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Randy Foye is a worthwhile reclamation project, just like a guy we got four years ago

Ever since the trade with Minnesota, I've been doing a lot of reading and thinking about Randy Foye.  I wrote a bit about Mike Miller before the trade occurred, but I think his story is pretty clear -- as long as he rediscovers that he's a shooter and not Magic Johnson, he'll be an asset on offense and at the very least not a complete liability on defense in the short-term.  Foye, however, is an enigma, and I've wondered for a while where exactly he fits in.  Does management think he'll be a backup shooting guard?  A starter?  A sometimes point guard?

It was this confusion that caused me to not like his inclusion in the trade initially.  I didn't understand why we needed a player who looks like Gilbert Arenas and plays a bit like Gilbert Arenas, but way worse.  Why not just give more minutes to Nick Young, who seemingly does a lot of the stuff Foye does?  Why make life more difficult on Flip Saunders to dole out minutes to backcourt players? 

The more I'm reading, though, the more enthusiastic I am about Foye.  He came into Minnesota with heightened expectations, was asked to do too much and saw his role changing constantly.  First, he was a sparkplug off the bench, then he was the starting shooting guard, then he was injured, then he was the point guard of the future, then he was the starting shooting guard again.  He's been through three coaches, two star players, front-office upheavel, a stretch where he was hurt and a stretch where his star player was hurt.  He has the skills to be a great complimentary player on a good team, but too often had to demonstrate the skills he didn't possess because his team needed those skills.  He's never had a coaching staff that has encouraged him to play to his strengths instead of trying to be something he is not.

Wizards fans, does this sound familiar?  It should, because we traded for a guy like this four years ago and that guy is now one of our best players.

The similarities between Foye and Caron Butler really are uncanny.  First, here's a comparison of some key numbers after three seasons in the league.
Stat Butler 02-05 Foye 06-09
Pts/36 14.2 15.9
PER 14.2 13.5
eFG% 43.4% 47.7%
TS% 49.7% 52.4%
REB% 8.8% 5.9%
AST% 11.5% 20.7%
TO% 11.8% 13.9%
Usg% 20.9% 22.2%


Now, it probably doesn't make a ton of sense to directly compare Foye's and Butler's numbers, since they are different type of players, but they also have several other things in common.

For one, their career trajectories are very similar.  Butler and Foye both had very promising rookie seasons after being drafted as saivors of sorts for their teams.  Butler averaged over 36 minutes a game in his rookie season with Miami, finishing second on the team in scoring with over 15 points a game and was third on the team with a 15.1 PER.  Foye only played just over 22 minutes per game, but was a major asset off the bench, averaging 10 points per game and posting a 14 PER with a 53.6 TS%.  Both were perhaps the only real bright spots on dull, uninspiring veteran teams. 

Both struggled mightly in their second season.  Butler saw his playing time squeezed with the pick of Dwyane Wade and had just a 10.7 PER with a dreadful 44% true shooting percentage on the 2003/04 Heat, while Foye got hurt in 2007/08 and only played in 39 games, in which he regressed from his 06/07 start. 

Both then showed flashes, but were inconsistent in their third year -- Butler with the Lakers and Foye back with Minnesota.  The third-year similarities goes deeper still.  Both had one month where they showed that they could potentially be an all-star caliber player.  For Foye, it was January.  He averaged nearly 20 points per game on 45% shooting in leading Minnesota to a 10-4 record.  For Butler, it was April of 2005, after the Lakers dropped out of playoff contention.  He averaged nearly 23 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in the nine April contests.  The rest of their third seasons was very up and down, with Foye struggling mightly after Al Jefferson got hurt and Butler struggling in February when Kobe was just coming back from injury. 

Finally, they both have had stretches where they have played out of position, which has limited their effectiveness.  Randy Wittman pigenhoeled Foye as a point guard to start last season, and to put it bluntly, it was a disaster.  Foye's numbers as a point guard last season: 12.3 PER, 43% eFG%, 3.9 turnovers/48 minutes, 4.8 fouls/48 minutes trying to guard speedy point guards.  Not surprisingly, the Timberwolves went 4-15 under Wittman.  Kevin McHale shifted Foye to shooting guard, where he had much more success, posting a 17 PER with a 48.5 eFG% and just 2.2 TO/48.  Foye's strong January, in fact, coincided with more minutes at shooting guard.  Foye's hot streak leveled off once Al Jefferson got hurt and more teams paid attention to Foye, but there's no doubt he's a better shooting guard than point guard.  Butler, meanwhile, has been a small forward most of his career, but the Lakers played him at shooting guard when Kobe got hurt to poor results: 14.7 PER, 41.6 eFG%.

Lots of similarities, right?  There's one major difference between Foye and Butler.  Whereas Butler needed to go from being a limited role player into an all-purpose guy, Foye needs to go from being an all-purpose guy to a limited role player.  Essentially, they need to make opposite transitions.

Let me put it another way.  When Butler came to DC, he needed to realize that the best way he could help the team was to excel in multiple areas.  He had listened to disciplinarian coaches his entire pro career and needed to become the type of guy that created his own path.  He had the skills to be a great all-purpose two-way player, but was coached to be a limited role player.  A 2007 SI story on Butler really drove this home.

His instinct for self-preservation seemed to draw him to disciplined, highly structured coaches like Good; Jim Calhoun at UConn, where Butler played for two years; the Miami Heat's Pat Riley, who took Butler with the No. 10 pick in the 2002 draft; and the Lakers' Phil Jackson, who picked up Butler for the 2004--05 season as part of the Shaquille O'Neal trade. After seven years of taking orders and constraining himself for the sake of his teams, Butler was confounded and overwhelmed when the Wizards acquired him to become a star. They needed someone to fill the slot vacated by Larry Hughes and create a new Big Three alongside All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison. It took Butler all of the '05--06 season to come to grips with what they were asking of him.

Foye, on the other hand, needs to be coached to be a more limited player that takes advantage of his strengths while minimizing his weaknesses.  I'm not going to say he was "annointed" as a star in Minnesota, but certainly he was asked to be a do-everything guy.  Whether it was coaching or himself, Foye too often tried to do things he couldn't do. 

I asked Stop-n-Pop of Canis Hoopus to tell me a bit about Foye's game.  Here's what he e-mailed me.

Foye is a fantastic catch-and-shoot player.  Flip will find a good use for this guy.  He doesn't have the greatest first step or the best handle but he is something of a bowling ball with tremendous hops and you will come to be very familiar with what we called the Drive Right Kamikaze.  He will run down the right side of the lane, jump into the air, contort his body, and float something up towards the rim.  It's his signature move and you should hope that you don't have to see it too often because it's often as painful as it sounds.

This highlight clip of Foye shows off his catch-and-shooting a bit.  Note how balanced he stays on the shot; very Arenas-like. 

So Foye is a good catch-and-shoot player and a poor driver that tends to only go right and doesn't finish well.  So here's my question: why are 28% of his shots in close?  Foye has a very good perimeter game, with a solid 45.3 eFG% on jumpers last year and an already-noted catch-and-shoot strength.  So why does he shoot the same percentage of perimeter shots as Kevin Garnett?  

How bad is his in-close game?  When you take away his dunks, he shot just a 46.1% eFG% on inside shots.  He saw 20% of his inside shots rejected last year, a mark that was three percent higher than any other player in the league.  Only 26 percent of his inside scores are assisted, indicating he's often calling his own number and freezing out his teammates.  And it's not like Foye is drawing a ton of fouls either; he averaged less than 4 free throws/36 minutes.  With him being so bad driving to the basket, there's no reason he should be shooting over a quarter of his shots in close.  That speaks to a combination of poor individual recognition, poor coaching and instability over his role. 

Going further, Foye's best attribute offensively is to shoot more threes rather than long twos.  This is pretty obvious for most people, but it's really striking how much Foye needs to understand this.  Britt Robinson of the Rake explored this back when Foye started to struggle last season.

As I mentioned last post, Foye also gets his shot blocked a higher percentage of time on his inside drives to the hoop than any player in the NBA--19%. Consequently, he's most productive from three point territory, with 4.5 points per game outside on 30% of his FGA, versus 4.6 ppg on midrange two-pointers which comprise 41% of his FGA and just 4 ppg on the 29% of his field goal attempts that result in inside drives to the hoop.

And then, here's what SnP said at the end of the season when discussing Foye's lights-out Janaury.  There's a lot quoted here, but I think it's all necessary.  Emphasis mine.

For the season Foye took roughly 40% of his shots from non-interior 2 point land.  31% of his shots were from beyond the arc.  In January, Foye upped his percentage of 3s, taking roughly 39% of his shots from distance.  Here's the part where you really, really, really, really hope the Wolves have a solid internal stat keeping department.  The question they need to answer for Foye and January is this: Where did those extra 8% of 3s come from?  Did they come at the expense of his poor mid-range shooting or kamikaze drives?  Either way, it's net gain for the club.  We'd have to figure out what other positives (if any) come from him operating in mid-range vis-a-vis the interior, but in terms of his own personal scoring, I'd hope someone is/was/will be encouraging him to get to a 40/40/20 ratio of 3s, interior, and non-interior twos.  I'd also hope that they are keeping track of what happens to those blocked shots.  If it turns out that the Wolves gather about a 1/3 of those blocked shots, it would put the Randy Kamikaze Success Rate above 50%...which would be a very nice thing to have near the end of a game or quarter. 

Randy Foye is never going to be Brandon Roy.  What he can be is the type of player who played in January.  He doesn't even need to shoot the lights out from three for this style of play to work.  Let's spread out the 40/40/20 concept over 1000 shots (he took 981 this year) and realistic shooting percentages.  This means that Foye would take 400 threes, 400 inside shots, and 200 non-inside two pointers.  Taking his current .491 inside shooting percentage, .374 career three point percentage, and .384 non-inside 2p%, he would make 196 inside shots, 150 threes, and 77 non-inside twos.  To put this in perspective, he took 308 threes, 275 inside shots, and 398 non-inside twos this season; making 111 threes, 135 inside shots, and 153 non-inside twos.  In January, he likely came close to the 40/40/20 split (we don't have the break down for month-by-month) that turned him into a wildly effective player off the ball.  400 threes and 400 kamikaze drives are the goal next season for Foye. The following chart is a break down of Foye's 08/09 season and our ideal 40/40/20 campaign in a 1,000 shot season:

08/09 1000k
total shots 981 1000
3s (makes/attempts) 111/308 150/400
inside (makes/attempts) 135/275 196/400
non-inside twos (makes/attempts) 153/398 77/200


In other words, if Foye stuck to the 40/40/20 model, he would be on track to score 996 points/1000 shots (.996 pts/FGA), which would be an improvement over the .926 pts/FGA he made this year (not including FTA/FTM).  This is the part of January called shot selection, shot selection, shot selection.  It's also called threes, threes, threes and volume in the right spots.

Basically, SnP's trying to say that Foye becomes a way more efficient offensive player if he changes his shot selection.  Personally, I think Foye needs (and will get) an even more lopsided split that he suggests, shooting even more threes and driving even less.  SnP proposes 40-40-20, I'd like to see 50-35-15.  On this team, while getting many minutes alongside Arenas and Butler, I think it's possible to see a more lopsided split. 

If Foye can be coached to change his shot selection, suddenly he becomes an unbelievably valuable third guard.  In fact, I'd venture to say that no team will have a better third guard next year than Foye.  Maybe Detroit if Ben Gordon comes off the bench.  That may not mean much, but on a team that's lacked bench scoring, Foye can be the perfect guy to help take the scoring load off the Big 3.  And while his defense is a problem if he's playing 35 minutes a game, in 24 minutes as a third guard, that limitation becomes less important.

Now, this might mean an end to the Nick Young express, which will disappoint many.  But in Foye, I see a guy who has flashed way more potential to be the role-playing third guard than Nick has.  Young is only now learning how to shoot off screens.  Young still shoots too many midrange shots, still doesn't catch-and-shoot and still bogs down the offense.  Foye, at least, has shown that he doesn't need to do that.  Yes, Foye is up for a new contract after next year, but Young will be up for one the season after that, and both will command similar salaries.  Long-term, I'd like to see the Wizards keep Foye and either trade Young or develop Young to be a long-term role-playing starting shooting guard, which will allow us to move Mike Miller for something better or let him walk to re-sign Foye and Brendan Haywood.

Again, the similarities between Foye's career path and Caron Butler's are eerie.  We need Foye for a completely different purpose than Butler, but both have misused their skills and have been poorly coached.  With good coaching and a change of emphasis, Foye, like Butler, will be a tremendous asset to the team both for next year and in the future.