“I think [the Jazz] already have a superstar in development. His name is Derrick Favors.”
I wrote that on January 8th, 2014. The premise met a healthy dose of skepticism. I suspect as I revisit the theme, the sentiment is not so outlandish as many found it nearly two years ago. By nearly any metric, 14 games into the season, Derrick Favors has been one of the elite players in the NBA.
The following chart ranks the early season’s best of the best1. Only players who outrank Favors in at least one of the ranked categories made the list–which means Favors outstrips every NBA player not on the list by every single included metric.
Favors’ impressiveness cannot be overstated. From per-minute productivity to tallying wins, no Jazz player has posted numbers like these throughout a season since Karl Malone and John Stockton.
By simple average rank, Favors is a top-10 player this season. Even if one quibbles with such a reductive assessment, consider that he ranks 15th or better in every category. Consider the other players who can say that: Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Paul George, Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, and Blake Griffin. That’s five undeniable superstars, a clear star on the rise (Leonard), and a 29-year-old All-Star playing leaps and bounds better than ever before (Lowry)2.
Advanced metrics say Favors has been better than Andre Drummond and his 18 and 18 nights, better than DeMarcus Cousin’s 28 and 11, and better than Damian Lillard’s 25/7/5. It seems counter-intuitive for someone averaging a healthy, but not eye-popping, 16 points and 8.5 rebounds. But Favors’ excellence requires closer study.
To begin with, he’s the best roll man in the league this year. The best. #1.
In 45 such possessions3, good for 13th most in the league, he is scoring 1.13 points per possession. That’s second only to Chris Bosh (1.18) among league leaders. Moreover, among league leaders Favors boasts the highest score frequency (55.6%), the greatest and-one frequency (4.4%), and the highest effective field goal percentage (60%).
Most impressively, he’s doing this with only average pick and roll ball handlers. This skill alone could make Favors an MVP candidate if paired with an elite pick and roll orchestrator4.
But Favors’ value is much broader than merely his lethal pick and roll game.
His post game is extremely solid despite still being in development. In his 54 post possessions used (16th in the league), he earns 0.94 points per possession and scores 48.1% of the time. Both marks are superior to Jahlil Okafor, Al Jefferson, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin, Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond, LeMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony, and Zach Randolph.
His efficiency on the offensive glass is ridiculous: 1.42 points per possession (3rd among league leaders), a score frequency of 73.7% (also 3rd), and a crazy 10.5% and-one frequency (2nd).
Favors brutalizes teams as a traditional big should: by punishing them on the glass and applying a capable post game. Within five feet of the hoop, he’s converting a tidy 64% of his attempts. Yet it is his improved shooting that has made him arguably the most important offensive cog in Quin Snyder’s system.
While not a three point threat, Favors is spacing the floor through solid shooting at every range required of him: 48% from five to nine feet; 50% from 10 to 14 feet; and 40.5% from 15 to 19 feet.
The numbers are only more impressive when considered in context of his perimeter teammates’ performance from the same distances. Favors is shooting better than any major wing contributor from ten to 14 feet, and from 15 to 19 feet only Rodney Hood surpasses him. His marksmanship has outpaced that of Gordon Hayward and Trey Burke from five feet to 19!
There is a strong argument to be made for Derrick Favors as a first of his kind: a traditional center with modern stretch capability. While his offensive game supports such an assertion, it is defensively that D-Fav’s one-of-a-kind impact is truly felt.
Much was written about Favors’ 25 point, 12 rebound, two assist, three steal, seven block masterpiece against the Heat. In a generation, only Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, and Anthony Davis have matched that feat.
But that game dramatized a grossly overlooked fact: Favors is every bit a traditional defensive center. He’s heavier and stronger than any player on that elite list other than Shaq. Since the beginning of last season, only 13 players in the league have blocked more shots than the Jazz’s power forward. Teams are currently shooting 42.5% against him at the rim after struggling for 43.8% last year.
Favors is an excellent defensive big in a traditional sense. What makes him truly exceptional is he’s every bit as good a stretch defender.
The dominant rim protection of the Gobert/Favors pairing is only possible because of Favors’ willingness and ability to guard to the perimeter. The modern NBA challenges any team’s second big to defend with quickness outside the paint, and Favors is doing so masterfully.
Despite being asked to stay with smaller players outside 15 feet regularly (he defends nearly six shots a game out there), Favors is allowing only 33.3% shooting on those shots, more than 6% lower than the league average. From the three point line, he allows a scant 31.6%, nearly 7% lower than normal.
Add in two steals a game, productivity matched only by much smaller guards and wings and an occasional undersized stretch four (such as Paul Millsap), and Favors is defending every way imaginable and he’s doing it all well5.
It’s unique value similar to LeBron James’ ability to guard four positions (or five in a pinch). Favors gives the Jazz a 265-pound second shot blocker who can switch anything! He’s arguably been the team’s best defender against aggressive guards like Reggie Jackson and Kyle Lowry by keeping players in front of him and forcing extremely tough shots with his length.
Favors’ contribution to the Jazz this season is both unique and elite. Yet does that suggest true superstardom, especially on the small sample size of 14 games? There a number of reasons to believe the answer can be yes.
First, take another look at the chart atop this page and ask yourself a question: Which of these players will improve the most in the next three years?
17 of the 21 players are entering or already well into their primes. Many will still be at their best in three years time, while a minority, such as James, Bosh, and Andrew Bogut, will certainly have diminished somewhat. Only a few can reasonably be expected to continue improving, however, at least significantly.
Favors is 24 years old and has played fewer than 10,000 NBA minutes. Only Andre Drummond (22) and Anthony Davis (22) are younger, while Kawhi Leonard is also 24. Common sense suggests that whatever untapped potential resides in these already-elite players likely concentrates in the youngest and least experienced — guys like Favors.
Another factor is opportunity. Only Hassan Whiteside, Draymond Green, and Andrew Bogut, all elite role players, have usage rates lower than Favors’ this season. Every genuine superstar is featured more prominently in his offense than the Jazz’s Georgia boy. Similarly, only Bogut and Whiteside play fewer minutes per game.
While Favors’ presence is clearly greater than ever before, both on and off the court, his usage (23.8%) has actually decreased slightly from last season (24.1%). At the same time, his efficiency has risen (52.6 to 54.3 eFG%). He can and should be a greater focal point of the offense, as illustrated by the Jazz’s .588 winning percentage in the last two seasons when he attempts at least 15 shots. For perspective, in the same span the team has a winning percentage of .474 when Burke shoots that much and .429 when Hayward does.
Favors’ 12.5 shots per game is practically identical to his mark last season (12.4), and it simply isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to maximize the Jazz’s win total this season, and it certainly isn’t enough to reach Favors’ prodigious ceiling as a player. Will he ever be granted such prominence in a motion offense that Snyder himself says is not designed to “force” the ball anywhere, particularly in the post?
I believe so, for two reasons.
First, the Jazz are now only 14 games into diversifying their offensive initiation responsibilities. Where last season Gordon Hayward was the only stick that could stir a sluggish offense, now Rodney Hood and Alec Burks are putting things in motion. Much of Hayward’s struggles early in the season stemmed from patience on his part as he and the other initiators figured out how to take turns, so to speak.
It’s a prolonged and ongoing process, but Hayward’s three consecutive strong games suggest progress is already being made. As balance settles, the offense will make better use of its many options, particularly Favors’ multiple scoring skills.
A second reason for optimism is Dante Exum.
As mentioned earlier, Favors has the potential to be an MVP candidate if paired with a dynamic threat running the pick and roll. While Hayward, Hood, and Burks are all proficient distributors in the pick and roll, they are far cries from elite. Trey Burke was actually the most productive facilitator of Favors’ scoring last season on a per-minute basis. This year, that distinction goes to Raul Neto, who assists Favors once every 13 minutes of shared court time where Rodney Hood, the next most frequent, manages an assist only every 18.5 minutes.
Chris Paul dishes to Blake Griffin for a score better than every seven minutes.
Hayward, Hood, and Burks just aren’t good enough at executing the pick and roll to make full use of Favors. Raul Neto isn’t a good enough shooter to demand respect in the action. It really isn’t Trey Burke’s optimal role and beyond that, he isn’t a strong enough finisher at the rim.
Dante Exum alone presents the tantalizing combination of facilitation skills with scoring ability both at and (hopefully) away from the rim necessary to take full advantage of Favors’ potency as a roll threat.
Favors is already a star. If these things projected happen, he will become a true franchise player.