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Ball Don't Lie

After years of lacking depth, the NBA’s shooting guard ranks are rife with quality performers

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Klay Thompson, Monta Ellis, and Arron Afflalo (Getty Images)

For those of us that grew up watching the NBA in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, the shooting guard position was a revered slot. Michael Jordan was cracking way at the idea that wing players couldn’t lead teams to championships, and the position featured a ridiculously deep cast that included Clyde Drexler, Joe Dumars, Steve Smith, Ron Harper, Reggie Miller, Drazen Petrovic, Dan Majerle, Latrell Sprewell, Mitch Richmond, Allan Houston and a host of others that I’m sure you’ll remind me of in the comment section.

Upon Jordan’s second retirement in 1998, the ranks were a little thinned out. By the time the middle part of the last decade turned up, Kobe Bryant was leading the charge as a worthy successor to Jordan’s off guard thrown, but behind him. Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen … maybe Joe Johnson? Michael Redd, for a little while? Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson? Could we call Manu Ginobili a shooting guard?

Certainly not the depth at the position as we saw in years before, as the NBA shifted to include big men with shooting range not unlike a swingman, and a point guard-heavy attack in the wake of increased clampdowns on hand-checking.

2013-14 rolls around, and things are getting better. Led by increased production from several improving contributors, the position is getting deeper. Yes, the shooting guard designation may be the NBA’s least consequential, but that hasn’t stopped players like Arron Afflalo from turning career years, Klay Thompson growing at a fantastic rate, and Monta Ellis finally coming into his own in a Dallas rebirth. Add in Wade’s continued presence, the eventual return of Kobe, and mainstays like James Harden, Kevin Martin, Eric Gordon, a youngster like Bradley Beal, the improving Wesley Matthews and hoped-for return to healthy form for Jimmy Butler, and things are looking up.

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Of course, nothing can compare to Jordan’s era, one that saw several All-NBA First Team-styled off guards miss out on that ranking (Sprewell, as opposed to Drexler, Dumars or Miller, was voted onto the First Team in Jordan’s first full year of retirement in 1993-94), but the idea that someone like Afflalo could be head of Wade in terms of All-Star consideration in spite of watching opposing defenses load up on Orlando’s top scorer nicely is fantastic news.

His efficiency hasn’t dropped despite all the attention, and Josh Robbins at the Orlando Sentinel documented the media's talk with Afflalo on Thursday, asking if he thinks he can keep up his 54 percent shooting mark from long range:

"To be honest, I don't even think about it. I'm at a stage right now where I just try to take the best shot available. I worked really hard this offseason on my 3, being able to shoot them all throughout the perimeter, trying to become a better free-throw shooter, a better post player.

"So, really, I don't really think about if my 3 is going because there's no pressure for me to perform at the 3-point line every night. There's other places on the court that I feel like I can be effective. So if I'm hitting the 3, I'm going to shoot it and continue to shoot it throughout that game and hopefully shoot it at a high clip."

Afflalo is averaging about the same minutes per game and shots per minute as he did last year, but his massive jump in both field goal percentage (43.9 to 49.4) and three-point percentage (up from 30 percent) has him averaging 22.5 points per game. And though he’s the go-to guy on a struggling Magic team, Arron is barely turning the ball over, and not forcing post ups and drives as often as he did last season.

Entering his third year, Golden State’s Klay Thompson had to up his marks from the field, or else. As SB Nation’s Tom Ziller pointed out before the season, Thompson has been the epitome of a “pure scorer” so far into his two-plus years career, something that isn’t really all that great a tag considering this reflects a paucity of rebounds, assists, steals or blocks in a player’s orthodox box score. Thompson did well shoot over 40 percent from long range in his first two seasons, but he seemed to have more potential than a poor-man’s Allan Houston, another “pure scorer” that really didn’t do too much else.

This year Thompson’s marks have shot up to 52 percent from the field and nearly 49 percent from deep. He’s tossing in 20.6 points per game, the assists and rebounds (just 4.4 combined in nearly 37 fast paced minutes … yikes) aren’t much, but he’s also rarely turning it over.

It’s this sort of fantastic play that has led Warriors coach Mark Jackson to call Thompson “a top-five [shooting] guard in this league,” something that may seem out of sorts when considering Bryant and Wade’s looming presence, to say nothing of the younger guns, but he may not be far off. At least so far in 2013-14, he’s right.

And then there’s Monta Ellis, rightfully derided for years for his terrible shot selection and non-existent play in any other field that didn’t involve terrible, terrible shot selection. The new Dallas Maverick has been a revelation in his first year with the team, as he resembles the sort of dashing in-and-out guard that we fell in love with over his first three seasons in Golden State, and not the chucker that showed up in years after.

Ellis is posting career highs in True Shooting Percentage, he’s cut his three-pointers back by nearly a shot and a half per 36 minutes, he finally getting to the line far more often, and his Player Efficiency Rating is tops in his career. Monta Ellis is playing sound, efficient basketball. Something’s gone terribly wrong.

Deadspin’s Tom Ley seems to agree, so he dug in further:

In short: Ellis is running more pick and rolls than he has in a long time, and he's been an absolute monster while doing so. According to Synergy Sports, 44 percent of Ellis's shots this year have come in pick and roll situations. That's up 12 percent from last season, 14 percent from 2011-12, and 18 percent from 2010-11 and 2009-10. This is great news for Ellis and the Mavericks, because so far this year he's scoring 0.98 points per possession on pick and roll plays, good for the fifth-best mark in the league. That would have been good for sixth-best last year, and this year it puts him right in front of Steph Curry, who is scoring 0.96 points per possession out of the pick and roll.

With a dozen games' worth of hindsight to work with, it's obvious why Monta's been so deadly efficient on pick and roll plays for Dallas. For starters, he fits into this Mavericks roster much better than he did with the supporting casts he had in Golden State and Milwaukee. Dirk Nowitzki's ability to make shots from all over the court—and more importantly, keep defenders home on him, away from the rim—make him an ideal pick and roll partner for Monta. It's a big step up from Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders. Ellis also doesn't have to compete for shots and possessions with his partner in the back court; unlike Brandon Jennings and Steph Curry, Jose Calderon isn't a point guard who has to have the ball in his hands at all times in order to be effective.

Calderon has also enjoyed a very a solid year despite unexpected turnover woes, basically eschewing two-point shots and bombing away at a marvelous 46 percent clip from long range. The Mavericks are working with an 8-4 record, and in Ellis keeps this up, he may not only be enough of a spark to push Dallas back into the playoffs, but he also could regain some credibility around the league long enough to lure a star free agent to Dallas this summer.

At a position that seemed kind of pointless and in the way just a few years ago, this sort of depth at the off guard slot is encouraging. Yes, some of these fantastic numbers can be attributed to small sample sizes and hot starts the league hasn’t caught up with yet, but we don’t mind. It’s nice to see Kobe, Wade, and even James Harden get a little competition.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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