revolves around shallow platitudes. He doesn’t have that dog in him. Paris fashion week. He’s a selfish player. None of these are very empirically-driven assessments of why Green is so inconsistent.

Here’s my attempt at offering one.

Why is Jalen Green struggling?

In simple terms, the numbers yield two explanations. Green has altered his shot diet, and he’s being defended differently.

That dietary change was recommended by ten out of ten professionals. Last season, Green was a two-level scorer. Granted, those levels were the two levels you’d prefer to see him operating in: at the rim, and beyond the arc.

Sure, his game was more analytically friendly. Divorced from the numbers, Green’s shot selection had its warts. He was too thin to regularly finish inside, and while Green is a good natural shooter, it’s not his gift either.

Green’s gift is his first step. It’s likely in the 0.1st percentile. He’s been able to get to whatever spot he wanted from the moment he stepped into the league, but actually converting the shots he created has been a struggle.

It still is. On the other hand, Green is a three-level scorer now. Per, Green attempted 0.4 field goals per game from 10-14 feet in his rookie campaign. That number is up to 1.0 this season.

That shift justifies itself. Per BBall Index, Green was in the 2.58th percentile in Mid-Range Pull-Up Shot Making last season. He’s in the 65.75th percentile this year.

(For, ironically, the sake of efficiency, note that the rest of the stats cited here come from BBall Index, and are filtered to include players of Green’s archetype: Shot Creators, Slashers, Primary Ball-Handlers, and Secondary Ball-Handlers).

These are all encouraging long-term indicators. They may not be doing his efficiency any favors this year. Green has slipped from the 26.7nd to the 19.61st percentile in Floater Efficiency.

Green is also on the ball more. That’s another development we all wanted. In his rookie year, he was in the 26.72nd percentile in time off-ball: that number has slipped to 19.61st.

As a rookie, Jalen was mostly used as a safety valve. Remember our gratuitous griping about how frequently he was camped in the corner? This year, his usage reflects that of a more prominent offensive option.

Opposing defenses have taken note.

Jalen Green is being defended harder

Let’s just breeze through the numbers here.

Green was in the 12.96th percentile in Three-Point Openness last year, and he’s in the 6.61st this season.

Here’s a more significant number. He was in the 81.02nd percentile in Guarded By Matchup Difficulty last year. He’s in the 90.96th percentile this season.

This doesn’t require a statistician. Defenses have keyed in on Green - they’re making his life more difficult. Of course, if you’re a seasoned enough hater, you’re already preparing your rebuttal:

How does that justify his struggles? Doesn’t that happen to all sophomores?

Well, no. Let’s look at Devin Booker. As a sophomore, he was scoring 22.1 points per game on a 53.1 True Shooting % (TS%). This season, Green is averaging 21.5 points per game on that exact same percentage.

Of course, Green’s inefficiency is more jarring compared to his peers. The league average TS% in Booker’s 2016-17 sophomore season was 55.2. This season, it’s 57.9. At the same time, Booker saw his Matchup Difficulty jump from the 90.22nd percentile to the 95.01st.

In other words, Booker had a significantly less steep adjustment to make. That’s a partial explanation. We also have to consider that Booker’s backcourt mate was Eric Bledsoe in his prime. In other words, a point guard.

Yes, the 2016-17 Suns were bad. They weren’t these Rockets, either. All told, this comparison does nothing to take away from Booker’s greatness. His skill development since he’s come into the NBA has been a marvel to watch.

It does provide optimism about Green. It’s also worth noting that Green has almost half of a season to get his numbers up to Booker’s sophomore standard.

I could look at Beal, LaVine, and Edwards too, but this piece is already too math-y. Let’s use a broader scope.

Jalen Green will (basically) be OK

Let’s be perfectly clear. Green has not had the type of sophomore leap that usually portends an MVP-caliber player.

Green isn’t likely to be an MVP-caliber player. Go browse winners of the award on a yearly basis. They’ve basically been big men, two-way wings, offensive engines, or some hybrid of those archetypes for a long time. The last volume-scoring guard to win the award was Kobe Bryant in 2008.

Green will probably be roughly as good as Devin Booker. He’s got significant athletic advantages and a little less natural skill in comparison. If that prediction holds true, it easily justifies a second-overall pick.

That’s even true if Evan Mobley is the next Kevin Garnett. It’s entirely possible that he has the better career, but the Rockets thought it was wise to build their offense before they built their defense. There’s logic in that. It doesn’t really matter where Green goes in redrafts: all that matters is whether he provides the average value of a second-overall pick.

So far, he’s on pace to do exactly that. He’ll just have to keep making adjustments.

(And maybe lay off the social media just a little this summer?)